Second Sunday of Easter (Low Sunday). Fr Benjamin Earl warns us not to feel superior to ‘Doubting Thomas’.
If I told you that I had won the lottery last weekend you would probably not believe me. You know, probably, that the odds against that are 13,983,815 to 1, so it’s not very likely that I’m telling the truth. ‘Unless I see the winning ticket,’ you might say to me, ‘and touch it with my finger, and hold the jackpot cheque in my hand, I will not believe’.
And, of course, you would be quite right to be sceptical. All the time we have to make decisions about what to believe: we look for evidence and only believe when there is grounds for belief. We are, after all, rational creatures. We are supposed to consider available information, think, and believe only reasonable things. That is how God made us.
But at first sight today’s gospel might be taken to suggest that things are a little different when it comes to matters of faith in God himself.
‘Have you believed,’ Jesus asks Thomas, ‘because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ This verse can make modern Christians feel very good about themselves: we have not seen Jesus, and yet we believe; how much more blessed are we than Thomas, one of the twelve, who didn’t believe until he saw the risen Christ in the flesh. ‘Doubting Thomas’ we call him: the one who was ‘faithless’. Thank God we’re not like him!
Well hold on a moment… though we might like to think ourselves better than Thomas, we should ask ourselves if we, like Thomas, could say to our companions, ‘let us also go, that we may die with him,’ as Thomas did, only two weeks or so earlier. Thomas would have given his own life in the Lord’s service, even before seeing him risen from the dead. And after the resurrection, ancient tradition makes him one of the most successful of the apostles, taking the gospel as far as India, where finally he was martyred by being pierced in the side with a spear. Are we really better or more blessed than Thomas?
Now what odds would you give on someone rising from the dead? I suspect that they would be considerably longer than the fourteen million-to-one on my lottery ticket. Would any reasonable person believe someone had risen from the dead without some pretty incontrovertible evidence? Actually, I suspect not; even the other disciples needed Jesus to appear to them before they could tell Thomas that the Lord had risen. Thomas-already shown to be in fact one of the most faithful of the disciples-is only asking for reasonable evidence. Thomas, quite rightly, is not satisfied with ‘blind faith’, but seeks true faith.
Where, though, does this place the rest of us, who have not seen the risen Christ appear to us, who have not placed our fingers in the mark of the nails, who have not placed our hands in his side? Why do we believe without the incontrovertible evidence which Thomas and the other disciples had? Aren’t we being irrational, as many critics of our religious belief claim?
Jesus does ask that we believe in him, but he does not ask for blind faith. He does not leave us without what we need for true faith. In today’s gospel passage, St John is at pains to emphasise the wounds of Christ: first Jesus showed his disciples his hands and his side; then Thomas says he will not believe without touching his hands and placing his own hand in the Lord’s side; and finally Jesus appears, and invites Thomas to do just that. So three times John mentions Jesus’s hands and his side.
If we cast our minds back to Good Friday and John’s account of the passion, we remember that after he had died, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side, ‘and at once there came out blood and water.’ John then was at pains to point out the reliability of his source: ‘He who saw it has borne witness-his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth-that you also may believe’. Jesus’s wounds, in particular his side and the blood and water that flow from it, are central to our believing in Christ. It is into the source of the blood and water that Jesus invites Thomas to put his hand.
The water is taken to represent baptism, by which we are cleansed from sin. But also it is in baptism that we receive, sacramentally, the gift of true faith. In baptism we are touched by the water that flows from Christ’s side. We do not touch Christ’s pierced hands, but in baptism Christ himself acts, and he touches us with his pierced hands. In baptism we receive the grace of true faith, which makes our belief in the Lord reasonable.
The blood, on the other hand, represents the Eucharist, which provides our spiritual nourishment. We do not just touch the blood that flows from Christ’s side, but we are given it as a transfusion. And when we consume the sacrament, we are ourselves consumed, enveloped by Christ’s body, much as Thomas’ hand in Jesus’ side would have been enveloped by the Lord’s own flesh.
We who did not ourselves witness Christ’s bodily resurrection are indeed blessed, because we have been given these witnesses of water and blood. We did not see him with our eyes, but we do see him in the sacraments. We did not touch his hands, or put our hands in his side, but instead he touches us with his hands and places us in his side by the sacraments.
We are not like Thomas-wounds we cannot see. But Christ has given us, in his divine mercy, the sacraments of faith and of his risen body and blood. Enlightened by them, we too can believe Jesus Christ is our Lord and our God, and believing we may have life in his name.