Doubting Thomas - Caravaggio
In the gospel today (John 20.19-31) we read that the doors were closed. We have here a picture of the fledgling Church – the disciples, and possibly Mary too (see Acts 1.14). There is a difference between a church and a sect. A sect of a group of people who have turned away from the world and who huddle together for comfort. At this point the disciples were in danger of becoming a sect, shutting off the world and having nothing to do with it. The doors of their minds were closed. The doors were closed for fear of the Jews. We need to read this carefully because such texts have sometimes been twisted to justify antisemitism. Remember that the disciples, too, were Jews. Here it means something more like fear of the authorities. Perhaps we might look at ourselves. What authorities do we fear? There are the authorities of the crowd, of fashion, of popular opinion, the media. It takes courage to resist this tide, but can we be Christians if we are swept away by every passing wave? What makes the difference in that room is that Jesus makes himself known. The presence of Christ, and his word of peace, gives the Church the courage to face outwards. From now on the doors will be open to the world without fear.
Now let’s look at Thomas. His voice is very much a voice from our own age too. People around us are sceptical as never before. They want to put God under the microscope and to be convinced, as if God could be shrunk into our powers of understanding. Of course, it can never be so. But look at what Christ does. He shows his wounds to Thomas. It is a moment of moving vulnerability. Christ does not overwhelm Thomas with a display of power or a miracle. Jesus shows no anger towards Thomas, instead he shows the marks of suffering. These are the marks of authenticity.
Jesus does not condemn Thomas’s demand for proof. To have faith does not mean that we do not have questions. In fact, I would say that faith and questions go together. We look on the pain of the world, and we ask sometimes, where is God? Perhaps we ask the wrong question. Sometimes as we look on how human beings treat one another we should ask, not where is God, but where is humanity? Christ does not rebuke the doubt of Thomas. He speaks to Thomas’s questions, not with a learned treatise, but with an invitation to feel his wounds. Jesus is inviting Thomas to something deeper than logical proof. He is inviting him to enter imaginatively into his suffering. The Church has always been more convincing when it has followed Christ in the way of the cross, when it has been close to suffering people and when it has known suffering itself.
Finally we hear the words of Christ: Doubt no longer but believe. Questions have their place, but there comes a time when we must make an affirmation of faith. To go on questioning forever is an adolescent trait. Thomas, after all, could have continued doubting and could have asked for more proof, for proof, in fact, that this was not a hallucination. Instead he chooses: My Lord and my God are his words. This scene gives us the Church. A fellowship of believers who encourage one another. A place where questions can be asked and answers sought. Where Jesus is acknowledged as Lord and God, and we become disciples ourselves, touching the world’s suffering and longing to do what we can to bring healing and help.
Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of St Mary's, East Finchley, in north London. For Eastertide you might find useful the palm-size book of meditations which he wrote to accompany the icons of the resurrection painted by the Russian-trained iconographer Caroline Lees. The book is beautifully illustrated. It is called The Way to Life (St Paul's Publishing: ISBN 085439 721 3) and carries a foreword by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.