For those who have made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the stress on what Ignatius calls repetitions initially seems tedious. Ignatius exhorts the retreatant to repeat and spend days or more on the same meditation asking whether he or she feels consolation or desolation or arrives at some new insight. The Sunday readings from Easter to Pentecost are similar. Continuous progression of a particular Gospel is not stressed, but repeating and reliving the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, who continues to live in the church. Departing from the usual practice of beginning with Old Testament readings, the initial readings on these Sundays are from Acts and provide vignettes of the initial flowering of the church, a church so led by the Holy Spirit that the Book of Acts has sometimes been called the Acts of the Holy Spirit. The second readings in cycle C present sections of the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse), which assure a persecuted community of the reign of Christ in glory.
The Easter eve appearance to the disciples and the appearance to Thomas a week later bring the Easter octave to a close in all three cycles. The 1998 revision of the Sunday Lectionary lost an opportunity by not including the appearance to Mary Magdalene (Jn. 20:11-18) in the Easter readings, since it is integral to John’s dramatic unfolding of the resurrection appearances. The Gospel today tells how Jesus comes to the fearful disciples on Easter eve. He twice blesses them with the gift of peace, which in the Bible is the opposite of fear, and fulfills his earlier promise that he will send the Paraclete (the advocate and consoler). They are to be the nucleus of a community of forgiveness that sends sin away (the literal meaning of forgive) and is able to hold back its destructive power.
The narrative of doubting Thomas, an early precursor to those living in the Show Me state, is unique among the resurrection appearances. When the other disciples repeat the same words of Mary Magdalene, We have seen the Lord, Thomas scoffs and says that he will not believe without touching the wounds of Jesus. Suddenly Jesus appears and invites Thomas to do just what he demanded, saying, Do not be unbelieving, but believe. Whether or not Thomas touched the wounds the text does not say, but he immediately answers, My Lord and my God.
Thomas, like many of the characters in John, is representative or symbolic. In the story of the empty tomb, the beloved disciple by arriving at the tomb first is symbolic of the love that drives him to believe without actually seeing. Mary Magdalene symbolizes another form of love, which continually seeks to embrace Jesus only to be given a deeper challenge to her faith, that Jesus will assume a new mode of presence and that she is to announce this to his brothers. Thomas symbolizes those who are ready to believe in the resurrection, but on their own terms. Journeys to faith wind throughout John’s Gospel (the Samaritan woman, the man born blind and Martha of Bethany). These culminate in Jesus’ words to Thomas, Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed. The final verses before the appendix of John 21 are the Evangelist’s living legacy. The written words of his story are to lead people to faith and belief as powerfully as did the resurrection appearances, and such a journey will culminate in the gift of life.
Thomas, the twin, has many brothers and sisters in today’s church. Resurrection faith is crucial, but often we want to believe on our own terms. Shortly after Vatican II, I was giving some lectures on the resurrection accounts, and a priest said to me, Father, unless you can prove to me that Jesus rose from the dead, I cannot be a Christian. In my younger, more uncharitable days, I responded, If I can prove to you that Jesus rose from the dead, you should not be a Christian. Resurrection remains that mystery, ever awesome and ever engaging, that invites us to faith but eludes certainty.
The image of Thomas standing before Jesus, garbed not in the glowing white robe of popular art but with gaping wounds, is powerful for the church today. Archbishop Rembert B. Weakland, O.S.B., of Milwaukee tells young students inquiring about the deepest meaning of Catholicism to work one night a week in a soup kitchen and to attend Sunday Eucharist. The wounds of Christ mar his body as the broken and homeless shuffle forward for some meager sustenance, while breaking bread at liturgy re-enacts his broken body on the cross. Yet at both meals we are summoned to affirm, my Lord and my God. Truly blessed are those who have not seen but have believed.