Tell me if you’ve heard this before: it’s the second Sunday of the joyous season of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday, for Catholics), after the Gospel reading in which St. Thomas the Apostle insists that he will not believe unless he feels the nail marks in Jesus’ hands and puts his hand into Jesus’ side. The priest (even a very good priest) delivers a homily that seems to miss the point. The priest is concerned about something called “doubt,” which we’re told that lots of people have, and whose chief symptoms are things like obsessing about evidence and allowing yourself to get too caught up in matters of the “head” as opposed to the “heart.” The solution to “doubt” is to trust God, we’re told, to allow God to work in our hearts and override the calculating intelligence that wants to talk about how unlikely the whole Easter story is.
Something about this story has never sat right with me. For one thing: if Thomas is a detached skeptic who doesn’t think the resurrection is intellectually credible, why is he still even in the company of the apostles?
Let’s consider what we know about Thomas. At John 11:16 Thomas suggests that the disciples go to Judea with Jesus to die with him. This is in opposition to the rest of the disciples who in verse eight tried to dissuade Jesus from going there because the inhabitants of that region had recently tried to stone him. Now if Thomas earnestly means to go to Judea and die with Jesus, then he is passionately committed to his Lord and would sooner die than leave him. Indeed, this episode suggests that we should see him as one of the most committed disciples. Of course, we know that all the disciples later left Jesus and fled (Mt 26:56), but a sudden stumble and even fall is not incompatible with passionate devotion, fall, and later contrition. Nor are we told how many disciples, like Peter, followed later at a distance. People generally portray Peter as full of spit and vinegar and even his open betrayals are usually thought of as lapses for which he repents.
Why not see Thomas similarly? At John 14:5, in response to Jesus’ claim that he was going to prepare a place for his disciples in his Father’s house and that they knew the way to where he was going, Thomas says, “Master, we do not [even] know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Outside of the post-resurrection story in which Thomas figures prominently and the lists of disciples in which Thomas has his obligatory mention, I just gave you the results of a concordance search for “Thomas” in the Bible.
Not much to go on, perhaps? Let’s take stock.
The man who suggests that the disciples go to Judea to die with Jesus does not sound like a distant observer, “scientifically” or “objectively” weighing the costs and benefits. Nor is he asking whether Jesus might mind if he first went off on his honeymoon (Lk 14:20), buried his father, or said farewell to his family (Lk 8:59-61). In that moment, Thomas is ready. He wants to lose his life for Jesus’ sake and find it (Mt 16:25). In a similar moment (Mt 16:23), Peter himself told Jesus that he should not go to Jerusalem on his way to the predicted passion, which earned for Peter the famous rebuke: “Get behind me Satan!” Thomas, perhaps impetuously, counsels the reverse: let’s go with Jesus, even unto death!
Indeed, his only recorded question (Jn 14:5) illustrates this kind of reckless love. He wants to go with Jesus wherever his Father’s house happens to be. The trouble is that, so far from knowing the way (as Jesus says he does), he doesn’t even know the destination. All he knows is that he will be with Jesus and that is what he is asking after; the details are all in service of that end.
All of this rings oddly with the common, tired portrayal of Thomas as the detached doubter. Nothing about Thomas to this point suggests that he’s our guy for leaving the Lord because of some concern over “evidence.” To this point, he seems, if impulsive, ready to put his life on the line in a way that the other disciples are not. Yet Thomas is most famous for his doubt (Jn 20:24-29), and about that we should remember that 1) he is really doubting, 2) his doubt as such is not good, and 3) the Lord does not treat it as good.
What could make sense of this sudden change? I believe that the key to this transition is understanding Thomas’s profound grief.
Albert Camus ends his famous reflection on the myth of Sisyphus by saying that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” even while eternally rolling his rock up the mountain. We do well to employ our imagination similarly with Thomas. When he says, “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (Jn. 20:25), I have my own picture. I imagine Thomas saying each of these words choking back tears in inconsolable grief. Thomas had already thrown his lot in with Jesus. At Jesus’ death, Thomas no longer knew what to live for and now his friends claim to have seen the Lord, as it were, privately. But a private Jesus is not enough; not for us, not for Thomas. Nothing is clearer now as most Catholics continue to celebrate the Easter season without being at Mass because of Covid-19.
Yes, it is true: Thomas will not believe until he feels the nail marks in Jesus’ hands and until he puts his hand into the Lord’s side, but this is not, or at least not primarily, because he is a doubter. He is a griever, and he knows, correctly, that the only way this story can have a happy ending is if Jesus is resurrected—not in some shadowy, ethereal sense, but in his body. Moreover, notice how much his doubt takes for granted. Not only does he know that the heaven of Plato’s Phaedo, free of the prison of the body, won’t do, he knows still more. He knows that if Christ were resurrected, he (Thomas) would then be in a position to put his hands in Christ’s side and feel the nail marks in his hands. That is, he knows, as St. Augustine will teach, that the martyrs in glory retain their wounds as marks of virtue rather than blemishes (City of God, XXII.19). He has the right philosophical anthropology and the right (overarching) theology, and it is precisely these that he does not doubt.
Thomas’s doubt is the doubt of the well-formed, passionately committed, instinctively Christian disciple; the one whose faith is “in her bones.” His doubt is not the doubt of an intellectual doubting a proposition; his doubt breaks one’s heart. What he doubts is that God can save him from grief.
In the catechetical wasteland we still face (despite some laudable efforts to improve the situation), there is no need to shadowbox with a speculating Thomas. Instead, we need to remember that real doubt comes from loss, anguish, and despair. We can lose ourselves in our grief. When we do, we cannot close ourselves off to the help our friends, and indeed, our Church communities, offer. Thomas would not accept that Jesus was alive if he were not alive for him as well, but his friends knew better than he did and among those friends Thomas counted the Lord himself. Shortly thereafter, it was to his friend Thomas that Jesus appeared, in great mercy.
While this Gospel was attached to the second Sunday of Easter before it was called Divine Mercy Sunday, it seems at least a happy accident that Catholics read this story on that day, when Thomas gave a great profession of faith when he received the Lord’s great mercy. After this episode, Jesus revealed himself again to Thomas, Peter, James, John, Nathanael, and “two other disciples” (Jn 21:2) and tradition tells us Thomas traveled all the way to India for the Gospel, dying a martyr.
We who have not seen and yet have believed are indeed blessed (Jn 20:29), but let us remember how blessed Thomas himself was to be among those who saw what many prophets and righteous people longed to see even while they did not (Mt 13:17). In The Life of the Virgin, traditionally attributed to St. Maximus the Confessor and recently translated into English by Stephen J. Shoemaker, there is another apt discussion of the way we have all benefited from Thomas. Maximus (if it is Maximus; and Shoemaker thinks it may be) argues that, just as the bodily resurrection became better known because of Thomas’s doubts, the Virgin Mary’s bodily translation to heaven became known because of Thomas’s late arrival from India and his impassioned pleas to see the Blessed Virgin’s body which, upon the disciples’ inspection, was gone.
We, too, can learn from Thomas’s life and from his struggles. In contrast to the detached skepticism of the complacent intellectual, the grief that gives rise to his doubt is something perhaps every adult can understand. Moreover, Thomas was committed when others were not, and no doubt when we would not have been. In our time, two millennia removed from the Lord’s resurrection, we struggle to love a God we cannot see (1 Jn 4:20). But love of the Master he lost was not Grieving Thomas’s problem. Without that love, his doubt is scarcely imaginable.
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