The Doubting Thomas, Bloch 1885, etching, Brigham Young Museum of Art, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA.
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Today’s gospel has one of the most fascinating stories in Scripture. It is very easy to identify oneself with the doubting Thomas in this passage. Absent at the risen Jesus’ first appearance to his apostles, Thomas declared outright to them: “Unless I see the mark 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.” Well, one can quite easily agree with that. Jesus had been cruelly put to death, the dead body taken down and placed in a tomb, and a stone rolled across its entrance. Pretty good proof the man was dead! Hence Thomas’ incredulity, as it is called. Even more understandable is his reaction at the appearance of the Lord in their midst and his direct address and invitation to Thomas to examine physically the wounds his body bore. Scripture does not tell us if Thomas did place his finger in the wound, but it does tell us that the man was overcome with emotion and basically collapsed in front of Jesus and uttered the words “My Lord and my God”, the one and only time in the gospels they were said. It was true! Jesus was alive! Indeed, nothing is impossible with God. We are dealing with the central, utterly essential Christian belief here. Without the Resurrection, Christianity is nothing. Without the Risen Lord, Christianity is simply a nice wind rustling through the centuries of time. Not much. With Jesus defeating death itself, Christianity is everything: the ultimate enemy is conquered, just as the prophecies had foretold. And here he was, confronting doubting Thomas face to face. No wonder the poor man fell to his knees! No-one had ever seen the like before; only God could do such a thing.
The author of this gospel, John, believed to be the John beloved of the Lord, would have been present at this scene as witness. By tradition he was imprisoned on the Greek island of Patmos (near what is now the Turkish coast), as he says in today’s second reading. It was there that he also authored the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse, which talks of the final time, the last judgement, in the most dramatic way. In this, he expands on the theme of the Risen Lord, and reports that the Lord said to him, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives. Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever. I hold the keys to death and the netherworld” (Revelation 1:18). John’s gospel begins with the famous line, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God…..” in other words, before all creation had come to be, God was present; and then his Book of Revelation ends when creation itself is judged, when time ends and the eternal reigns. In other words, John writes of the very beginning to the very end. And this from the only apostle who did not suffer a violent death because of his beliefs. He presumably died in prison on Patmos, but compared to the gruesome deaths of many of the others, he was fortunate.
St. John on Patmos, Velázquez 1619, The National Gallery, London, UK.
They had all suffered as a consequence of their belief in Jesus and not the Roman gods and goddesses who, the Romans believed, protected their empire. Hence those who did not worship them endangered the Empire and consequently were guilty of treason, the crime of endangering the state. So John was fortunate that he escaped the death of a traitor. Perhaps the Lord was merciful and protected him. Today is the Sunday of Divine Mercy, a very special quality of God. Shakespeare describes it as the gentle rain dropping from heaven, greater than the thronèd monarch, even greater than his throne; an attribute of God himself (Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 2). Mercy could be described as compassion towards someone who does not deserve it. And who among us deserves God’s compassion? Every one of us. We are all sinners in God’s eyes, some greater than others, but the smallest sin degrades us to being less than human, the Church’s famous “venial” sins. They have the potential to take root, grow, overcome us and drag us down to the depths, the infamous “mortal” sin, which kills the soul, and us. We are the guilty ones in committing sin, and it is up to us to realize it and do something about it. This is much easier when we are guilty of venial sin. Mortal sin is another matter, however, because those guilty of it are so blinded by their selfishness that they see no need to reform. Their world is entirely themselves, no room for others (except in any way they can be used by that person) and certainly no room for God. So the merciful God must simply wait and hope! God has done everything to help them, us, even sending his own Son to us to show us how to live a proper life no matter the challenges. So we should be thankful that the eternal God offers mercy in abundance should we so acknowledge that, and respond accordingly. For those lost, self-locked in to mortal sin, it is my belief that their eternity, their punishment, is themselves alone, fully conscious, forever. A lonely, unchanging, solitary, eternal, locked-in Hell. And one small step into God’s mercy would have saved them. Today, the Sunday of Divine Mercy, we can all pray that the mortally sinful will respond to God’s generosity. We can also pray for ourselves, our families and friends, rejoicing in God’s generosity, responding to it by ourselves living a life of generosity towards others, and thereby enjoying the truly happy open life of God’s children.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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