The regularity of ritual as God’s helping hand
Seeing is believing, sometimes. In this Sunday’s Gospel, Thomas struggles to believe his companions’ news of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus confronts Thomas’s profound statement of belief now that the risen Lord has appeared to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?” (Jn 20:29). One manner to interpret the Gospel of John is to view the many “signs” in the book as an opportunity for people to witness Jesus’ power, which then provides an opportunity to believe. These signs have been the selected readings during Lent in the healing of the blind man and the raising of Lazarus from the dead. This scene between Jesus and Thomas, however, speaks to the need for repeated ritual in the lives of believers from the first century and those who try to keep the faith today.
I was hard pressed and was falling, but the Lord helped me. (Ps 118:13)
What is a daily ritual that might help your faith journey?
What is a weekly ritual in your family or community that helps you to believe?
What is an annual ritual that provides meaning to your faith experience?
In a remarkable turn of events, one of the last scenes in the Gospel of John actually reverses the idea that seeing is believing. Jesus responds to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (Jn 20:29). In other words, those who read John’s Gospel from the beginning will discover at the end that its purpose is to provide evidence to those who have not seen but feel called to believe.
In addition to reading a written text, another way to reinforce faith appears in this Sunday's first reading. The author of Acts writes, "They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers" (Acts 2:42). Such ritual, practiced regularly, also nurtured the belief of the early community of believers and responded to the temptation to doubt. The Acts of the Apostles mentions these ritual practices frequently, noting again in Acts 2:46, "Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes." This regularity kept the flame of faith burning, even though they could not see the Risen Lord as they once did.
When Jesus ends his discussion with Thomas by saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed,” he is proposing that a new kind of sight is needed for Thomas’s faith. The physical senses on which Thomas relied before will no longer respond to his doubts. The church responded to doubt with frequent re-telling of accounts of Jesus' life as well as ritual practices and prayers that reinforced faith. These things remain key for us today. These are the tools God gives the church to build up the faith of believers, and they add a layer of meaning to the words of the psalmist, "I was hard pressed and was failing, but the Lord helped me" (Ps 118:13).
This Easter might be a good time to recommit to one’s faith through the regularity of ritual, be it daily Scripture, prayer, meditation, or some other practice. The simple movement of such rituals can help keep the mystery of Easter alive and far from doubt.