Sunday, April 7, 2013

Because You Have Seen Me

Following Jesus’ death and burial, the Apostles were left adrift—the One who had been their focus and point of reference through years of travel and trials was gone: “God, it seemed had become silent, he no longer spoke to them, and his help to understand the unfolding of history was no longer forthcoming… they no longer had the ability to see things from the perspective of the future; they could see no escape from the catastrophic situation in which all their illusions had come tumbling down” (Cardinal Carlo Martini, OurLady of Holy Saturday). The disappointment and disillusionment of Good Friday had not yet been transformed  by the light of Easter. Should it be any wonder that Thomas, who had been absent at the time of Jesus’ first appearance to the Apostles, would still be beleaguered by Holy Saturday sadness? Can we really fault him for wanting to verify in a personal, concrete way the fantastic tale of resurrection being told by Mary Magdalene and the others?

With these same themes in mind, Pope Francis recently reflected, “Doesn’t the same thing also happen to us when something completely new occurs in our everyday life? We stop short, we don’t understand, we don’t know what to do. Newness often makes us fearful, including the newness which God brings us, the newness which God asks of us” (Homily for the Easter Vigil, 2013).

Although Thomas did not believe in the resurrection of the Lord, he remained faithful to the call he had received from Jesus—the call to be one of the community of the Apostles. Thomas’ faith would not initially allow him to believe that the others had seen the Lord, but he did not lose faith in their fraternity and it was in and through that community that the Lord appeared to him and strengthened his faith. In The Genesee Diary, Henri Nouwen reflected that, “Dydimus, the name of Thomas, means ‘twin,’ as the Gospel says, and that the fathers had commented that all of us are ‘two people,’ a doubting one and a believing one. We need the support and love of our brothers and sisters to prevent our doubting person from becoming dominant and destroying our capacity for belief.” The Church, on this Second Sunday of Easter, is inviting us reflect not so much on “Doubting Thomas” as on the living and dynamic faith of the community of which Thomas was a part.

Saint Thomas
by El Greco, 1610-1614
Thomas’ faith, like that of the early Christian community, was rooted in the experience of the Church itself. It was the life of the worshiping community, gathered together for prayer, “the breaking of the bread,” and in fellowship, that gave expression to and sustained their faith (cf. Acts 2:42-47). Thomas and the other Apostles were in a position to have a tangible, physical experience of the Risen One. Their experience of the Incarnation and Resurrection proved to them that something new was happening for and to humanity—“the world we are tempted to see as closed, with God absent or indifferent, has been shocked open by God’s love for us” (John W. Martens). Those who witnessed those Easter events entrusted these experiences and memories to later generations of believers, so that we might also believe.

All of this means that the Church, which is built upon the witness of Peter, Thomas, and the other Apostles and disciples of the Lord, is the place where we experience the Resurrection in our time and place. Unlike our spiritual ancestors, we cannot have a physical experience of Jesus. We do, however, have the legacy of meeting the Lord in Word and Sacrament: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). As Scripture scholar Robert Kysar has observed, “The community of believers is the place of God’s revelation, the divine presence… The believers are invited by the Fourth Evangelist (i.e. John) to look at their present experience in the community for the revelation of God. Eternity touches history in the community of Christian believers, the Evangelist boldly proclaims. So, for them, eternity is now” (from John: The Maverick Gospel). The witness of the Apostles has spread from the sealed Upper Room, across the ages, to the four corners of the earth.

The Church, the living witness of the truth that Jesus is living and active in our world, today, bears a special burden to proclaim Gospel with integrity and love. Each one of us, as an essential member of Christ’s Body, has a part to play in that mission. We have inherited the legacy of the Apostles to go out and proclaim what we have come to believe. The words addressed to John in the Second Reading of the Second Sunday of Easter are addressed to us:

“Do not be afraid.
I am the first and the last, the one who lives.
Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever.
I hold the keys to death and the netherworld.
Write down, therefore, what you have seen,
and what is happening, and what will happen afterwards”
(Revelation 1:17-19).

Although faith is a gift, believing is not automatic or easy—the doubt of Thomas is far easier for us to relate to than the sublime prayer and contemplation of the great pray-ers of the Church (especially mystics like Blessed Lydwina, Saint Mary Magdalene d’Pazzi, Saint Rafael Arnáiz Barón, and many others). Suffering, evil, injustice, discrimination, crimes against the innocent and vulnerable, sickness, and enduring hunger put our faith to the test. And yet, Thomas’ faith allows us to discover something much more profound and true than suffering and death: “the face of God who, in Christ, has taken upon himself the wounds of injured humanity. Thomas has received from the Lord, and has in turn transmitted to the Church, the gift of faith put to the test by the passion and death of Jesus and confirmed by meeting him risen. His faith was almost dead but was born again thanks to his touching the wounds of Christ, those wounds that the Risen One did not hide but showed, and continues to point out to us in the trials and sufferings of every human being” (Benedict XVI, Urbi et Orbi Message, 2007). This is the mystery of the love we celebrate on the Second Sunday of Easter, the Feast of Divine Mercy.
Christ in the Breadline
by Fritz Eichenberg (1950)

At the conclusion of Saint John’s account of Thomas’ encounter with the Risen Lord, Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (20:19). Blessed are we when we accept what has been handed down to us in the authentic traditions and teachings of the Church. Blessed are we when are willing to welcome Jesus who is embodied in the texts that speak of him. Blessed are we when we accept Jesus who is embodied in the sacraments. Blessed are we who recognize Jesus embodied in the lives of the saints. Blessed are we when we reach out to Jesus who is embodied in the little ones of the earth.




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