It happened that one of the Twelve, Thomas (the name means "Twin”) was absent when Jesus came. The other disciples kept telling him: "We have seen the Lord!” His answer was, "I will never believe it without probing the nailprints in his hands, without putting my finger in the nailmarks and my hand into his side.”
A week later, the disciples were once more in the room, and this time Thomas was with them. Despite the locked doors. Jesus came and stood before them. "Peace be with you," he said; then, to Thomas: "Take your finger and examine my hands. Put your hand into my side. Do not persist in your unbelief, but believe!” Thomas said in response, "My Lord and my God!” Jesus then said to him: "You became a believer because you saw me. Blest are they who have not seen and have believed.” John 20:24:29
Entering the Scene
We return to the upper room a week later. Makes you wonder how that week was spent. The excited, "We have seen the Lord!’ indicates belief in the Resurrection but the locked doors also speak eloquently that those gathered there are not yet changed by this event. Has the whole community, except for Thomas, arrived at belief? If so, what position does this put Thomas in? What tensions might still exist among the rest of them? Or have they become reconciled in light of the peace Jesus extends to them? We can only imagine and know how we have struggled in much less trying circumstances.
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The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, c. 1601-02, by Michelangelo Caravaggio, 1573-1610, is a graphic depiction for us to consider. You may want to zoom in on this to catch the details. Here we have Thomas bent over to peer into the wound. Jesus has his left hand on Thomas’s right wrist and is guiding him into the wound. Thomas finger has penetrated Jesus’ flesh up to the second knuckle. We can see the skin stretched and bulging around Thomas’s finger. Two other men huddle over Thomas’s right shoulder, crowding in like boys in a school yard. They are much less taken with the presence of the Risen Christ than with the fascination of Thomas palpating the open flesh. But then, Jesus is not depicted here in risen glory. There is no halo, there is only raw and wounded human flesh. Other details add to the photograph-like reality of this scene—the ripped seam on Thomas’s shoulder, the dirt under his fingernails.
Did you have a visceral reaction to that? I did. This painting is so shockingly realistic that it pushes all kinds of buttons. By virtue of his realism, Caravaggio lures us into the scene as well. There is no upper room backdrop to give it a setting. It is lifted from historicity, as immediate and accessible to us as an open door. We cannot escape the attraction of the open wound and what is happening before us. The words of Jesus in the language of the old King James Version suffice here, "reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side”—thrust. Nothing polite or delicate about that.
Our reaction to this painting becomes a part of what informs, challenges, and inspires us. Painting in Italy during the Counter-Reformation, Caravaggio’s focus is decidedly more Catholic. Traditionally, Protestantism has interpreted the Doubting Thomas story with the emphasis on the next words of Jesus, "Do not persist in your unbelief, but believe!” Catholicism has historically seen this encounter as a biblical precedent for the physical experience of faith. You will find artwork of this story of both types—with and without Thomas actually "thrusting” or, even, touching Christ’s side. The Bible does not actually say whether he did as told or simply proclaimed his belief, "My Lord and my God!” Interesting how our theology informs imagination, and vice versa. We carry images without even recognizing from where they came. And sometimes they surprise us.
For the art history buffs among us, it is worth noting that Caravaggio was a controversial artist in his time for exactly the same reasons that cause our reactions these many centuries later. Halos, cherubs, and invading heavenly glory were by far, the more normal ways of depicting the sacred. Yet, people responded to the power of his art. He was a master of chiaroscuro, the use of deep variations in light and darkness to enhance and dramatize effect, something Rembrandt would later emulate and use to great advantage. Unfortunately, Michelangelo Caravaggio was a troubled and violent man with a history of assaults, including killing another man for which he had to flee Rome in 1606. He died in 1610, the exact cause unknown. His lifestyle caused him to be shunned after his death but he eventually became recognized as one of the founding fathers of modern painting and left us with some powerful art.
