Thomas's Doubt, and Ours
The complex figure of the "doubting" apostle.
At my grandfather’s urging, his first four male grandchildren were named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This was a peculiar request for a man who never went to church, but it was honored, although any hope these namesakes would have lives of good faith was to remain unfulfilled. Long after the fact, male grandchild number five came along, and having exhausted all the evangelists they moved on to the other apostles. Thus, I wound up as Thomas.
As a young man I liked the cut of St. Thomas. Here was a man who needed to see things with his own eyes. None of this “accepting things on faith.” He knew what kind of pre-pentecost slackers his fellow Eleven were, arguing over who was greatest in the kingdom, offering to make tents at the Transfiguration, asking endless foolish questions. Their designated leader pretended he didn’t even know the Lord. Why on earth should Thomas take their word for anything?
But Thomas isn’t the Apostles for the Age Doubt he may seem on the surface. There’s something deeper than “Doubting Thomas” in this saint, so let’s roll back the clock a bit and see who Thomas is, what happened after the resurrection, and what his story offers to us today.
We all remember Thomas demanding physical proof of the resurrection, but often forget his first words in scripture, found in John 11:16. The context is important considering what will happen later. Lazarus is dead, and Jesus, in spite of the threats to his life, intends to go to Judea to awake him from the sleep of death. Even though Jesus may be stoned by the Jews, he will go to witness to the light and to offer a foretaste of the resurrection. In the face of this danger, Thomas urges the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
It’s a brash statement, like Peter’s insistence that he would never deny the Lord. We can fairly assume that Thomas, at the point of decision, might flee danger, as the apostles scatter at the crucifixion. But there’s bravery in these words, and a desire to be with The Lord even unto death. It’s also telling that Thomas, who is not present at the resurrection of Jesus, is willing to face death to be present at the resurrection of Lazarus.
In his next appearance in John, Thomas prompts Jesus to utter one of the definitive statements of His divinity by asking “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14:5-6) Thomas is trying to understand, trying to grasp this new truth, but like the others, he is puzzled and his faith is not strong.
And now we turn to the final place in scripture where Thomas speak, the scenes of his doubt in John 20:24-29. To really understand, however, we have to look at the scene right before it.
When Jesus comes to the closed room and appears among the apostles, what actually happens? What does he do? “He showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” (John 20:20)
First, he shows them his wounds. Then they are glad. They aren’t “glad” when Jesus appears and says “Peace be with you,” but when they see his wounds. When Thomas asks to see the wounds of Jesus, he is asking for the very thing he missed by being absent. He is asking for what the others already received.
Why are the wounds so important? More to the point, why does Jesus even bear wounds? The Church Fathers pondered this deeply. Resurrection and healing should take away our physical infirmities. Life is restored to Lazarus. The withered hand is made sound. Clouded eyes are cleared so they can see. Why then does the risen Lord still bear His wounds?
St. Cyril of Alexandria, among others, suggests the wounds are there to testify to the passion and its saving power. They are not a necessity, but a reminder that it was a True Man who underwent this suffering. In the words of Cyril, “He wished to satisfy the holy angels that He was, in fact, a Man, and that He had undergone the Cross for us, and that He was risen again to life from the dead, Christ was not content with mere words, but showed unto them the marks of His suffering.”
Jesus appears to Thomas and urges him to probe these wounds, offering him the very thing he missed during the earlier appearance. Scripture is silent on whether he did probe the wounds, and the Church Fathers are divided on the subject. The only time the word "nail" appears in the New Testament is in this passage.
Cyril sees in this offer to handle His flesh a symbol of the Eucharist. At Mass, Christ appears in our midst, as though by a miracle, and invites us, as he did at the last supper, to take His flesh into our hands.
“He suffers us to touch His holy Flesh, and gives us thereof. For through the grace of God we are admitted to partake of the blessed Eucharist, receiving Christ into our hands, to the intent that we may firmly believe that He did in truth raise up the Temple of His Body.” (Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel according to St. John, vol. 2)
There’s another important point about the appearance of Jesus to Thomas. We remember what the apostles were like before the resurrection and before Pentecost. Clueless, bumbling, frightened, foolish: they’re us. But what did Jesus do while Thomas was absent? He gave them their commission, he initiated the sacrament of reconciliation, and “he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
So the Thomas who doubts is the Thomas who missed all this. It is the Thomas who has not received the spirit, or his holy commission. Without the prompting of the spirit, can any of us be moved to faith?
Yet with the prompting of the spirit, Thomas expresses the most complete and profound statement in any of the gospels, saying, “My Lord and my God!”
Certainly, Thomas’s doubt earns him a rebuke from Jesus, but also prompts a new beatitude that calls to all Christians to come. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Thomas, then, because all of us. This is the challenge every Christian must face. I’m no better than my namesake. We all doubt. We’re 2000 years removed from the apostle who demanded to see the evidence of the resurrection with his own eyes and touch it with his own hands, but not 2000 years better or smarter. There are times when I’d like say, Jesus, just show me already. Stop hiding.
And in those times, strangely enough, I am shown. If I choose to look, then I’m shown the wounds of His flesh in the suffering of mankind, and their healing in the people of faith who respond to that suffering. A lance is driven straight through the heart of the world. At some point we all feel the piercing nails. If we care to touch the suffering Christ, all we need to do is reach out the person next to us. And if we hope to help them, the first step is to join Thomas and fall to our knees, calling on the One who heals all wounds, Our Lord, Our God.