This morning’s Gospel reading is John 20:19–31:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.
We live in very literal, very scientific times … or so we like to think. Thanks to the broadest access of knowledge to the highest number of people in history, we have become accustomed to demanding and receiving proofs for any claim. My title for today’s reflection is a play on the officially-unofficial state nickname for Missouri, the “Show Me State.” We are all in a sense living in a “show me” state in this era, and to a certain extent in every era.
And why not? Skepticism pays off, and in fact is a wise strategy in most respects. Experience over a lifetime has formed many people into a default position of skepticism, especially on extraordinary claims. When it comes to matters of the world, we are best advised to act on facts rather than relying on rumor. And then we’re better advised to re-check our facts as well as our assumptions before basing any significant decisions on either.
The older we get, the more often we get burned by initial credulousness, and so skepticism builds up some mighty callouses. In our worldly practices, we are not likely to hear, “Blessed are those who have not looked at [random issue] and yet believed [random position].” Nor should we. Living in our own private Missouri makes a lot of sense in those contexts.
However, our relationship with the Lord is not one of those contexts. The disciples of Jesus’ time had the blessing to see Him in the flesh, but still required faith to make the final connection to His mission. We see this repeatedly not just in the Gospels before the Passion, but even afterward into the Acts of the Apostles. Until the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples at Pentecost and they became the Apostles, they remained in doubt and fear, worried about their own safety and whether Jesus’ mission had failed entirely.
Nevertheless, theologians have struggled for millennia to answer one basic question: why can’t we expect a show-me relationship with the Lord? There may be as many explanations of this as there are theologians (and then some!), but I’ll offer a couple of observations without being encumbered by that title. First, evidence exists within a physical universe created by God, an environment that is subordinate to him. Because we are created within that environment and subordinate to it, we can only see subordinate evidence. We might be missing evidence because it exists outside of our ability to perceive, having fallen in stature. This may be less a problem of a lack of “show me” than “we can’t see it.”
More theologically, the exposure to the fullness of God’s being would have perhaps calamitous consequences. The theophanies in the Bible come with warnings about our inability to handle the full weight of God’s entire presence. The theophanies we do read about in scriptures are so powerful that people are overcome with awe and dread. That act would instantly change our relationship in this world from children of God to His slaves, demolishing free will and choice in an instant and removing His image from our beings. For those who have read and/or seen the Lord of the Rings, the scene where Galadriel contemplates Frodo’s offer of the Ring gives us a glimpse of that problem. “All shall love me and despair,” Galadriel prophesies before recovering herself and refusing Frodo.
That still leaves us with the conundrum of well-earned habits of skepticism and doubt and our need to build a relationship with the Lord. Thomas’ reaction only appears harsh and cynical in retrospect, after all, now that we know the end of the story. At the time, before Pentecost and while the disciples were all hiding in the upper room, this was the kind of tale that anyone would have doubted without experiencing it first-hand. Until that time, no one had died and been resurrected except by Jesus’ hand with Lazarus — and Jesus was gone. Thomas was locked into the material world and had no other context at hand in which to consider alternatives, perhaps especially after the Passion and the apparent defeat of their mission.
It is in the Resurrection that we get our answer. Christ is the bridge that allows us to know the Father as He wishes. The Holy Spirit, as the transmission between Father and Son, allows us to transcend our material nature and context, and lets us tap into our lives as spiritual beings as well.
We can see this especially in the way that Thomas embraces faith; he plunges his fingers into Christ’s flesh. Not only is this a literal way to “prove” that Christ truly has been resurrected, it also symbolically represents the marriage between Christ and His bride, the Church. It is a union of the physical and the spiritual that allows us to “see” the evidence of the Lord working in us and around us spiritually, in the physical presence of His created universe.
In that moment, Thomas speaks for all of us, and gives the answer that we learn to give when placing our faith in Christ as that bridge: “My Lord and my God!”
The front-page image is a detail from “Jesus and Doubting Thomas I” by Franciszek Smuglewicz, c. 1800. On display at the National Museum in Warsaw. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.