John 20:19-31, Divine Mercy Sunday
Today is a very special day. It is not only the Second Sunday of Easter, meaning, we continue to celebrate Easter and so the Resurrection of Christ, it is also the Sunday of the Divine Mercy.
Every year we hear on this Sunday the story about Thomas. We call him contemptuously the ‘Doubting Thomas’. It’s a cheap and easy temptation to criticize him, the common-sense disciple who refused to believe that Jesus had risen. He wants to believe, I think, but he can’t. The implications are too striking; they bear too heavily on his mind. He’s in crisis; psychologically he is tied. And so he said, “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.”
He asks for sensible proof. It’s his attempt of keeping the crisis at bay. He’s trying to keep reality as he knew it from crashing around his ears. And that being the case, we have no grounds to criticize or gloat.
St. Gregory the Great commented:”His skepticism was more advantageous to us than the faith of the disciples who believed.” “It is the questioner and doubters, the ones who are puzzled and unsure, who keep the faith of the Church alive, and open the way for encounters with the risen Lord.” Doubts and uncertainties make us search for answers, while without doubts faith can easily become a routine.
Of course, Thomas plays a major role here and we will come back to him later, but let us not forget that the whole Gospel passage is about faith!
First we hear about the frightened disciples whose faith the Risen Lord awakens. Then Jesus invites Thomas to a deeper faith in him. And at the end the evangelist mentions that these stories were written down so that we may have faith.
The story brings us back to the afternoon of Easter where we meet the disciples who were huddling together behind locked doors, hoping that the Jewish and Roman authorities would be satisfied with the blood of their master and leave them alone. The authorities left them alone. But Jesus would not leave them alone.
Despite the locked doors, he stood in their midst, bringing peace where there had been only fear. Instead of rebuking them for cowardice, he breathes upon them the Spirit of mercy and commissions them to be ambassadors and instruments of his mercy – a fitting message for today’s Divine Mercy Sunday!
They were sinners, yes, but Jesus called and sent them to bring other sinners the Good News of mercy. Sinners, called to console others with the same consolation that they have received from the One without sin. – We like to be consoled, but have you ever thought of being called by God to bring consolation to others?
Since Thomas had missed this encounter they couldn’t wait to tell him the news: “We have seen the Lord! He is alive!” – But Thomas cannot believe it. He proudly insisted on empirical evidence that he could personally inspect to his own satisfaction. In a way, he was a very modern man by insisting on facts, on scientific analysis and proof. And I think, we can easily identify with Thomas
We too can bear only so much disorientation. It explains our silence in the face of horrible graft and corruption eating up the resources which should benefit not only a few in power but the whole population, especially the poor, the silence towards immorality and fast spreading anti-Christian ideas.
So, eight days later Jesus came back. This time Thomas is present. Imagine the look on his face as his eyes meet Jesus’ eyes. He probably would have liked to hide under the table. But Jesus invites him to satisfy his appetite for proof and probe his wounds. Thomas decides not to explain, not to defend, but simply to surrender. He is asked to believe that His master is risen. And he rises to the occasion to confess even more – that His Master is not just Lord, but God. “My Lord and my God”, he exclaims, no, he utters his first subversive words. Why subversive?
My Lord and my God” — that is the title demanded by Domitian, emperor from 81 to 96 C.E., the generation in which John wrote his gospel. Roman texts of the era attach the title, word for word, to the emperor. And any other claimant to the title — and his followers — was suspected of treason and subject to arrest.
After this homily we will recite again the profession of faith, “I believe in God….,” a very long and difficult profession. The shortest and most profound profession of faith comes from the lips of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas had overcome fear and uncertainty and doubt and had reached the state of profound faith. This faith now overcomes fear. In the words of our second reading, “the power that has conquered the world is this faith of ours.”
Faith has this sort of power because it is a supernatural gift. It was the Spirit Jesus breathed on them that Easter afternoon that had empowered the ten to believe and become themselves ambassadors of faith and mercy. Without that same Spirit, Thomas was powerless to believe. But once the breath of the Risen Lord touched him, Thomas too could experience the joy of faith and assume his God-appointed task to be one of the foundation stones of the Church.
This Spirit-filled early Christian community was a convincing testimony indeed. The pagans are reported to have remarked “see how these Christians love one another.” For they were a community of people who appeared to have one heart and one mind. They even shared their material resources so that none would be in need. This unity flowed from their one faith. – How far are we from what Jesus envisioned the members of his Church to be!
Faith! What is faith? – Of course, Thomas Aquinas and other philosophers and theologians provide profound answers to this question. They are good for classroom discussions in theology.
Recently I found a quite interesting definition of “faith” in a collection of stories entitled “The Little White Bird” by Sir James Barrie, the author who created Peter Pan. He writes, “The reason why birds can fly and we can’t is simply that they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.”
Look at the disciples after Easter: They were afraid; they locked themselves in their houses. They avoided other people. Like birds with broken wings they sat there, flapping their paralyzed wings. They were sad, afraid, unhappy. Why? They lacked faith.
Faith liberates. When finally the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples on Pentecost and strengthened their faith, they broke out of their sad situation, went into the world and proclaimed the Risen Lord. They began to fly.
Lack of faith brings sadness, while faith is a source of great joy. To have faith is to have wings. To have real faith makes one soar high above the corruption, dishonesty and lies in our society and the all-negative news in the media
In these weeks before Pentecost, we do good to ask the Holy Spirit to strengthen our faith and give us the courage to proclaim the Lord, “whether it is convenient or inconvenient”, as St. Paul admonishes his disciple Timothy. Because that’s the task of a real disciple, as Jesus’ very last words show: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”
Thomas and his future fellow doubters came to be called “the believers.” That should give us hope. If we desire it, the Spirit will strengthen our own imperfect faith to make us effective ambassadors to a skeptical world.
The Gospel also addresses our own doubt when we hear Jesus asking Thomas – and us, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?” – The question hangs in the air; nowhere to be resolved.
For it is clear that the evangelist writes for those who came after Thomas, for us, who have not seen and touched the wounds of Jesus. To them and us, Jesus offers a final beatitude, and we would do good to listen well to it when Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”