The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Caravaggio, 1602, Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany.
Jesus said to [Thomas], “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” John 29:29.
Today’s readings are so rich a book could be written about them! Fear not, that will not be the case here…. Let’s take a look at today’s first reading, close to the opening of the Acts of the Apostles. Firstly, look at this: “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes.” This describes two actions, prayer in the holy temple in Jerusalem, and “breaking the bread” in their homes. These are the first converts to belief in Jesus as the true Messiah. Their prayer would be based on readings from Scripture. Remember that in these early days there was no Christian Scripture – it had yet to be written; the Old Testament is what they would have heard. So this was, in fact, the origin of the Liturgy of the Word, the first half of today’s Mass. Then because they could not celebrate the Eucharist (the “breaking of the bread”) in the temple, they adjourned to individual homes, the origin of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Secondly, look at what they were doing, “they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.” If you have ever read Karl Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party, you would know Marx would have recognized this as an early form of communism! “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” Marx said, and here it is among the very earliest Christians! Now don’t explode here; we still have this in our Church, and it is called monasticism. When I entered the Jesuits, I did this, as all monks and nuns and members of the various religious orders have done down through the centuries, given everything we have to the groups into which we went. The difference between us and the communists is that we all did it voluntarily! Unhappily, as we have become more and more materialist and rich, fewer have felt called to do this, but that’s another matter. The point is that this appeared very early in the Christian tradition. But even if not called to this type of life, we are all exhorted to sacrifice the fruits of our labor to help in the mission of the church as it reaches out to the less fortunate. As Christians we have such an obligation, and it is a lifetime obligation. “You will always have the poor among you” (Matthew 26:11) Jesus said, and so it is 2000 years later. These days, however, it is even more obvious with the coronavirus plague. Imagine what life must be like among penniless and desperate refugees with the additional threat of that hanging over them. We are obliged to help them as best we can.
And now that gospel demonstrating the “incredulity” (disbelief) of Thomas that Jesus could possibly be still alive. I suspect many of us, confronted by such a claim, would have had the exact same response! Then, of course, it happened. The risen Lord stood there, confronted poor Thomas, who may or may not have responded to Jesus’ invitation to examine the mortal wound in his side. But what Thomas then said to Jesus is unique in all of the New Testament: “My Lord and my God!” No-one else ever said that to him. Thomas’ doubt had vanished, replaced by adoration. And so all of us are blessed in our belief, taken from Jesus’ own words quoted at the top of this reflection.
There is more. The gospel makes a strong point about one thing; these followers of Jesus were terrified. John states not once but twice that “Jesus came, although the doors were locked…” Why were the doors locked? Well the common sense answer to that would be that, as followers of this would-be Messiah, they would also suffer the same terrible result as had happened to Jesus if they were found out. And who on earth would want that? In other words, the entire Christian church was huddled, terrified, in one small room in Jerusalem, fearing a Nazi-like pounding at the door, and all led away to be butchered. It was understandable. Although John has them receive the Holy Spirit in today’s gospel, nothing happens; they remain behind locked doors. We have to go to that same Acts of the Apostles to find out what happened next, but that comes later in the liturgical year!
Image of Divine Mercy, Chapel of the Gates of Dawn, Vilnius, Lithuania.
And finally, today we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. Remember the definition of mercy: Compassion on someone who does not deserve it. Jesus does not berate Thomas or criticize him in any way. He clearly understands him and accepts him. He does not condemn his disciples for being mice rather than men, locked away scared to death; Jesus is merciful. Everyone we know is deserving of our mercy. Mercy is close to forgiveness, though it is not the same thing. Compassion means pity, or sympathy or even empathy. It is the start of trying to understand another person, not condemn him or her. If this person is someone near to you, yet you are, say, estranged, mercy might allow you to see that person’s actions as regrettable but s/he deserves sympathy as his/her behavior might be the best of which that person is capable. It might be far from your or my best but mercy demands a different perspective, one that is more accepting. Perhaps they are incapable of anything better…
Final thought. It is interesting to note that even though the disciples had seen the risen Lord twice, they remained locked up, away from the world. The Resurrection was clearly not enough to strengthen their faith to confront any consequences. They remained terrified. So perhaps the lessons for us today are these: Doubt and questions, even fear, are absolutely normal and should be openly addressed. We are not made smaller or less because we question the elements of Christian faith. Indeed, doubt, if it exists, should be expressed and examined. What is the evidence for the truth in our Christian faith? How could it have persevered for 2000 years? Satisfying such questions will only strengthen our faith rather than destroy it. Today’s readings should be at least an encouragement for such thoughts, and they showed up even in Jesus’ inner circle! From today’s second reading:
Although you have not seen him you love him;
even though you do not see him now yet believe in him,
you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Jesus Appears to the Disciples Behind Closed Doors, Duccio, 1311, Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena, Italy.
Reflections on the following Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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