St. Thomas and the risen Christ: Faith seeks understanding

Listen to mp3 file
2nd Sunday of Easter, Year C: April 10-11, 2010
Acts 5:12-16; Ps 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24; Rev 1:9-13, 17-19; John 20:19-31

The Easter Season is bright and confident. Its color is white, or even gold; the flowers are lilies, which look like bold trumpets; and the signature song of Easter is “Alleluia.” And so what we heard in our first readings suit it well.

  • In our second reading, we heard how our Lord was revealed to St. John, no longer looking like simply an ordinary man walking the earth, nor in his passion and death on the cross—but instead, now, after he has risen and ascended to heaven, as the glorious Son of Man, with a voice as loud as a trumpet, clothed in light; “the first and the last, the one who lives; who once was dead, but now is alive forever and ever.”
  • And in our first reading, we heard how the apostles responded to this knowledge of Christ, in the Acts of the Apostles, so soon after his resurrection and his gift of the Spirit on Pentecost: how they preached boldly; how they were often seen publicly; how they did many signs and wonders among the people. And the people all esteemed them, and great numbers of men and women were added to them.

And so, if you are feeling bold and joyful in your faith, with a clear view of Christ—then Easter is a great season for you.

But what if you aren’t feeling like that? What if your life feels a lot more complicated? If it sometimes feels more difficult, more alone? If that describes you, or if it describes someone you know, then Easter is also the season for you; and St. Thomas, who we hear about in today’s Gospel reading, is an especially good representative for you, in this season.

Thomas, called Didymus—one of Christ’s chosen Twelvewas not there, that first Easter Sunday night, not with the other apostles when Christ appeared to them. And when they told him what they had seen, he wasn’t ready to believe. And so we call him “Doubting Thomas”

And perhaps we could also call him “Empiricist Thomas” or “Scientist Thomas”—because he wanted the direct evidence of his senses. He said, if he was going to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, then he needed to see and to touch; he wanted to put in his finger; he wanted to put in his hand. This is what he demanded. And we notice that Christ did not refuse him. Instead, when Christ appeared again to his apostles a week later, 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 believing.”

And so, when he demanded this, Thomas actually did us a great service. Many centuries ago, Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote:

The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples. As he touches Christ and is won over to belief, every doubt is cast aside and our faith is strengthened. … This doubting disciple, who actually touched, became a witness to the reality of the resurrection.

Now we did hear Christ say to Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” And he was speaking of us, who do not now have that chance that Thomas had then, to actually reach out and touch those physical wounds—though we will have that chance one day. But the fact that Thomas did, one week after the Resurrection, helps us to believe now.

But there is more to St. Thomas’ story than this. Like anyone else, as much as he might have asked a scientific question, he wasn’t just some disembodied scientific mind: he was a person, and as a person he had feelings and needs. Why wasn’t he with the other disciples on that Easter Sunday night? Was he off by himself, overwhelmed by all that had happened?

  • He had walked with Jesus for several years, listened to his words, seen his miracles, and come to believe in him more and more. And then Christ had been arrested, put on trial, suffered, was crucified, and died, and was buried. Thomas must have felt incredibly discouraged and confused.
  • And, like the other disciples, he had been afraid and he had abandoned his Lord in his hour of greatest need. In Thomas’ case, he had earlier said to his fellow disciples, as St. John records, “Let us also go to die with him.” [John 11:16] So, even more than the others, he must have felt shame and guilt for what he had done.
  • And then there is that detail that one of his demands was that he put his hand into Jesus’ side. Jesus’ side had been pierced with a spear, but this was not standard procedure in crucifixion; it was only done because Jesus had died unusually quickly [John 19:32-34]. And so we may well wonder whether Thomas had been an eyewitness to Christ’s death on the cross—standing off at a safe distance and watching, with his own eyes, experiencing the trauma of seeing Christ die.

And so Thomas’ demands are not just a scientific demand for physical evidence, but they are a heartfelt cry for a personal encounter. When he says “unless I see, unless I touch,” we can hear in his words a fear that he would never see Christ again: that, even if Christ had risen and had appeared to the other disciples, that he would not appear to Thomas; and so that the last contact that Thomas would ever have with him would be when he abandoned him and when he witnessed Christ’s death—the last thing. He just couldn’t bear for that to be the case. As much as “Doubting Thomas” was “Thomas the Empiricist,” he was also “Thomas the Broken-hearted.”

