An Easter Image
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe. A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you. Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Yes, this is the story of “doubting” Thomas, who became proverbial. But what exactly did he doubt? His friends had told him of a vision of Jesus. Probably he had no doubt that they had seen something. His society was more tolerant of visions than ours; so we was not calling them liars, but rather questioning their interpretation of whatever had appeared to them. Maybe they’d had a real spiritual experience, but why call it Jesus. Many of us, after all, have seen, felt, the presence of a recently dead loved one.
Thomas is presented in John’s gospel as a not very religious man. When Jesus insisted that he should go to Lazarus’ house near Jerusalem where he might be captured, Thomas thought it was daft, but told the others, “Let’s go and die with him.”
So he was perhaps a bit sceptical about the vision of Jesus.
But then Jesus appears to him. Perhaps his brain has also gone soft? So Jesus makes him see and feel the marks of his identity, the wounds of crucifixion. The risen body is identical with the tortured body. This satisfies Thomas. His Lord and God is not any spiritual experience, however spectacular, but the carpenter from Galilee, with his all his radical commitments that got him killed, intact.
Of course, the story itself is a piece of magical realism rather than a factual report, but it illustrates the care taken by the first believers to distinguish their trust in Jesus from any sort of religious emotionalism. This faith isn’t pie in the sky but living soberly with wounds. It’s not even overcoming the wounds but living with them, through them, in their wisdom, now that they are seen as signs of victory rather than defeat.
This explains the otherwise bizarre fact that the image of Christian faith was an instrument of imperial torture. As Lenny Bruce asked, “If Jesus comes back, you think he’s gonna be pleased to see all these crosses?” Still, this sign arises from the conviction that faith is to do with politics, beatings, oppressions and messy dying, just as much as, or more than, hymn-singing and prayers. Whatever hope comes from beyond us it doesn’t leave earthly reality and pierced hands behind.
Caravaggio’s picture says it so well: look at that Glaswegian finger poking the wound!
In winter the gorse bush is mainly bare thorns, but in the last few weeks it is transformed. It doesn’t stop being a thorn bush, just try walking through it, but it becomes glorious: a crown of thorns that blossoms.