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.
Judging by the proliferation of crime dramas on television, both fictional and true-life, now and in the past, it’s safe to say that people love a good forensics show. I’m no different; I’m an avid watcher of the Investigation Discovery channel, watched Live PD for two hours last night, and spent a lot of time reading true-crime books by Ann Rule and others. Nothing seems more satisfying at times than a crime story with a neat bow on it at the end, or at least as neat as one can get.
What is the appeal? Certainty and conclusion are part of it, along with a sense of justice being delivered in a world where we see too much injustice. From the very beginning of detective shows on television, we want “just the facts, ma’am, just the facts,” relying on them to give us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Never mind that the men and women who actually have to solve these crimes in real time and real life will tell you that most of their cases contain less mystery and more misery than we see on TV and that neat bows are actually rare in their business. Crime, like life, is messy and at times not terribly connection to rationality and reason. We want — we need — to see more order and control than that.
For this reason among others, the story of Thomas the Apostle has a special appeal to me. Thomas has just been told something truly unbelievable, something incredible — that Jesus has come back to life after being crucified and speared, one of the most cruel manners of death imaginable. The apostle comes down in history to us as Doubting Thomas, but … what would we say if told that under the same circumstances? What would I say?
I’d be tempted to launch CSI: Jerusalem too. “Show me the man and the wounds!” I would declare. If DNA testing was available at that time, we’d probably wait for the lab results rather than trust our own eyes, as Thomas does when Jesus appears before him in his risen body to calm and strengthen him.
Furthermore, what Thomas does here is hardly singular. The people of Judea in Jesus’ time demanded signs, too, as a price for faith. Even when Jesus provided those signs, people refused to believe. That’s not to put reason aside; rather, it is to argue that at times we allow reason to crowd out faith, crowd out caritas, because reason gives us an oversized perception of control.
Reason alone makes us into our own gods; faith alone without any reason at all can lead us astray just as easily. They either questioned the source of Jesus’ divine power or stuck stubbornly to their rationality. How can the son of the carpenter be the Anointed of the Lord? asked the Nazareans. The temple authorities stuck to their belief in the temple rather than watch the prophecies come to life before their eyes.
When Jesus returns to Thomas in today’s Gospel, He does so out of love for his disciple and for the rest of us as well. If someone who had walked with Jesus for years prior to the Passion could not wrap his rational mind around the resurrection, how could we who follow? Even two thousand years later, we ask for signs to test God rather than trust in Him. We want proof, not faith, because faith requires us to put our trust in Him rather than in our own supposed mastery in this world.
Our minds — and our hearts — still have difficulty grasping the mystery of the Passion and Christ’s salvation. Thomas’ incredulity gets expressed in explicit terms, with their harsh nature a signal for recognition in all of us to the same impulses. We want to know God rather than put our trust in Him, or perhaps more gently, we believe in God but In Ourselves We Trust. Jesus’ appearance to Thomas, and to the other disciples as well, reminds us that we are not masters of the universe and that God’s will and knowledge is far beyond our own.
It takes all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to overcome our natural skepticism and inclination toward sinful annihilation to fully embrace salvation and Christ’s sufficient sacrifice for us all. Both reason and faith are gifts of the Lord, and used in proper balance allows us to unfold the arc of salvation through scriptures and understand its meaning while accepting its true mysteries. We do not need Law and Order: Special Biblical Unit or a “smoking miracle” to do so. We need Christ in our hearts to guide our reason and to understand its limits, and a willingness to put our trust in the One whose love for us knows no bounds.
“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.