Faith, Doubt, Wounds, and Mercy
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine April 8, 2018
Father Leo quote: see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-UamDqavTM
As we complete our Easter octave, today’s Gospel presents us with the encounter between the Risen Christ and the Apostle Thomas. I have always liked Thomas. I can relate to Thomas. 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 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 his 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. But now, he had seen his Master betrayed, mocked, condemned, tortured and crucified – while he and the others ran away. Then all of a sudden, just three days later, the other disciples report that they have seen, have met, have even touched Jesus. What was Thomas feeling? Guilty? Jealous? Hurt? 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.”
Not surprisingly, when Thomas hears the news of Jesus’ Resurrection, he hesitates to jump on the bandwagon. 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.
For this reason, Thomas has gone down in history as “Doubting Thomas”. Like “Good Samaritan” or “Judas”, it’s one of the few biblical references that retains instant recognition. Even people who’ve never read the Bible still know, for the most part, 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 the character of 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 what she calls “her certainty” to ground her belief in some horrific accusations against Fr. Flynn: “I may not have any evidence,” she tells him, “but I have my certainty.” (Any film with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman is worth seeing!)
While looking for ideas online, I thought Fr. Tom Rosica from Salt and Light captured the power of this story: “John’s story of Jesus and Thomas provides us with an archetypal experience of doubt, struggle and faith. Herein lies every Christian's challenge: to believe without having seen. Thomas is not the eternal skeptic, nor the bullish, stubborn personality that Christian tradition has often painted. The lexicon translates the word "skepsis" as "doubt, misgiving, hesitation, and disbelief." Thomas, the doubter, was permitted to do something that we would all like to do. He was allowed to touch and "experience" something that by human means was not possible. For us it is more difficult. We need to begin with faith and then blindly touch our way to the heart of our lives.
Though we know so little about Thomas, his background and his estiny, we are given an important hint into his identity in his Greek name: Thomas (Didymus, in Greek) means "twin". Who was Thomas' other half, his twin? Maybe we can see his twin by looking into the mirror. Thomas' other half is anyone who has struggled with the pain of unbelief, doubt and despair, and has allowed the presence of the Risen Jesus to make a difference. When this happens, the ice of skepticism thaws. Thomas and his twins throughout the world risk everything in Jesus and for Jesus and become sources of blessing for others, in spite of their doubts and despair – indeed, because of these.
Let’s look at the Gospel again. Preaching on this passage has often focused 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 notion that scientific method is the only path to objective knowledge of the truth, many of our contemporaries – especially scientific materialists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens – hear these words and object to the praising of so-called “Blind faith”.
But do we need to see Jesus’ words here necessarily as a criticism of Thomas? I think not. After all, Thomas asks only what the other disciples had already experienced: to see and touch the risen Jesus for himself. Thomas needed to encounter Jesus not just from hearsay, but in the flesh: in a real, personal way. And confronted with Thomas’ honest seeking, Jesus responds not with condemnation or withdrawal, but with great compassion and mercy. In response, Thomas comes out with perhaps the most explicit affirmation of faith in Jesus’ divine identity in the entire New Testament: “My Lord and my God!" Not just a theoretical kind of faith, as when we mechanically recite the Creed as a set of “beliefs about God”, with neither thought nor feeling. Thomas expresses his faith in someone real, in a risen Christ who has reached out and touched him right where he needed to be touched, in his own fear and guilt and loneliness.
Does Jesus not desire the same experience for you, and for me? Do we dare to come to him – with all our doubts and questions and fears, with the different wounds we carry – and recognize in his wounded, Risen Body the possibility that we too can rise to new life, even in our own woundedness?
A great illustration of this comes in what I like to call “the best two-minute homily of all time”. In the 1997 TV series “Nothing Sacred”, set in a fictional inner-city parish named “St. Thomas”, one of the major characters is Father Leo: a recovering alcoholic who serves as a wise (and sometimes cranky) mentor to the hotheaded young pastor, Father Ray.(!) After a long absence, he returns to the pulpit and preaches a homily on the Gospel text we have just listened to: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...
In his classic text “The Wounded Healer”, Fr. Henri Nouwen expresses a reality frequently overlooked, but one we must never ignore: that very frequently, we minister to others most effectively not out of our strengths, talents and giftedness, but out of our wounds, weakness and vulnerability. The risen Christ appears in today’s Gospel as the archetypal Wounded Healer: Jesus’ glorified Body does not cease to bear the mark of his wounds, but they are glorified wounds, wounds into which we can plunge safely without hurting him, which become a source of identification and healing, of hope and refuge for us who reach out and touch him.
I leave you with this beautiful poem by Malcolm Guite, which I think sums up why Thomas – in his questioning faith – remains so important for us today:
As we continue to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection on this “Easter day”, may our lives also be steeped in the risen Christ, who comes to us as Divine Mercy: as “mercy within mercy within mercy.” Amen! Alleluia!!Malcolm Guite, St. Thomas the Apostle “We do not know… how can we know the way?” Courageous master of the awkward question, You spoke the words the others dared not say And cut through their evasion and abstraction. Oh doubting Thomas, father of my faith, You put your finger on the nub of things We cannot love some disembodied wraith, But flesh and blood must be our king of kings. Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint, Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh. Because He loved your awkward counter-point The Word has heard and granted you your wish. Oh! place my hands with yours, help me divine The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.