Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe
I don’t know about you, but when I imagine the scene from John 20:19-31, I don’t think Jesus is giving St. Thomas a hard time. I think he’s encouraging him, consoling him.
Think about it: Your friend, the man you loved, your teacher, has just been arrested, tortured and killed. This just happened. Today is Sunday. He was arrested on Thursday, killed on Friday. It just happened. You’re devastated. On top of that, you’re terrified because the people who killed him will probably come and kill you next.
The Gospel tells us that the disciples were hiding with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish authorities. They were terrified. So, you’re devastated, sad, and terrified, and on top of that, this guy who you thought was the Messiah, the Christ – you staked your life on that – turns out that he wasn’t. He’s dead. You left everything to follow him and now what? You just wasted the last three years of your life. How are you going to go back home now? What are you going to tell your wife and family? You feel like an idiot, like a loser, like you’ve been taken in. Imagine the shame. And now these women (women were not considered credible witnesses at the time) say that the tomb is open and the body is gone. They’ve stolen his body...
That’s not un-belief or cynicism. That’s reality. All of us would come to the same conclusion. There’s nothing wrong with Thomas not believing. In fact, none of the disciples believed without seeing.
In the Gospel of Matthew, it says that even after they had seen Jesus (Mt.28:17), some worshiped him but some doubted. After they had seen him; they doubted. In the Gospel of Mark it says that no one believed Mary Magdalene when she said she had seen Jesus. They would not believe it (Mk 16:11). When Jesus appears to them he “upbraids them for their lack of faith and stubbornness” (Mk. 16:14). In the Gospel of Luke; same thing: The women say they saw angels and that Jesus is alive. But “to the disciples this seemed like an idle tale and they did not believe them” (Lk 24:11). Then it says that Peter got up and went to the tomb and it doesn’t say that he believed. It only says that he was amazed (Lk 24:12). Did he believe? I don’t know but when Jesus appears to them they thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus says, “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts? (Lk. 24:37). And in John’s Gospel, Peter and John (or the beloved disciple) run to the tomb and it says that John “saw and believed” (Jn. 20:8). It doesn’t say that Peter believed. Then it adds that they "did not yet understand".
You know what? None of them believed without seeing. Why do we pick on poor Thomas for not believing? He was just like everyone else. They saw and touched and then believed. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with wanting to understand.
While working on our Creation
series, I was at a faith and science event at the University of St. Thomas
in Houston (named after the famous unbeliever) a few years ago and I was speaking to a physicist and astronomer who works with the Hubble Telescope. He’s a Catholic and he said that he believed in the resurrection because of evidence. Evidence? Really? What evidence? He said that we had the evidence of the first-hand testimony of credible witnesses.
And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. When there is a trial – we watch them on Law and Order all the time– if there’s been a murder, for example, there’s physical evidence: DNA evidence or the murder weapon. Then there’s circumstantial evidence; evidence that we can deduce by logic, motive; and then there are witnesses. If someone actually witnessed the crime, “I saw the man pull the trigger; and it’s that man sitting right there,” that’s considered evidence. And then it’s up to the defense and the Crown or District attorneys to show whether these witnesses are credible or not.
Well, we have the credible first-hand testimony of witnesses to the resurrection. The Book of Acts tells us the disciples were looked upon with high esteem and they were baptising new Christians by the thousands (Acts 5:12-16). Why? ‘Cause they were authentic, credible witnesses. And what was their testimony? "This man was dead, and now he’s alive." That was the first confession of our Faith. Today's first reading (2nd Sunday
, Easter, Cycle B: Acts 4:32-35) says that "with great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great favour was accorded them all."
In fact, if you read the Book of Acts, every time someone is professing the Faith, that’s what they say, “Jesus was dead, he died, he was crucified; and God raised him from the dead; He is alive.” It was only later that the longer creed was developed. All the early professions of Faith were simply that.