And so when Christ came and stood in their midst again and looked at Thomas and said, “Put your finger here and see my hands”—did you notice that the Gospel passage never actually says that he did it? The passage just moves directly to his response. Because, once Christ had appeared and looked into Thomas’ eyes and spoken his name and held out his pierced hand to him—it was enough. As with Job in the Old Testament, Thomas also had suffered and he had made his demands, but once Christ made himself present to him—it was enough, it was more than enough, it was everything he had ever wanted, it was everything he needed. And so, in a moment, “Thomas the Doubter,” Thomas with his scientific demands, moved to an affirmation of faith that went beyond anything we had heard from the any of the other disciples in the Gospels, as he looked at Jesus and said: “My Lord and my God!”

And so, in this Easter season, Thomas’ experience encourages us, not to stay apart and alone as he was on that first Easter Sunday night, immersed in shame or confusion or pain, despairing that we will never meet Christ again; but rather to allow hope to be rekindled within us and to reach out to the Church community again and to Christ himself, to again encounter him personally, risen, alive, as Thomas did on that second Sunday.

Now, because of that special demand that Thomas made—one that was intellectual or “scientific”—his story gives us a special encouragement. And it is this: fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding. I have heard too many stories from people raised Catholic, or raised Protestant, that, at some point in their childhood, they somehow heard someone tell them: “Don’t ask questions; don’t ever raise an objection that you have heard or something that puzzles you.” My brothers and sisters, this is not the faith of the Church. It is not what St. Thomas did. It is not what the Blessed Virgin Mary did, when she was first invited to become the Mother of God, and she asked, “How can this be?” [Luke 1:34] And she received an answer, as St. Thomas received an answer, as so many in the Gospels and through all the centuries since then have received answers when they in faith sought understanding.

Our Lord created our intellects, as one of the things most distinctive to us as human beings; and he wants us to know him. Those questions, those little difficulties that you or I sense, are Christ’s invitation for us to ask them; to seek the understanding, to seek the answers that he wants to give us. As Cardinal John Henry Newman said, “A thousand difficulties do not make a single doubt.” Let St. Thomas’ example give us hope.

But let us also take note that there is a flip side to this: that we need to ask our questions. We cannot allow them to become a wall—a wall of rejection and disagreement—that we sit behind, never seeking the truth—as Thomas might have been doing that first Sunday night. And so it is important to examine yourself, or to encourage others you know to examine themselves, to see whether you or they may have been sitting in a firm disagreement with any of the Church’s teachings, perhaps for years, perhaps even for decades.

Now, it may be that you or they got into that position through no fault of your own. Maybe someone told you not to ask your questions. Maybe some teacher—even a bishop, a priest, or a sister—failed to present to you what the Church’s teaching actually is, and why the Church believes and teaches it. Maybe you have been trying to sustain your faith all these years on the understanding you were able to take in back when you were just 13.

But the invitation in Thomas’ story is to reach out, to ask the question, to seek the understanding. Not to remain behind the wall that the Catechism [2088] calls “voluntary doubt,” disregarding or refusing to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. For, as the Catechism warns us, voluntary doubt can lead to spiritual blindness; it is a sin against faith; it is a sin against the first commandment. And why remain closed up in that darkness when we have such hope that our Lord will lift us out into his Easter light? Let this Easter season be the time when you, or those you know, reach out to receive our Lord’s answers.

  • It might be through brochures or CDs that you can find in our gathering space, or from books on the library cart in our parish hall.
  • It might be through materials available on good Catholic web sites, many of which are linked directly from our parish web site.
  • It might be through the new Catholic Forum starting on Monday evenings in just over a week, or RCIA, or our Bible Study, or other classes or opportunities that our parish offers.
  • Or it could even be through a personal appointment with me or with Fr. David or with Bill Keimig, our DRE.

Our Lord said to Thomas, and he says to us, with so much hope in his voice, “do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Let St. Thomas’ story be an encouragement and example to all of us to emerge into the light of Easter. For these things are written that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief we may have life in his name.

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Published in: on April 11, 2010 at 11:33 am  Leave a Comment  
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