Getting into Character
For some of the apostles we have nothing but their name and little else. But the scriptures give us three revealing episodes about Thomas. In the first, while the others try to dissuade Jesus from going to Jerusalem, Thomas speaks, "Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn. 11:16). In the second Thomas challenges Jesus’ statement, "You know the way to the place that I am going,” when he says, "Lord, we don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way?” (Jn. 14:5). (Don’t you just love the guy who speaks up and asks what the rest of us were wondering but were afraid to ask?) Were it not for the outspoken doubt of Thomas in this episode, we would not have Jesus’ promise, "I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6). And of course, we have the third Thomas story that is the focus of our Station today. Collectively, these three episodes give us a Thomas who is a man of action, outspoken, impetuous, and sincere.
We actually know more about the later life of Thomas than we do of most the other apostles as well. The phrase, Doubting Thomas, comes from this gospel scene and it is this by which he is known even today. Yet he went on to live out his faith in remarkable ways. He is traditionally known as the Apostle to India, a claim that recent scholarship has proven to be credible. He went to bring the good news to the thriving Jewish community living there at that time. Trade routes were wide open during this period and an abundance of archeological evidence establishes the connections between the Roman Mediterranean and the sub-continent of India. It is indisputable that Christianity had a small but extremely early presence in India. As early as 140 AD, there were multiple churches in existence, many with books and relics that connect them to Thomas.
Some years ago, I was asked to preach at a nearby Presbyterian church on the Sunday when today’s Station was the Gospel reading. Being tasked with finding meaning for others compels you to take a fresh look at familiar Scriptures. Suddenly I heard, as if for the first time, "I will never believe it without probing the nailprints in his hands, without putting my finger in the nailmarks and my hand into his side.” These are not the words of a second hand witness! When Thomas gave voice to his raw emotion with the details he described, I realized that these are not the words of someone recounting what he’d heard from someone else. These are the words of someone who had seen with his own eyes! But how could that be? They fled. They all fled. The Scriptures are pretty clear on that: Mt. 26:56, Mk. 14:50. Luke has Peter follow at a distance to the house of the high priest (Lk. 22:54). John places at the cross, "the disciple whom me loved standing nearby" (Jn.19:26.) Where did Thomas and the others go? Did they go together or scatter like chaff before the wind?
Often on Lenten retreats that I lead, we are invited to consider that question. Sometimes we focus on how the women stayed when the men fled. And, yes, their fleeing was cowardly and shameful and, yes, the courage of the women is remarkable. But, then, the lower status of the women allowed them to be overlooked and to stand at both the cross and the tomb. We wonder, did the men return to the upper room? Did someone run to warn Lazarus who was also under the same threat of death? (Jn. 12:10). We can never really know, of course. But asking the question allows us to see these events in a new light. Listen to these words written by one of those on our retreat—words as imagined from the apostle Thomas:
He came, they said. While I was not there, he came. They were all changed, that’s for sure. The hysteria of the women has touched them as well. Just as well to miss that. Yes, but what I wouldn’t give for one more glimpse of him, as it was. Once more to have him at my side.
No. Nothing that ever once was can erase that last horrific scene. Yes, I’d fled, fled far and into the night after that scene in the garden. The rest it is a blur except for that one moment so stark and so real. Wrapped in beggar’s cloths, I had pressed forward on trembling legs and huddled at the edge of the crowd. Not too near, oh not too near lest I be seen. For one moment I dared unbend and lift my gaze to the distant hill. I will never forget what I saw. His slumped, mutilated body being taken from the cross. The wounds in his hands and feet, the gaping hole in his side. No, I will never forget. Never.
What is remarkable about this scene with Jesus and Thomas, and we may not notice at first, is what does not happen. There is no rebuke, no lecture, no guilt. During his ministry, Jesus frequently laments and even upbraids people, particularly his disciples, for their lack of faith. But not here. Everything about the Resurrection and the events that preceded it, was terrifying, unprecedented and incredibly taxing to these emotionally fragile and exhausted followers of Jesus. He shows here that he knows that. He has heard Thomas’s angry, painful words and offers only gentle mercy in reply, giving him what he asked for and needed. Even the way in which his hand in the picture, guides Thomas’s own, shows this.
