An ancient way of determining when a person had died was to hold a mirror under the person’s nostrils to detect any trace of moist air indicating that there was still some breath of life. Before modern methods of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, a person who had stopped breathing was simply allowed to slip away. In today’s Gospel, the risen Christ reinfuses the breath of life into the constricted lungs of the believing community, releasing them from the fear that choked their ability to breathe together and to live fully for his mission.
The frightened disciples are gathered behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” In the aftermath of Jesus’ execution, their fear is understandable—will they be next? In the fourth Gospel, “the Jews” is code language for anyone who does not believe in and who opposes Jesus, even though Jesus himself and all his first disciples are Jews. The object of their fear is those who are like them in heritage yet not like them in terms of belief in Jesus.
Sometimes what we fear most is seeing that which we do not want to face in ourselves reflected in “the other.” Into the midst of this fearful space Jesus enters, inviting his disciples to accept the peace he desires for them. It is not a peace that ignores the brutality inflicted on him, as he shows them the still visible wounds. It is a peace that recognizes full well the horror of what has occurred and results from a willingness to enter into processes of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation rather than retaliatory violence. An ability to see the wounds differently, not as something that needed to be avenged but as something that Christ was already able to heal with his peace and his spirit, enables the disciples to let their fear give way to joy.
What results is a rebirth of the community. Just as the Creator brings to life the first human being by breathing into its nostrils (Gn 2:7), so the risen Christ brings back to life the frightened community of his followers. This is not a painless process.
Recently, a friend suffered a collapsed lung. The intense pain he experienced when the lung was reinflated may be akin to the difficult process of transformation that Jesus’ disciples had to undergo. Before his death, Jesus spoke to them about this pain as birthpangs that would give way to joy when the new life emerged (Jn 16:20-22).
For some this rebirth takes place on the first day of the week after the resurrection. But not all are present and not all are moving to the same rhythm. The next week there are still some who are locked in their fear and who set up what may appear impossible conditions before they will come to believe. Thomas voices their doubts: They need to see with their own eyes and touch with their own hands. It is not so much a stubborn resistance to believe what others have experienced that Thomas expresses as it is the necessity for each one to come to faith through a direct, personal encounter with Christ.
There can be no secondhand faith. The testimony of other believers leads one to Jesus, but it does not substitute for the tangible experience of Christ needed by each one. The Gospel also allows that there are different ways that people come to faith: some through seeing, some without. Both are blessed. No matter how one comes to believe, it is with a “conspiratory” faith community—people who “breathe together” through the Spirit, who dissolves fear by the use of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.