Faith, Doubt, Wounds, and Mercy
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V. April 19, 2020
On this second Sunday of Easter octave, today’s Gospel tells us of the encounter between the Risen Christ and the Apostle Thomas. I have always liked Thomas. I can relate to him. I have even joked that if ever I became Pope (a long shot, to be sure!), I would choose to be called Thomas. Having a math and science background myself, I appreciate Thomas’ inquisitive nature: his need to know, to understand, to test the evidence, to see for himself.
Think about it: Jesus was the person Thomas admired most in the world. Thomas had left everything – job, family, friends – to follow Jesus. He is called by John “the Twin” – did he leave a twin brother behind when he made that fateful decision to cast his lot in with Jesus? As part of Jesus’ inner circle, Thomas knew the secrets of Jesus’ heart. He had seen his Master betrayed, mocked, condemned, tortured and crucified – while he and most of the other apostles ran away. Then all of a sudden, just three days later, the other disciples report that they have seen, met, even touched Jesus. What might Thomas have been feeling? Guilty? Jealous? Confused? Left out?
In any event, Thomas refused to be satisfied with a second-hand report. Jesus had appeared to the others – so why not to him? He wants to see Jesus. To touch him. To know “for sure.” So he asks for evidence: to touch, with his very own hands, the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side. It’s quite an outrageous request, when you think about it. Until I do this, he says, I will not believe.
So Thomas has gone down in history as “Doubting Thomas”. Like “Good Samaritan” or “Judas”, it’s one of the few references to biblical characters that still gets instant recognition. Even people who’ve never opened the Bible know what a “doubting Thomas” is: someone skeptical about everything, who demands an unrealistic level of proof, who takes nothing on faith.
And yet, doubt is part of the fabric of our lives. To quote Fr. Brendan Flynn in the movie Doubt: “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, when you doubt, you are not alone.” Fr. Flynn’s penchant for doubt and ambiguity is contrasted in that film with the figure of the Mother Superior, who relies on “her certainty” to justify her belief in horrific accusations against Fr. Flynn: “I may not have any evidence,” she tells him, “but I have my certainty.”
So let’s go a little deeper into the Gospel. Preaching on this passage typically focuses on the so-called “weakness” of Thomas’ faith, as if Jesus’ words to him were some kind of a reprimand: "You believe in me, Thomas, because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Living in a modern world, marked by the idea that the scientific method is the only path to objective truth, there are many who reject the praising of the so-called “Blind faith”. That faith is a particular kind of gullibility to be condemned, not lauded.
But I don’t think we need to see Jesus’ words necessarily as a criticism of Thomas. After all, Thomas asks only for what the other disciples had already experienced: to see and touch the risen Jesus for himself, to encounter Jesus not just from hearsay, but in the flesh: in a real and personal way. Confronted with Thomas’ honest seeking, Jesus responds not with condemnation or withdrawal, but with great compassion and mercy.
And then, Thomas comes out with the most explicit affirmation of faith in Jesus’ divinity in the entire New Testament: “My Lord and my God!" Not just a theoretical kind of faith, mechanically reciting the Creed or the Catechism as a set of “beliefs about God” to which we must subscribe. Thomas expresses his faith in someone real, in a risen Christ who reached out and touched him right where he needed to be touched, in his own fear and guilt and loneliness. It is a personal encounter to which he can now bear witness.
Dear brothers and sisters, even in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic – indeed, especially at this time – Jesus desires the same experience for you, and for me. He invites us to come to him – with all our doubts and questions and fears, with all the different wounds we carry – and recognize in his wounded, Risen Body our invitation to rise to new life with him. Not in spite of our woundedness, but within it.
