by Fr. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem., Prior
“[Thomas] 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.”
Thomas is frequently the object of much opprobrium for his disbelief, as if all of us who enjoy pointing the finger at him aren’t more guilty than he was. And yet he is rightly blamed. He refused to believe not only all the other Apostles but even the Mother of God, who, since she was in the care of John, was also among them and testifying to the truth of the resurrection.
But we must remember that the primary focus of the Gospel is not and never can be Thomas but always Christ Jesus. In His greeting of “Peace,” He shows unequaled kindness. In His command to Thomas, He reveals His knowledge of what happens even when He’s not around. In passing right through a locked door, He manifests one of the traits of a glorified body. And still, all this in His humility He allows to pass into the background in favor of revealing a deeper mystery of the resurrection.
It is true that when we rise our bodies will all be the very same bodies as we have now. They will all be whole and intact, and this will bring them to a certain perfection of beauty. But what does Jesus say? “Put your finger here and see My hands, and bring your hand and put it into My side.” The marks from the nails were still in His glorified hands; the gaping wound from the spear still bore entrance to His heart. In other words, despite the compromise of bodily integrity that these wounds meant, scars borne from suffering for our salvation remain in the flesh even after the resurrection and lend to a deeper and greater beauty than if they were healed and erased.
We have Thomas to thank for that. True, on Easter Sunday Jesus had shown the disciples in the locked upper room His hands, feet, and side. But no mention was made of them, no command was given to probe them. Ironically, what we see normally has greater certainty for sight is the noblest sense, but when the matter is in extreme doubt or improbability, the least sense, that of touch, carries the most conviction. The disciples saw the wounds, but afterwards they might be led to question themselves. Was it my imagination? A play of light and shadows? Was I dreaming? But because Thomas presumptuously laid down a law for Christ by withholding his belief until he touched the wounds, we all through him have the greater certainty of Jesus’ resurrection.
There have been those who raised the strange doubt as to whether, after being told by the Lord to probe His hands and side, Thomas actually did so. I remember years and years ago, one confrere, who is no longer here, falsely accused St. Thomas Aquinas of holding this position. As Fr. Maximilian would comment, I’m not saying there’s a connection…but I am implying it. At any rate, Christ’s command to Thomas is explicit. Not to expect fulfillment of it is contrary to all of Jesus’ kindness and mercy after the resurrection, given what happened next.
Rather than condemn him for being obstinate in the face of such credible witnesses; rather than rebuke him for temerariously putting conditions for Himself to fulfill, He invited Thomas closer, practically to touch His Sacred Heart. “Blessed are those,” He said, “who have not seen and have believed.” Meaning, of course, who have believed because of Thomas’ witness.
And witness he did. Filled with faith and boldness, he traversed more than all the other Apostles, almost the whole earth to preach the Gospel. One sixteenth century theologian says that St. Thomas evangelized not only India but also Abyssinia, China, and—gasp!—even America. Of course, that theologian was an Englishman, so maybe he couldn’t imagine a land more lost and in need of redemption.
Fr. Abbot very kindly lets me attend a Latin immersion program for clerics every summer—a real nerd fest—and this last summer we read in a sixteenth-century history written by a Jesuit, who heard it from the descendents of those Thomas converted, how when Thomas was in India a very large tree washed ashore. The local king wanted to use it to build something, but no matter how many robust men or elephants they got to haul it, they couldn’t budge it an inch. And so Thomas asked the king, if he could move it all by himself, would his majesty allow him to use the wood to construct a shrine to the true and living God? The king sniggered behind his hand while all his courtiers belly-laughed, but permission was granted. And so Thomas undid his girdle, tied it around a small branch of the huge tree, and dragged it with no effort whatsoever into town.
Later on, the king grew jealous of the Apostle. He murdered his own son and framed St. Thomas! At the critical juncture Thomas commanded the cadaver to name his true assailant, which it did, to the stupor of all. One presumes Thomas then actually raised the boy from the dead and an awkward reconciliation between father and son ensued. Or maybe not. But the king converted along with many friends and natives. In the end, the Brahmins conspired against Thomas and crucified him, attacked him with stones, and finally pierced him with a lance. Just like his Master.
But returning to our Gospel today, Jesus said, “Put your finger here and see My hands, and bring your hand and put it into My side.” Since we use a single finger to probe things and know them in greater detail, and since we use our hands for work, the spiritual meaning of this command is that we are to put both our discretion and our labor in the service of Christ, making known His passion and resurrection.
On this Sunday, called by the eastern half of Christianity “Thomas Sunday,” we should ask his intercession for all those who have yet to believe and therefore are still shrouded in the darkness of fear and error, that they might be granted faith in the resurrection of Jesus and hope in His wounds.
Rising from the dead is an experience not just of Christ on Easter morning, nor of mankind as a whole on the Last Day, but of everyone who, like the women in the Gospel, departs from the tomb, the place needed on account of sin’s just punishment; departs from the death of sin through the mercy and forgiveness of Christ; departs quickly because we should never delay our conversion or dawdle in our iniquity.
The silence which fills that garden enables us to hear the whisper of a gentle breeze: “I am the Living One and I am with you” (cf. Ex 3:14). The curtain of the temple is torn in two. At last we see our Lord’s face. And we know fully His name: mercy and faithfulness.
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