19 Apr 2009
“Thomas answered and said to [Jesus], ‘My Lord and my God!’” (John 20:28) (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo
It would cost a lot of money to bring the Easter morning story to life on a stage. The darkness of night giving way to the hints of dawn, the tomb cut out of the rock, the stone being rolled away from the entrance, the angels, the Roman guards, the stunned and amazed witnesses running back and forth from the city to the grave. But the story of today, the Sunday after Easter, could be very well done on a high school’s budget. You could paint some bodies on a back wall and dress them up like the disciples because they’re only there as spectators anyway. They have nothing to do or say. All you would really need are two good actors: one to play Jesus and the other to play Thomas.
Thomas would portray how hard it can be sometimes to believe, and Jesus could depict that He knows. I think poor Thomas gets the raw end of the deal in the Gospel story. All of the disciples had their problems with believing, but only Thomas is forever known as “Doubting Thomas.” No one ever calls him “The Twin,” his other nickname. Nope, it’s forevermore Doubting Thomas. I was talking to a guy the other night. His sister-in-law works for the CIA. There must be a bunch of stories there that could lead to a nickname. But one trip up north for a visit and instead of bringing a pair of shoes, she brought two left shoes. The woman is now known to all the family as Lefty and always will be.
The nickname “Doubting Thomas” points back to the episode we have just read this morning. On Easter Jesus appeared to His followers who are gathered together as a group. The only one absent is Thomas. When the others tell him about the resurrection, Thomas’ famous or infamous words are: “‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in His hands and put my finger into the nail-marks, and put my hand into His side…” These words are just meant to be spoken dramatically on stage. Then they’re followed by that uncompromising, fateful declaration: “‘I will not believe.’” (John 20:25) I know his disbelief sounds adamant; and I know this is why he’s called Doubting Thomas, but I wonder if we should cut Thomas some slack. I wonder if Thomas had been so severely disappointed by Good Friday that he would not let himself believe like that again because it hurt too much. It’s not “I can’t believe.” It’s “I will not believe.” Thomas is forcing himself to not go down that path of belief again. For his own sanity, Thomas had to force himself to not believe.
Thomas had given up everything to follow Jesus during His ministry. All of Thomas’ hopes and expectations were pinned to Jesus. And then all of that was pinned to the cross in failure on Good Friday, or so thought Thomas. When Thomas devoted years of his life to a belief and then saw it all end so fruitlessly on Good Friday, I think it’s asking an awful lot of him to believe the incredible news of the resurrection only three days later. Thomas believed and his belief was mocked on Good Friday. I think Thomas’ negative response to the news from the other apostles that Jesus had resurrected was in self-defense. He couldn’t let himself go down that road of belief again. To really believe, to hold onto something dearly, is to make yourself vulnerable, and I think that anguish is on display for us in the story of Thomas. Sometimes it can really hurt to believe, and I think Jesus knows this.
Over the years I have come to notice that it has been some of the people with a very strong faith who have had to suffer through times of doubt. The ones whose faith is nominal or automatic some times don’t care enough to doubt, or when things get tough they may simply walk away from the faith. It’s often the ones who really think about their faith, who really care about their church, who have to battle it out against doubt. I know we’re in the Easter Season now, but if we can digress for a second back to Good Friday, we can hear Jesus yell at heaven from the cross: “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani?’” It’s left untranslated from Jesus’ original Aramaic because those exact words were seared into the witnesses’ memories. It so startled them. It means: “‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mk. 15:34) It’s hard to hear those words without admitting that even Jesus had to battle doubt. And because it’s the very same Jesus who comes to Thomas one week later, with the nail-prints still in His hands, the sword’s wound still in His side, He knows, Jesus knows, even after the resurrection, how hard it is to believe sometimes.
This is where the character of Thomas takes center stage. He stands there across the room from the resurrected Jesus. Thomas is bewildered by belief, and then he hears those excruciatingly accurate words from Jesus: “‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side.’” (John 20:27) A real actor could make his mark playing Thomas here. The words “My Lord and my God!” should convey the shock and instant realization of who Jesus is, but the expression on Thomas’ face would have to communicate the embarrassment of standing in front of the crucified-resurrected Saviour and carrying the self-judgment that he had not only doubted, but that he had resisted belief. Again, I’ve seen people who believe, but who don’t want to be bothered by faith. They’ve resisted belief. Thomas stands bowed and awkward in their place on stage so that hopefully we will never have to. Jesus knows how hard it is to believe, and He does not spurn a doubting Thomas. Jesus comes back to Thomas and gives him every reason to believe again. Jesus isn’t looking for judgment; He’s looking for belief restored. And He does the same for us too. That’s why the drama ends with Jesus looking past Thomas and out into the audience when He says to us: “‘Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.’” (Jn. 20:29) Doubt can be forgiven and replaced by faith, but it can’t be erased. Jesus knows it’s hard to believe that’s why He came back for us on Easter. Thomas does too that’s why he hopes we can see through his eyes so that we won’t have to stand in his place. May we let ourselves believe, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
We always have the chance to come back from doubt to faith restored. That’s the promise and hope of Easter. May we let ourselves believe. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
About a month ago, Ellen Skroski and I attended a talk at Amherst College offered by my old professor from Smith College. I hadn’t been to Amherst College in years and I kind of figured the parking would be a problem so we left early for the talk. There was absolutely no problem parking and we arrived at the lecture hall so early that the lights weren’t even on yet. We started walking around the building, an art department building. Ellen saw a display of photographs on the wall and started looking at them. I kept walking around. At the end of the hall I saw a door open and a light on. I walked over in that direction. I peek inside and make unexpected and unwanted eye contact with a naked man standing in the center of the room with a bunch of students sketching him. I don’t know how long I stood there, but I just stared. I was like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. Then I quickly turned around and beat it out of there. I wonder how many people he told afterwards about the priest standing out in the hallway during the life drawing class. That’s not an experience I ever want to repeat again. I was caught by surprise; I didn’t know what to do; and it was embarrassing.