And we profess that at every Mass too: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. In fact, it’s called the Profession of Faith. The priest says, “The mystery of Faith” and we all respond, “We proclaim your death, oh Lord and profess your resurrection, until you come again.” That’s the earliest profession of Faith.
I started thinking about this after Pope Francis’ first homily. It was very short – he spoke about three words: walking, building and confessing – a whole theology of life right there in those three words: walking, building and confessing. And I started thinking about “confessing.” What does that mean? What does it mean to confess our faith? Most of us are OK with learning about our Faith, living our Faith, and even sharing our Faith – but do we confess our Faith? Do we profess that Jesus was dead and now he’s alive? We’re ok professing it at Mass, but do we profess it when we leave the church building?
We can make that profession of Faith because we have evidence. We have witnesses like Thomas. So why does it sound like Jesus is giving Thomas a hard time for not believing? “Blessed are those who have not seen, and still believe.” It’s because that statement is not for Thomas. It’s for us. It’s for all the people who were reading the Gospel when it was first written. Remember that the Gospel of John was written about 70 years after the resurrection. All the first-hand witnesses had already died. And the early Christians were persecuted. The gospels were written to encourage them, to give them hope. That’s why John's gospel has Jesus giving them peace. In other Gospels he says, “Don’t be afraid.”?
That message is for us today: If you’re afraid, if you’re struggling with doubt, have peace, don’t be afraid. Jesus is alive. He has triumphed over death. Have faith. In today's second reading from 1 John 5:1-6, we hear that "the victory that conquers the world is our faith."
And it is not a blind faith. There’s a saying that says that Faith isn’t believing that God can do something; it’s knowing that He will. There’s a certainty in Faith. And it's a certainty based on trust.
This may seem a bit strange to you because we’re always hearing about how Faith has to be blind or that we have to believe without seeing, but think about it, we actually live by this kind of Faith every day. Do you believe that there is a $1000 bill? Have you ever seen one? Do you believe that there are black holes in space? Do you believe that there is dark matter? Do you believe that pi is 3.14159? Do you believe that climate change is a problem, or that it isn’t a problem? If you trust the news source, you’re going to believe the news. We do this all the time: we believe in things that people that we trust tell us.
Do we believe that the Church is a credible witness? Do we have a relationship with the Church that shows us that the Church is a credible witness, so we can believe everything that the Church teaches: That Jesus is present in the Eucharist; that Mary was conceived without original sin; that our sins are forgiven at Confession; that Marriage is a free, faithful, fruitful, total covenantal union between one man and one woman? Do we believe that the Church is a credible witness, or do we need physical evidence?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that: “Believing is not contrary to human freedom nor to human reason” (n. 154). And Pope Benedict in the document that kicked-off the Year of Faith, Porta Fidei, says that we have to understand Faith. If we can understand Faith, it means that it can’t be completely blind.
Thomas and the disciples believe because they saw and touched. The apostle John says, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 Jn. 1:1). Thomas believed that Jesus was alive because he saw and touched him. The disciples saw and believed so that you and I can believe without seeing.
But Thomas is blessed for believing something without seeing: When he sees Jesus, he says, “My Lord and my God.” This is the only time in all of Scripture that someone calls Jesus God. He can see Jesus and so believes in the resurrection, but he cannot see God, but still, he believes that Jesus is God. And that’s his confession of Faith.
Do you know that at Mass during the Consecration when the priest raises the host and the chalice and says, “Do this in memory of me,” we should respond with the words of Thomas, “My Lord and my God”? In fact, at that moment, the priest genuflects and he says that silent prayer, “My Lord and my God.” And that’s also the appropriate response for us. And it doesn’t have to be quiet. I don’t know if you learned to do this, but if not, starting today at Mass, this is what you should respond, “My Lord and my God.” And today when you go to Mass do something else: When you receive the Eucharist, when you drink from the Cup, make your confession of Faith. Respond with the words of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” Make that your profession of Faith, so that we can go out there and be credible witnesses so that others can come to believe too.
Photo: Dylan Martinez/CNS