Saturday, April 22, 2006

My Lord and My God

The Gospel says that eight days after the Resurrection, Thomas was with the disciples in the upper room. Therefore, eight days after Easter we celebrate that very mystery. Jesus first greets the apostles with: Peace be with you. Peace is one of the great gifts of the New Covenant. But this peace is not merely the absence of conflict or aggression—it is the fullness of spiritual well-being and confidence that comes from communion with the Lord. Before He left them, Jesus had said: My peace I give you, but not as the world gives. Peace that the world gives is transitory, superficial, ineffectual. It cannot lead to the depth of life in God. It is only the Spirit of God that can communicate this divine and true peace. So after Jesus said, “Peace be with you,” He breathed on them with the very breath of God, saying: Receive the Holy Spirit. The psalmist says that by the breath of his mouth God created the stars; here the Son of God re-creates his disciples, transfigures their inner lives by the same divine breath, divine Spirit.

Unfortunately, Thomas was not there at this first appearance of the risen Lord. When he finally showed up, I’m sure he deeply regretted going wherever he had gone. He was greeted with a great chorus of all the other apostles: “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas probably didn’t totally disbelieve their testimony, but there may have been a sour grape or two in his heart, or maybe he was so crestfallen that he tried desperately to force the Lord’s hand, as it were, to appear again so that he too could see Christ, for this was his heart’s desire. So he made his famous statement that has ever since then earned him the moniker, The Doubting Thomas: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” I can imagine it being said with tears, not with defiance, with a longing to see what all the others had seen. It is painful and humiliating to be the only one out of the loop, the only one apparently judged unworthy of blessing, the only one missing out on the greatest imaginable and most desired experience.

Out of his love and compassion, and his desire to communicate an important lesson, Jesus appeared once again when Thomas was with the others. He again blessed them with peace, and then turned immediately to Thomas saying: “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.” The doubting Thomas became the believing Thomas, and to make up for his former lack of faith, he bequeathed the Church with the clearest expression of Christ’s divinity we can find in the Gospel: “My Lord and my God!”

Why did he say that—because Christ was risen from the dead? Or was it because Jesus heard Thomas’ expression of doubt when He wasn’t even there in the flesh? Only God could do that. Before Thomas could say anything, Jesus gave his own words back to him. It’s something like Nathanael under the fig tree—when he realized that Jesus told him something only he and God could have known, he cried out: “You are the Son of God!” Then Jesus said something crucial to our faith, and to that of all generations: “You believed because you have seen Me. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” These are words of which we have to remind ourselves every day. That’s because we don’t see, but are called to believe, and in that believing lies the blessing of God. Blessed are you who hear the Gospel and believe, who come to church to worship what you cannot see, and yet believe, who walk in apparent darkness, devoid of tangible experience, and yet believe, who see what seem to be contrary evidences, and yet believe. Blessed are you! exclaims the risen Lord.

We can see in the contrast of chapters 20 and 21 of this Gospel that Thomas was at the beginning of his relationship with Christ, and that Peter was more advanced. For Christ’s words to Thomas were a call to faith, but his words to Peter were a call to love. “Do not be faithless but believing,” Jesus said to Thomas. “Do you love Me?” He asked Peter. Evidently St Peter remembered all this, for in his first epistle, he writes not only that we are to believe without seeing but also to love without seeing: “Though you do not see Him, believe in Him and rejoice” and again: “without having seen Him, love Him.” I think it is easier to believe in someone you’ve never seen than to love someone you’ve never seen, for it requires a deeper opening of the heart, a fuller commitment of life. Someone can say, “I believe in God,” and not do much about it, but no one can say “I love God”—that is, in all sincerity and truth—and not manifest it in the way he lives, and in his entire world-view. A hypocrite may say he loves God, in pious affectation, but only by its fruits will true love be known.

So let us be willing to advance to the fullness of life in God and realize the blessing promised to those who believe without seeing, and then believe wholeheartedly. Let us open our hearts to Jesus’ peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of divine grace and love, who alone can lead us to that next and all-important level of our spiritual growth: not only to believe without seeing, but to love without seeing. Then we will know the full blessedness of the life of a disciple and friend of our risen Lord Jesus Christ, who is in our midst today saying: Blessed are those who do not see, and yet believe, who do not see, and yet love.