I am the man, Thomas, I am the man;
Look at these nail scars here in my hands.
Jesus didn’t utter those words, as far as we know, during his post-Resurrection encounter with St. Thomas the Apostle. What he said, at least according to St. John’s Gospel, is, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing” (Jn 20:27). Yet the above lyrics, from Ralph Stanley’s haunting song “I am the Man Thomas,” written and recorded in the early 1970s, perfectly encapsulate the inescapable power and beauty of our resurrected Lord.
The very first phrase, “I am the man,” is an allusion to the first chapters of Genesis, in which God creates the first man and woman: “male and female he created them.” Yet in our sin, we disfigured our manhood and womanhood, and obscured the glory of our humanity. Thus Jesus himself, St. Paul tells us, is the second Adam (1 Cor 15:22). And while the first man disobeyed God and welcomed sin into our nature, the second man’s righteous obedience restores our broken humanity. “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men” (Rom 5:18).
Stanley’s first stanza also reminds us of the prophet Nathan’s rebuke to King David following his shameful sin of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah (2 Sam 11:14-27). “You are the man,” asserts Nathan (2 Sam 12:7), in his damning condemnation of David’s contemptible sins. Indeed, in our own transgressions as sons of Adam, we too “are the man.” Yet Christ the Son of David in His perfection is also “the man,” but resurrected, victorious, and magnificent. He is everything the man Adam and David should have been.
That phrase is also reminiscent of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate’s declaration: “Behold the man!” (Jn 19:5). Pilate said more than he knew when he uttered those words in the presence of the scourged and mocked Christ. Jesus was, truly, the man, the one who in his propitiatory suffering took upon himself the sins of the world. Jesus is the ultimate man precisely because we, in our finite, sinful humanity, cannot be.
Jesus also bears nail scars in his hands. These words get a bit closer to the actual ones our Lord spoke in the Johannine Gospel passage. Yet in Stanley’s thick, rural Virginia accent, they take on a rougher, more direct character. Even a small child recoils from the thought of having nails driven into his or her palms or wrists. A momentary reflection on nails piercing our flesh elicits grimaces, as we consider the brutal pain associated with such a ruthless, physical act.
Indeed, the remainder of Stanley’s song drives deeper into our souls the magnitude of that pain:
They drove me up the hill, Thomas, I am the Man
They made me carry the cross, Thomas, I am the Man
I am the Man, Thomas, I am the Man
Look at these nail scars here in my hands
They crown my head with thorns, Thomas, I am the Man
They nailed me to the cross, Thomas, I am the Man
They pierced me in the side, Thomas, I am the Man
I died on the cross, Thomas, I am the Man
These are visceral images to contemplate, coarse and raw, connecting us to the deepest agonies experienced by humanity: the pains of arduous physical labor; the gruesome bloodiness of battle, the terror and darkness of execution. If we picture ourselves, as men and women, experiencing such trauma, the horror is hard, if not impossible, to contemplate.
And yet that is exactly how the Gospels describe our Lord’s Passion. In one sense, it is impressive and surprising to hear a Protestant musician such as Stanley present such a thoroughly embodied understanding of the atonement. Yet, as a former evangelical myself, I can appreciate that Stanley’s own careful reading of Scripture must have driven him to no other conclusion. What the man Jesus did on our behalf really was amazing, unprecedented, and awful.
Most amazingly, after all of it, is that he is here, in our presence. He is in the presence of St. Thomas the Apostle, staring him in the eyes and declaring with confidence, “I am the man.” He is the man St. Thomas remembered, who once walked alongside him, who spoke with him.
And he is now here in our presence. The resurrection of Christ is not simply something believed as an intellectual exercise. It is not only a theological doctrine to comfort those fearing their own death. It is reality presented to our most instinctive core. He is the man. And he is before us, presenting us proof that he endured the most terrible evils and injustices ever inflicted on a human person. He is alive. As Catholics, we celebrate all the more joyously, because he makes himself known in the Eucharist, a means for us not only to witness his life from afar, but actually welcome it into our own selves. In his resurrected humanity, we too can become “the man.”
Bob Dylan, oddly enough, has a deep affinity for Ralph Stanley’s song “I am the man Thomas.” Between September 4, 1999 and August 30, 2002, Dylan and his band played the song 59 times as a concert opener. Dylan, many know, went through a born-again evangelical phase in his musical career, and it’s unclear the exact content of his religious beliefs in 2021. Yet the fact that Dylan so regularly covers this song is suggestive of its spiritually provocative power and force. Certainly part of the appeal is Stanley’s own soul-stirring Southern voice, though I’m inclined to think it has as much to do with the lyrics and the nature of bluegrass as a genre. In its earthiness, it connects us with an ancient and venerable American identity inseparably tied to the gritty realities of earth and flesh.
“I am the man Thomas” may not be a direct quotation from Holy Scripture, but it’s close enough. Stanley’s interpretation of the resurrection is biblical, and though he likely did not intend it, thoroughly Catholic. And thus new generations of Americans remain fascinated by the song’s probative force. Indeed, one of the most stirring recent renditions of the song is by the bluegrass family band The Petersens, who often perform in Branson, Missouri.
In this Easter season, consider afresh the Resurrection of our Lord through the words and sounds of Ralph Stanley’s “I am the Man Thomas.” If you listen with care, you’ll be reminded, as I often have, that Christ truly is the man. And because he is, we may believe in confidence that we are as well.
Christ is Risen!
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