The incredulity of St Thomas, Caravaggio
John 20: 19-31
The eighth day. This is the octave day of Easter. The Church believes that the Octave day is where the fullness of the Easter festival is made present. Rightly, it is Divine Mercy Sunday, where the Mercy that pours from the Risen Christ reaches its apogee. We have one of the most beautiful scenes in the climax of the gospel of John. I want to focus today on Jesus’ encounter with Thomas.
For some reason, Thomas is missing when Jesus comes to the disciples on that first evening. Imagine the situation of the disciples. They are in foreign territory – they are in Jerusalem, the capital city. It is not Galilee, their hometown, up north. They are not well regarded here and now they are the associates of a condemned criminal who has been crucified. They could be next. They are out of their comfort zone in every way possible. In addition to their grief, they have to attend to the very real danger, that they could be killed. Everything that is negative and destructive within us, the evil within us, all find their roots in our fears. And the fear of death is the root of our fears. It would be horrible to be in this place together, but it was might have been worse to be alone in this time of danger. We do not know why Thomas is not here. Maybe he was just away more innocently, maybe he just needed time to himself. But maybe also, he couldn’t bear to be with the rest. Everyone reminded him of how he had abandoned Jesus, just like them.
Into this place, comes Jesus and brings them peace, or shalom. Shalom is the Jewish greeting which translates to salvation. It is the wish for peace, health of mind and body, healing, wholeness in every way. Something only God could bestow – which is exactly what the Risen Christ comes to bestow on them. As he breathes his Peace on them, he sends them out to do the same. And the first person they go to, is Thomas. This is mission at its simplest and its best. They go to their friend and tell him about their encounter with Jesus.
And Thomas’ reaction is interesting. He says, ‘I refuse to believe’. He doesn’t question the possibility of the resurrection or ask them to explain how a dead person can be alive or questions which are a block for him. It is a decision he has made, perhaps from the deep disappointment he has experienced. There are many decisions like this that we can make in life; sometimes, we go through painful experiences, we are hurt and we make commitments of which we might not even be fully aware. I will never trust a man again. I refuse to believe in the possibility of love. I will never be happy. We can curse ourselves. We can lock the doors of our hearts, refusing to allow anything to enter, because we are afraid of what might happen. To avoid being disappointed.
The next week, that is today, Thomas is with the community. The disciples have managed to get him to come back to them. This is a masterclass in spiritual accompaniment. We can’t heal people, only Jesus can. All we can do is present our witness and our love and help them find a space to encounter Christ. And Jesus appears again, without disappointing. He is not angry with Thomas for his doubts. He comes, for Thomas. Jesus does something very beautiful, something so human. He says, give me your hand. Let me lead you. He says, touch me.
When a baby cries, the mother doesn’t reason with the baby – ‘Why are you screaming? Have I ever left you without food? I’ve given you a safe space, I attend to all your needs. Why are you anxious?’ She picks up the child and holds it close. As the baby feels the comfort of the mother’s touch and hears her beating heart, it calms down. Same, when a slightly older child says she is afraid of monsters under her bed, the dad doesn’t try to reason that monsters don’t come to London in the 21st century! No, he holds her hand, takes her to search for these evil monsters under her bed. When she knows that her dad is with her in that dark place, her fears dissapear. It’s true even as we grow older. A friend going through an anxiety attack, doesn’t need to be reasoned with that their fears are irrational. They know it is irrational. What they need is someone to be with them.
This is what Christ does. He says, touch me. Take my hand. I haven’t abandoned you. Feel my scars. The scars that Jesus bears are the horrors that the world, that we inflicted on him. His body makes visible the fears, the wounds, the evil we are capable of, in our hearts. Know that I have overcome your deepest fears, your pain, your wounds, as you feel them. Touch my side, see my heart beating with love for you. Here, you can be healed.
This is Christianity. It is not a philosophy or an idea. You don’t argue someone into the faith. Ideas can be debated and argued. They are only good till a better idea comes along. Christianity is not a set of morals which you can keep and then God will reward you. The apostles are the first example of the failure of moralizing. They all betrayed Christ. Christianity is the encounter with the love of God made real in Jesus Christ. They are nowhere more real than in his wounds. We killed this love and He came back to say my love for you hasn’t changed. When we are touched by his wounds, we can begin to trust God. To trust, is to have faith. This is why, John says, he wrote his gospel, that we might believe.
Where can we touch Jesus? Here, in the Eucharist first and foremost. Which is why it’s not possible to experience Mass online. It was a helpful aid for prayer when the churches were locked, but we can’t touch anyone virtually. And it is here we also touch the Body of Christ, you and me. It is us, whom Jesus comes to touch, breathe on, and send out. When others touch us, they touch something of Christ and his salvation. Our work is to go out and announce this salvation and bring people so they can touch Christ for themselves. This is the promise of this gospel. Ask Jesus for what you need him to do for you, like Thomas. Come with your wounds to the altar. Come and be healed.