John 20:19-31, Divine Mercy Sunday
“The Incredulity of St. Thomas” is a beautiful painting that is inspired by the Gospel reading today. Painted by Caravaggio in 1602, it is one of his more famous works, supposedly copied at least 22 times in the 17th century alone. Originally done for Vincenzo Giustiniani, it is now housed in Sansscouci — a museum in Potsdam, Germany.
Amidst the euphoria of the resurrection, Cavaraggio brings us to the complexity and ambivalence of such an experience while pointing to the practical hope emerging from the rough grounds where the ordinary people in his paintings live.
Let me try to dissect Caravaggio’s painting.
First is the sense of emotional conflict depicted in the wrinkled foreheads and troubled faces of the three disciples. While the finger of Thomas explores the wounds, Jesus also winces at its impact. In both respects, what Caravaggio intended to convey was the intense psychological tension that serves as the immediate context of the Resurrection.
It was not easy for the disciples after the death of Jesus. Politically, there might have been those who were intent on rounding up his followers. One thus understands Peter’s earlier insistent denials. Or why they all dispersed in a hurry and left him alone. Even if this fear resulted from paranoia after a harsh tragedy, the disciples were also very tired, frustrated, angry, guilty and in deep emotional pain over their great loss. Caravaggio’s winces and wrinkled faces convey all these internal struggles most clearly.
In such a psychological state, the disciples had two options: to resort to violence (of revenge) or to lead a secluded life (in fear). They chose the second. So, when Jesus broke into their isolation, they were in for the surprise of their lives. Yes! But the joyful surprise did not automatically erase the tension in their hearts and the pain in their faces.
One Caravaggio commentator observes that as Thomas looks at the wound of Jesus, his left hand is clutching his own side, as though he too is wounded.
Second detail: there is a sense of realism in the depiction of his characters. Caravaggio, unlike his contemporaries, was not fond of ‘ideal beauty’. His models were street people, prostituted women, beggars, etc. In the painting, the disciples are poor subsistence laborers with worn out hands in their working clothes, not venerable men in flashy robes. There are no halos on their heads; Thomas’ shirt is torn at the seams; and the hand on Jesus’ pierced side is still dirty, perhaps from work.
Laboring men like them could hardly afford the luxury of time for idle speculation and useless ‘what ifs’. Their lives demanded that they be practical and realistic. So the “doubting Thomas” is not at all about intellectual skepticism or agnostic experimentation discussing things endlessly till kingdom come. Thomas’ “doubt” was an honest questioning born out of the exigencies of one’s practical life of the everyday.
Thomas was not wanting in courage. Indeed, he was willing to give up his life. When the disciples were afraid to go back to Jerusalem after John’s death, he said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). Tradition has it that he went to as far as Syria and India, and he did die a martyr’s death.
But he was also a practical man. When Jesus told them that he is going to prepare a place for them and shall lead them there, Thomas said: “Lord, we do not know where you are going so how can we know the way?” (John 14: 5). Like men used to living in the rough grounds, he did not like vague metaphysical language. He wanted things laid down in concrete terms. When things were not clear, he asked, like in the Gospel today.
After Jesus’ death, Thomas was not alone in this persistent questioning. Almost everyone ‘doubted’, as it were – the women who first came to the tomb and ran back; the two disciples on their way to Emmaus; Mary Magdalene who blamed the gardener. And Jesus’ response was not of reproach, blame or condemnation, but of deep understanding, openness, and compassion.
This leads me to the third revealing detail. Jesus patiently leads Thomas’s dirty hand to his side as if saying: “I understand your doubts. Come, let me help you.” Such an attitude is a challenge to many individuals and institutions – economic, political, religious – that cannot tolerate questions, cannot handle dissent, or are afraid of differences and threatened by sheer otherness. We live in such a political climate now; millions of “tards” from dominant political and religious institutions abound.
Our traditional Filipino upbringing—in our families, our schools, our churches—does not encourage us how to probe or inquire. We are mainly trained to follow, not to question. And if we dare to ask, we are in trouble.
At best, we are coaxed to just follow and tow the line. We are often told: “Sumunod ka na lang. Wala namang mawawala sa ‘yo.” (Just follow and obey. Nothing will be lost anyway!). At worst, we are threatened, harassed, excluded, excommunicated and killed for believing differently.
But it might be helpful to remember that a belief that is not tempered by doubt becomes dangerous; a religion that is too certain of its own truth risks becoming imperialistic. As Mark Taylor wrote: “Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not.”
Let me go back to Caravaggio’s painting. The three old men, one of them Thomas, are together in deeply seeking the truth of the resurrection. Illumined by the light source in some chiaroscuro effect, their heads form one circle with Jesus’—a strong image of a continual communal search. Despite their being in Jesus’ presence and beholding his wounds, the searching has not stopped. It is always in process—as their wrinkled foreheads tell us. A French Nobel laureate for literature (1947), André Gide, once wrote: “Believe those who are seeking the truth, Doubt those who said they have found it.”
There are two sides to Thomas in the Gospel text: his doubting (“I need to put my hands in his side”) and his believing (“My Lord and my God”). Both are crucial to one’s act of faith. Only when this tension is kept shall our faith be truly alive, and our lives truly faithful.
St. Augustine reminds us that, in fact, “doubt is an element of believing” – a very healthy reminder in the face of the sometimes rabid zeal and fanatical fervor – not just for religion but also for political beliefs. For as the great Lebanese writer, Kahlil Gibran, wrote: “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.”
Doubting is knowing that as we keep the journey, we haven’t yet arrived; as we continually love, we haven’t yet given our all; and as we honestly believe, we haven’t yet and could never fully grasp at all.