The Touch of the Word
Second Sunday of Easter (Low Sunday). Fr John Patrick Kenrick preaches on the doubts of Saint Thomas and the mercy of God.
Saint John tells us that, on the same day that the disciples first hear about the resurrection, Jesus himself appears to them and gives them the power to forgive sins. Thomas is not present and he refuses to believe that Jesus has really appeared. He will only believe if he is able to touch the very wounds of the body that was crucified.
Eight days later Jesus appears again and the sceptic is transformed into a great witness of the resurrection and Christ’s divinity.
Thomas is a curiously attractive character because he is utterly human in his frailty and yet, we sense in those words ‘My Lord and my God’ that there is in him a great desire, a great faith, a great love just waiting to burst forth.
When Thomas first refused to believe, he was not refusing to believe that the disciples had seen something unusual; his was a much more specific denial — he was refusing to believe in the real presence of Christ’s body, a body whom they could touch.
Jesus says, happy are those who have not seen and yet believe; in other words, happy are those who have only heard about the good news and still believe. Daniel Barenboim in his second Reith lecture draws our attention to the relationship between the sense of hearing and the sense of touch. Sound seems to touch us because a sound penetrates to the inner person in a way that a visual image does not.
We could say that there is also a theological dimension to this observation. When a person hears the word of God spoken that word is also able to penetrate to the core of a person’s soul and resonate there. It can touch a person’s soul as truly as Thomas touched the side of Christ. Of course a person can still choose between rejecting the word of God and allowing himself to be touched by it.
So Thomas’s scepticism draws our attention to an important truth. People say that seeing is believing, but actually that’s not strictly true. It would be better to say that hearing is believing. Hearing is really very like touch. If the other disciples, those who first saw Jesus, had indeed only seen him perhaps Thomas would have been justified in being rather sceptical.
Of course we know from this Gospel that Jesus in fact spoke to them. Perhaps some of them also touched his body. So there is a hidden irony in this passage. Thomas refuses to be touched by what his fellow disciples recount but still wants to touch the living Christ. He shuts his ears to the truth and yet, in a way his own words testify that he eagerly yearns to believe. He does not want to be deceived yet the desire for a personal revelation and independent proof reminds us of that human tendency to individualism, that alienation from community, that has been responsible down the centuries for sectarianism and the privatization of religion.
When Jesus says ‘You believe because you see’, the stress is on the word you. Thomas is unwilling to trust even his closest companions. He still has to discover the Easter truth that Christ and his fellow disciples are now one body.
Today is Mercy Sunday. We are being reminded of the power to forgive sins that Christ has bequeathed to his Church. Sadly, some Christians do not take Jesus at his word. Just as they refuse to believe that he really meant those words ‘this is my body, this is my blood,’ so too, they doubt this power to forgive sins. But this is one way in which Christ touches us. His Spirit touches our wounds, the wounds of sin that we have inflicted on ourselves.
In the sacrament of reconciliation God’s Spirit enters us to heal us just as the Word of God entered our sinful world to heal it. At this time of the year Christians should avail themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation. No one should fear going to confession and presenting Christ with those self-inflicted wounds we call sins. He has shown us his wounds and so he knows our failings all too well. Today we are reminded that everything and anything can be forgiven by our all loving and all merciful God.