Only Thomas was absent when Jesus came, greeting them with peace and breathing his Holy Spirit into them. Everyone else was there : cowering behind locked doors and all, but present. By the time he got back, Jesus was gone.
Thomas was skeptical. You can’t really blame him. He was used to his fellow disciples saying things that they didn’t back up with action. Peter was the best at it : “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.” (Mark 14:31) and “Master, why can’t I follow you now ? I will lay down my life for you” (John 13 : 37). But James and John, those two mama’s boys, answering Jesus’ question about drinking his cup with “We can” (Mark 10:39) – were pretty good themselves. Brave words ringing a bit hollow now after the events of the last few days.
So he was skeptical, even as he remembered one other brave speechmaker : “Let us go and die with him” (John 11:16). His own words. Still ringing miserably in the ears that he’d saved — along with the rest of his hide — later that same night, when, along with these very same people, he’d run away from the Gethsemane.
Not just skepticism, then, but guilt, too, which rarely leads to positive results. Listen to him on that
Easter night. His friends are out of their minds with joy : “We have seen the Lord !” The Lord, Thomas, did you hear us ? The Lord !! And what’s his reaction ? He pops their joy like a kid pops a balloon. I’ll believe, he says, when I can put my finger in the nail holes and my hand in his side, and not one minute before. Meaning : never.
The others must have recoiled at the crudeness of this answer and wondered to themselves : Where did his love of Jesus go ? Or his love for us ? Even if he can’t believe, why does he have to talk like that ? Does he think he can destroy our joy ?
His guilt replies for Thomas : “Yes, he’s got to try to destroy it. He can’t be part of your joy because he knows that he doesn’t deserve it. And so he’s trying to get rid of it before it hurts him more.” What his guilt doesn’t allow Thomas to consider, however, is that the other people in the Cenacle don’t deserve that joy either, but they’ve got it anyway.
And so it goes. Another week behind closed doors. Considering all that he’d said the week before, it would have made sense for Thomas to get out of town, but when Jesus comes again, he’s still there. Why ? The others were surely hoping to see Jesus once more, but “Doubting Thomas” ? Still, something kept him from leaving. Call it hope or inertia or whatever you like, he’s still there.
And suddenly Jesus is there, too, inviting him to “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side.” That must have stung – hearing his own words coming back at him from Jesus’ mouth ! But there’s something more. His guilty tough guy speech of a week ago is transformed through the presence of the resurrected Jesus, whose mercy and grace prompt the Doubter to drop his doubt and plunge through his guilt to the Truth : “My Lord and my God.”
Jesus doesn’t let him off easy, but Thomas doesn’t care. He’s had an encounter with the Truth, including the truth about himself. He’s discovered that Jesus knows all about his failure, and welcomes him anyway. In a heartbeat, he’s learned that he can never deserve the joy of the resurrection – but through accepting Christ’s gifts of forgiveness and grace, he can take part in it. This is a joy that’s not about earning but about receiving.
The same holds true for us : “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” It could have been put a bit differently : Blessed are those who know they don’t deserve God’s love, but are willing to take it anyway. Like Thomas, we’re blessed when we realize that there’s no way that we deserve to know Jesus, to live in his love, to take part in his resurrection. No way that we can work our own redemption. Our sinful, guilty selves can be freed, however, by a Thomas moment : an encounter with the Truth. Such an encounter is always possible, through receiving the Eucharist and engaging with the Word of God, but also through interacting with others and with the whole of Creation. We don’t “deserve” any of it. Happily for us, however, a God who always wants to give himself away doesn’t see that as an obstacle.
Thomas, whose doubt was more about himself than it ever was about Jesus or the other disciples, experiences God’s mercy in a way that leads him to faith and then to action. Tradition tells us that he stopped hating himself and went off to evangelize the people of India, who venerate his memory to this day. As for you and me ? How will God’s mercy affect us on this Divine Mercy Sunday ? Will we finally believe that it is God’s gracious gift to us rather than something we can somehow “earn” ? That would be a great mercy.
Sr. Nuala Cotter, ra