This morning’s Gospel reading is John 20:19–31:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then 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 believe.” Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
Now, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.
Earlier this morning, I had a brief but fun conversation on Twitter — yes, that happens there too — about slang terms. John Podhoretz had noted a New York Times article that used young-adult slang and said it reminded him of when the Brady Bunch kids used the word “groovy,” a term I still use to this day. After sharing an anecdote about my granddaughter’s reaction to the use of that word — “now I know how old you really are” — another user remarked that the term never really penetrated into common usage, unlike other terms. “I marvel at how ‘awesome’ has,” Stevan wrote.
Well, I use that term too, and at least that one properly sets my age, as it became popular slang in the early 80s when I was in my early twenties. However, there has always been something that tugs at me when doing so, a regret over the appropriation of the word awesome for what is actually only remarkably good, or sometimes not even remarkably so. Unlike groovy, the word awesome has a better use, an original meaning for which there is no better replacement. Its decline into slang usage as an exaggerated superlative has eclipsed the memory of actual awe.
Merriam-Webster defines awe as “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.” So much of what we describe as awesome falls far short of this, so much so that its usage no longer connotes any sense of awe at all. However, we see precisely this reaction from Thomas, even in his initial denials of Christ’s resurrection.
John describes Thomas’ refusal to acknowledge Jesus’ return from the dead despite his continuing to remain in brotherhood with the disciples. This is in itself a curious reaction. Thomas had clearly remained within the circle, even if he was not present at Jesus’ first appearance with them. The disciples had gone into hiding, and not only had they trusted Thomas to know their location, Thomas was willing to risk his own freedom and life by being with them. He clearly loved his brothers in Christ, and yet refused to trust them even when all of them told Thomas about Jesus’ return. He rejected their witness and demanded proof before he would believe.
Why? Perhaps Thomas struggled to acknowledge the truth of Christ’s resurrection because it would have required an embrace of its awe. The other disciples experienced it first and had no choice but to embrace it, and were able to do so in joy; Thomas, however, did not trust in the joy of it, and instead shrank from the dread of its true meaning. Jesus’ triumph over death changes everything. Christ then returns and invites Thomas not just to embrace it emotionally but to put his fingers into the wounds. When Thomas does this, he hails Jesus by His true title: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas finally grasps with his whole heart and reason the true nature of Christ, and is overcome by and embraces the awe of that theophany.
The question for us is whether we still shrink from its awe, as Thomas does in this passage. Do we not believe because we have not seen, or because we’d prefer not to accept its true implications? We see what that entailed for the faithful of that time; Luke writes in our first reading from Acts 2 that “awe came upon everyone” who devoted themselves to the apostolic teachings and the communal life of the early Christian church. It changed how they lived their lives. Having accepted the sacrifice of Christ and His resurrection, they had to choose whether to live their lives by embracing it fully or discarding it entirely. They chose to embrace awe, and the changes it requires.
Peter writes in his first epistle that this involved not just the hundreds who saw Jesus after the crucifixion, but those who believed only through apostolic testimony and the Gospel. “Although you have not seen him,” he writes, “you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” That sense of awe permeated their lives. One does not “rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy” over the mundane goods to which we apply the word awesome these days. They rejoiced in eternal life, bought for us by Jesus Christ, and trusted in His Word and the teachings of the apostles that brought them to life through the Holy Spirit.
Do we embrace that theophanic joy? Or do we shy away from the dread of its truth, as St. Augustine famously did for so long, afraid to commit ourselves to all the deepest meanings of the resurrection and Christ’s sacrifice? I know I do at times; it is easy to identify with Thomas and Augustine too, at times being so immersed in materiality, sin, or despair that ignorance seems preferable to revelation. It’s easier to embrace the stuff we call awesome these days rather than the true awe of the Living God, His only Son, and the Holy Spirit all wishing us to come home to sanctification. Jesus understood that too, giving Thomas His wounds to probe, and reminding us that we can come home even after disbelief and despair, if we choose.
And that is awesome. In every sense of the word.
The front page image is a detail from “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” a part of the Maesta Altarpiece by Duccio di Buoninsegna, circa 1311 and on display at the Siena Cathedral, Italy.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.