One of the best illustrations of how God uses our wounds to touch our lives comes in what I like to call “the best two-minute homily of all time”, taken from the 1997 TV series “Nothing Sacred”. This show, which was cancelled far too soon, was set in the tough, inner-city parish of “St. Thomas”, served by three priests. In this clip, we meet Father Leo: a recovering alcoholic who serves as a wise (if sometimes cranky) mentor to the hotheaded young pastor, whose name is … Father Ray.(!) After a long absence, he returns to the pulpit and preaches this homily:I stopped preaching when I lost my faith in the resurrection. It was the wounds that did it, I suppose. You see, when God brought his son back from the dead, he left five gaping wounds in his body. It seemed cruel to me. If he was going to bring his son back to life, why didn’t he heal his wounds? I would have. St. Thomas, after whom our church is named, had his doubts about the resurrection too. But Jesus came to him and said, “Come here, Thomas, give me your hand. I want you to put your hand into my wounds. Feel that I am alive. That’s what wounds are for - places to enter each other’s lives. They are honorable things, even though we spend most of our time trying to hide them...
Fr. Leo is absolutely right. As Henri Nouwen points out in his text “The Wounded Healer”, we minister to others most effectively and most powerfully NOT out of our strengths, talents and giftedness, but out of our wounds, weakness and vulnerability. Jesus appears to us in today’s Gospel as the archetypal Wounded Healer: his glorified Body still bears the mark of his wounds, but they are glorified wounds: wounds into which we can plunge safely without fear of hurting him, wounds which become a source of identification and healing, of hope and refuge for us who reach out and touch him.
This, I believe, is the insight which led St. John Paul II to institute this Second Sunday of Easter as the “Feast of Divine Mercy.” This feast reminds us that the "mercy and pardon" won for us by Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection demand not just a day, but a whole week of joyful celebration!
In 2014, Pope Francis canonized Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II on this feast of Divine Mercy. In his homily, he cited the words of St. John Paul at the canonization Mass of the Polish mystic St. Faustina, who promoted this devotion to God’s infinite love and compassion: "As Jesus shows his hands and his side, he points to the wounds of the Passion, especially the wound in his heart, the source from which flows the great wave of mercy poured out on humanity."
Throughout the time of this pandemic, Pope Francis has reminded us of our call to be apostles of mercy, bearing witness through our own gestures of kindness and caring, of courage and tenderness, of humble service of our sisters and brothers, especially the most vulnerable, the sick, the dying. Let us close with his words on our call, with the Risen Christ, to “touch the wounds of mercy”:
St. John tells us that on the evening after Jesus rose from the dead, he stood among the disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you!” Showing them his hands and his side, he also showed them his wounds. They knew it was truly him, the Lord, and they were filled with joy. Eight days later, Jesus came once again into the Upper Room and showed his wounds to Thomas, so that he could touch them also, and so believe and become himself a witness to the Resurrection.
To us also, on this Sunday of Divine Mercy, the Lord shows us his wounds. They are wounds of mercy. Jesus invites us to behold these wounds, to touch them as Thomas did, to heal our disbelief. He invites us to enter into the mystery of these wounds, of God’s merciful love. Through these wounds, we can see the entire mystery of Christ: his Passion; his earthly life and ministry, filled with compassion for the weak and the sick; his incarnation in Mary’s womb. All of this we see in the wounds of Jesus, crucified and risen.
Faced with the tragic events of human history we can feel crushed at times, asking ourselves, “Why?” Evil and darkness appear in the world like a great void: empty of love, of goodness, of life. And so we ask: how can we fill this void? For us it is impossible; only God can fill this emptiness that evil brings to our hearts and to human history. It is Jesus, who died on the Cross, who rose again, who alone fills the void of sin with the depth of his mercy.
Brothers and sisters, God has opened for us a way to go out from our slavery to sin and death, to enter into the land of life and peace. The risen Christ is the way, and his wounds are full of mercy. Keeping our eyes fixed on the Risen Jesus, on his wounds, we can sing with all the Church: “His mercy endures forever!” With these words impressed on our hearts, let us go forth, led by the hand of our Lord and Saviour, wounded and glorified, our life and our hope.
Father Leo's Homily from Nothing Sacred