Saturday, April 6, 2013

For Thomas, an encounter that changes everything

This Sunday is the Second Sunday of Easter, which, since Bl. Pope John Paul II declared it such in 2000, is also Divine Mercy Sunday. Our Gospel reading for this day, the day that brings the Easter Octave to its end, is from the Gospel According to St. John and features the encounter of St. Thomas the apostle, who famously refused to believe the Lord was risen from the dead unless he saw Him with his own eyes and felt the wounds for himself. Without a doubt and rightly so, most homilies will deal with belief and faith, taking the words of our Resurrected Lord, "Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed" (v. 29b), as the key phrase and working from there. In our relativistic, skeptical, even cynical age, this remains an important exposition.

In light of it also being Divine Mercy Sunday, I want to focus on the great mercy, even tenderness, Jesus shows to His doubting follower. Even in saying to Thomas that he has believed because he saw and going on to note that blessed are those who believe without seeing, Jesus does not rebuke Thomas. Rather, along with the other disciples, the Lord sends him. In fact, the best definition of the word "apostle" is "one who is sent." This is why Tradition calls St. Mary Magdalene apostula apostulorum (i.e., "apostle to the apostles") because after encountering the Risen Jesus, He sends her to tell the others what she has seen.

Earlier in this same chapter, specifically in the verse just prior to the one that begins today's Gospel, we read: "Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord'" (v. 18). This proclamation constitutes the apostolic message that St. Thomas (yes, we venerate him as a saint!) will bear. Tradition hands on to us (traditio and tradere, deriving as they do from the same Latin root, can refer both to what is handed on, as well as to the act of handing on - think of the beginning of the fifteenth chapter of St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, where he writes, "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received" [v. 3]). Tradition hands on to us that St. Thomas went far afield, outside of the Roman Empire, and preached the Gospel and established the Church as far away as India, where he is highly revered to this very day.

Thomas, the twin (i.e., Didymus), was struck, even wounded, by his encounter with the Risen Lord. I think Thomas was struck more by what he felt, when he put his finger into the wounded flesh of Jesus Christ, than by what he saw. This is how, at least to my mind, St. Thomas becomes something like the patron saint of post-modernity: he can conceive of reality in nothing but a reductive way, by reducing reality to his measure. He cannot conceive that the One he followed, who was crucified and who died, is now risen from the dead. But Jesus' wounds are what make it real to the one who doubted. Why? Because Jesus' wounds correspond to Thomas' need. Comprehending for the first time this correspondence caused Thomas to exclaim: "My Lord and my God!" A similar encounter, more than two millennia later, caused another to exclaim, which exclamation, like Thomas' has resonated, "Jesus, I trust in You."

In the end, St. Thomas is not the post-enlightenment Humean empiricist we often mistake him for, but a man with a need, a person, like of all of us, whose great need constitutes his very person-hood. Was it not his felt need that impelled him to follow Jesus in the first place? When he (finally) experienced the encounter in which he (finally) recognized that Jesus is the One, the only One, who corresponds to his need, it changed everything! As Benedict XVI wrote at the beginning of his first encyclical Deus caritas est: "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (par. 1).

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