There is a largess here that we may gratefully appropriate for ourselves. Faith and doubt do not stand in contrast to one another as an either/or, yes/no. They co-exist in tension. Perhaps in all of scripture the prayer with which it is easiest to identify is that spoken by the father who brings his mute son to Jesus for healing, "I do believe, help my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24). Those gathered in the upper room were not unlike any group that gathers on Sunday morning in church. We are all in various stages of belief and doubt. We are a community of people who believe, who doubt, who have questions, who have hope, who have come to find out. Thomas may be the most outspoken but he is not, essentially, any different.
Jesus offering Thomas his wounds is also an offering to us. For we are wounded people, people who try to hide our wounds, to ignore them, to stick a bandage upon them and hope that does it. Sometimes our wounds heal leaving scars that remind us of the past. Sometimes our wounds are not treated properly and fester inviting gangrene, physical or spiritual, to set in. Jesus does not hide his; he offers his. Henri Nouwen says in his classic, Wounded Healer, "If there is any posture that disturbs a suffering man or woman, it is aloofness.” "Thrust your hand into my side” is the opposite of aloofness and here, too, he has given us example. When our own wounds, whatever they are, become as Christ’s wounds, they have within them the capacity to be healed and to help heal others. We understand our human gift of compassion and its ability to touch others in a healing way. Carl Jung says, "Only the wounded physician heals.” Jesus here invites us into that awareness and acceptance of our woundedness.
But Jesus also invites us into a deeper spiritual reality wherein we recognize our wounds, our brokenness as sacred, as a place where we encounter Christ. Jesus takes us by the hand and invites us to gently probe our own wounds, to go to the places most in need of healing, the wounds that we bear and cannot deny, to revere these wounds as holy, to look upon them as God looks upon them. God does not wish us to be wounded but God loves even our wounds. What mother does not kiss her child’s hurts? With God this is more than scrapes and cuts. It is our deepest wounds that God embraces and loves. They become a place for us to encounter the love of God.
Bringing it Home
To reflect upon: 1. The words from Is 53:5, The Suffering Servant, may be more appropriate to the Crucifixion than the Resurrection but in this scene with Thomas, they become the focal point. A powerful contradiction exists between the wounds of Jesus and the healing those wounds bring about. Listen, see if it connects for you.
2. Look again at the tenderness in Jesus’ face as he guides Thomas’ hand in the Caravaggio picture. Can you imagine Jesus taking your hand and going with you into your own woundedness?
To reflection upon and share: 3. Do the words of Thomas about Jesus’ wounds strike you as those of a first-hand witness? Imagine what Thomas and, perhaps, the others, did after fleeing from the Garden. Try your hand at writing a scenario.
4. How have you experienced another’s compassion healing your woundedness? How have you been privileged to offer compassion to another in their need?
The following prayer was written for my retreat, "At the Foot of the Cross,” and was inspired by The Rhythm of Life Celtic Daily Prayer by David Adam
By the crown of thorns that pierced your head,
Give peace to the mentally ill, depressed and confused. By the whip that tore your flesh, Protect those scorned and tormented by others. By your seamless garment cast for by dice Bring wholeness to lives torn by gambling, drugs and other addictions. By the nails that pierced your hands and feet, Give healing to the crippled, the lame and physically challenged. By the vinegar offered to your parched lips, Refresh those who thirst for justice in the church and this world. By the cloak of John spread over your mother Safeguard all families and cover them with your love. By the spear that pierced your lifeless side, Direct all those who bear arms to guard those in need of protection and aid. By your blood and water shed, Renew each act of Eucharist. By the stone whereon your body was lain, Be a touchstone of the promise of eternal life. May the wood of the true cross be a splinter that lodges in each of our hearts causing us to feel and to bleed and to beat for others. May we never be more than a heartbeat away from the reality of your love poured out. Amen.