John 20:19-31, Divine Mercy Sunday
The Gospel reading today reminds me of an incident that took place some 23 years ago.
One morning, I got a call from my sister who used to work at a school about half an hour drive from New Bilibid Prison, where I served as a volunteer chaplain. She said she was ill and so that same evening, accompanied by a friend, I visited her. The man who opened the gate for us was her landlord, Mr Roxas, and following him was his son, Andy. Andy was 29 then, if I am not mistaken, but he had the age of a six year old boy. Andy has Down’s syndrome – a congenital condition in which a person suffers from mental disabilties. Mr Roxas greeted us with a simple hello, but something else ‘greeted’ us – a distinct smell, not exactly foul or offensive. The scent reminded me of the local ointment my grandmother used on us whenever we had sprains or injuries. It was made from herbs and some coconut oil. Mr. Roxas must have noticed my reaction that he soon explained. “Oh, Father, sorry, it’s my son, Andy. I have just given him a massage,” he said as we walked towards the living room. “Since he was little, not an evening goes by without my giving him a massage,” he volunteered the information. “And I linger particularly around the area of his head. Who knows I might touch a nerve or something, and he might become normal!”
Now, everyone knows there’s no cure to Down’s syndrome. And so, anybody could dismiss Mr Roxas’ words that evening as wishful thinking. It was silly. But that is not what I saw that evening. What I saw was a father who never stopped wishing for what was best for his son. What I saw was a father’s love for a son whom the world had already judged as hopeless and beyond help. All at once, I knew who this person was before me. I understood, and I lowered my gaze. They say one is not bold in an encounter with God. In Mr Roxas, I saw a God who never gives up on us, who never stops wishing what is best for us. I left the house that evening, consoled by the thought that God would never abandon me for a moment.
In today’s Gospel, we find the same tenderness and mercy of God. Thomas refused to believe what the other apostles had told him: “We have seen the Lord!” … And how does Jesus react? With patience. Jesus does not leave Thomas to his stubborn unbelief. He waits, for eight full days! Eventually, we see Thomas admitting to the poverty of his faith as he blurts out, “My Lord and my God!” With this simple yet faith-filled invocation, he responds to Jesus’ patience, allowing himself to receive God’s mercy.
Like Thomas, we have our doubts too. We struggle with our faith. Jesus’ suffering and death hurt Thomas and the other apostles. They had staked their lives on him, investing all their hopes and dreams. All of that was gone. Now they felt like fools, confused, afraid, hurt.
Who among us has not been hurt by our expectations of a God that has seemingly failed us? Who among us has not been disappointed by God? We asked God for something, and He did not deliver. I have a friend who just lost her husband and she was not shy about expressing her disappointments with God. “Bakit kaya yung 95 years old na matanda, na may COVID, may UTI at daming sakit, pinagaling ni God? Bakit ang asawa ko, halos madurog puso ko sa pagsusumamo sa Kanya at sa dami ng pari at madreng nagdasal, hindi rin pinakinggan at hindi pinagaling ang asawa ko. Bakit po?” Then right before the online mass began, her grandson came into view and asked me: “Bakit po kinuha ang lolo ko?” Wala akong masagot. I think of people losing, not just spouses or daughters, but a whole set of parents, to COVID 19.
It is a difficult situation. We struggle. We doubt. Has God abandoned us? Have we done something to merit God’s inaction and indifference? Does He not love us? There is a bit of doubting Thomas within each one of us.
But as we have seen, through locked doors, despite the disciples’ fears, beyond their doubting and disbelief, the Risen Jesus came and ‘stood in their midst’ – not just once, but twice. Nothing deters Jesus from sharing His Spirit and new life with his disciples. He waits and persists until He brings all – not only the early disciples and Thomas but also all of us today – to peace, to forgiveness, and new life.
Scripture scholars say the object of our hoping IS God. We hope IN God. But I think the opposite is true. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are no Scripture texts that say God hopes in us. God is mighty and powerful. How can He seek hope from us, weak and broken creatures that we all are? But if we examine the Scriptures, we get a sense that it is indeed God who hopes in us. It is God who knows how to live with the absurdities of human frailty and sinfulness and who continues to hope.
Whether it be Israel’s infidelity, Peter’s denial, the disciples’ (on the road to Emmaus) despair, Thomas’ unbelief, or the prodigal’s son’s rejection of his home, God responds with patience, not judgment nor condemnation. A great German theologian, Romano Guardini, once said that God responds to our weakness by his patience. Jesus shows us this merciful patience of God so we can regain our confidence and hope.
We hear in the second reading “Blessed be God the Father who, in his great mercy, has given us a new birth as His sons and daughters.” The experience of God’s mercy is always an identity experience, revealing who we are before God and who we are called to be. Whether it is experienced as a forgiveness of one’s sins or relief from one’s sufferings, God’s mercy is always an experience of being forgiven as a beloved son of God. It is always an experience of being comforted as a beloved daughter of God. It is always an experience of welcome, of God claiming us back as His own. It is always an experience of coming home, where we get to enjoy, once again, the freedom and dignity God bestows on His children. In His great mercy, God gave Thomas and the other disciples, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, ‘a new birth’ to a living hope, changing them from being fearful men to courageous preachers. Transformed by the resurrection of Christ, the early Church described, in the first reading, experiences of renewal: no longer a self-contented community, oblivious to the needs of others, but now a community of love and sharing.
On this Divine Mercy Sunday, we are reminded that we have a God who loves us , who is infinitely patient with us, a God who never gives up on us. As he did to Thomas, Jesus directs us, whenever doubts and questions began to fill our hearts, to seek refuge always in the wounds of His mercy and love. May these thoughts sustain us in the coming days ahead when all we see is darkness and death! God of mercy, draw near!
*image from the Internet