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Breath of the Spirit: The Dangerous Question

It is easy, almost a given, to see doubt and faith as opposites. But as the story of “doubting” Thomas – and today’s reflection upon it – make clear, doubt is not faith’s opposite, but the condition which makes faith possible. And as such, doubt – even our doubt – is sacred.

April 7, 2024: Second Sunday of Easter April 7, 2024

Acts 4:32-35

Psalm 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24

1 John 5:16

John 20:19-31

The Dangerous Question

A reflection by Lori Ranner

I can state with a fair amount of confidence that I have almost nothing in common with Jesus. Even leaving aside the not-insignificant matter of divinity – I hate crowds, I can’t hammer a decent nail to save my life, I’m terrible at fishing, I’m hopeless in arguments, my Aramaic is nonexistent, and I never know the right thing to do or say around people who are suffering, which is a problem that Jesus never seems to have.

There is one thing, though, that Jesus and I happen to share, which is a passion for screw ups and troublemakers. Big-time, magnificent screwups, heedless of common sense and cost-benefit analysis, who risk everything for an idea – and lose everything – and then do it all over again. Who are brave enough or foolish enough to ask dangerous questions and refuse to be content with the easy answers that are enough for everybody else. Their stories don’t usually have very happy endings, but if nothing else, they tend to learn an awful lot – and enjoy themselves not a little – along the way.

Today, we hear about Jesus’ friend Thomas, who might just have taken the most badly timed bathroom break in history. As a result, poor “Doubting Thomas” has become a byword for weak faith, ill-applied skepticism, and egotism masquerading as a demand for the facts.

I would like to propose that Thomas is none of those things, and that neither Jesus, nor the evangelist – nor perhaps, in their heart of hearts, the other disciples – saw him that way, either. Like most of the vignettes about Jesus’ life, this one was chosen over thousands of others for inclusion in John’s Gospel because it has a hugely important message to impart: far from being a shortcoming, Thomas’ penchant for trouble and questions is his greatest gift. His doubt is absolutely necessary, for in a certain crucial sense, his encounter with Jesus in the Upper Room makes possible everything that follows in the Christian story.

The disciples are scared. They’re hidden, and they’re trying to make people believe they’ve disappeared. They’re afraid to own their identity as the followers of Jesus; if discovered, they could easily end up the same way he did. A reasonable position, but not necessarily a heroic one.

On the other hand, Thomas goes out; he’s the one bold enough to leave this safe place and run the very real risk of detection. The truth is, we have no idea why – did he draw the short straw in the first-century equivalent of a beer run? For whatever reason, when he comes back there is news waiting for him that he can’t accept. Thomas, tossing everybody’s change on the table – and with it, his famous ultimatum, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in his side, I will not believe.”

Perhaps we might see this as classical hyperbole of the “when pigs fly” variety: what you assert is so ridiculous that I demand an equally ridiculous proof. In other words, not “It isn’t possible,” but “It’s going to take more to convince me than your word.”

Thomas is cocky. Seeing may be enough for you, he says, but not for me. I want more: I want to feel. Thomas asks the million-dollar question: How do you know Jesus is risen?

Why does John include this little incident in his narrative? In the end, the disciples all arrive at an unshakeable belief in the resurrection – it hardly matters how they get there. However, such a viewpoint fails to see that the center of Thomas’ story isn’t Thomas – it’s Jesus. And, unsurprisingly, Jesus takes the person characterized by other people as a screw up and transforms him into a hero. We may see Thomas as a fearful doubter who prefers ignorance to belief, someone closed off to possibility – but in Thomas, Jesus sees an open door.

Jesus comes back for him, the one who demands proof: I want to see you with my own eyes, I want to feel the wound in your side.

As with so many stories about Jesus, time and familiarity have distanced us from what follows, sanitized it, and minimized its shock value. If we’ve become comfortable with what happened, the people who witnessed it certainly weren’t. The encounter between Jesus and Thomas seared itself into their memories, and one of them, at least, thought it important enough to pass on.

Because it is Jesus who gives Thomas what he asked for. Have we ever known Jesus, even once, to turn down a challenge? Appearing in the Upper Room is not enough; Jesus goes toe to toe with this doubter: You want to test me?

Then come on.

There are two things about this story that might make people today a bit squeamish: the presence of a miracle, and the degree of physical intimacy the working of this miracle demands. Most of us moderns are sensitive about this sort of thing; we don’t like to think about the unsettling reality of what we say we believe.

In the Roman world, by contrast, medical knowledge was so sketchy and the results of treatment so unpredictable that almost any healing might be racked up to divine intervention; even resurrection from the dead – although not an everyday occurrence – wasn’t entirely off the table.

They lived cheek by jowl, these ancient people, with no concept of personal space. Public toilets were just that, families and friends shared beds without a thought. Within the gendered parameters of the baths, you could spend the whole day with nothing between you and people of every age and class but your skin. There was hardly anywhere to hide, and no means of cosmeticizing the ugliness of infirmity, old age, or want. Echoes of this mindset linger in many European cities, where the public square still functions as everybody’s living room or in languages such as Greek, where there’s still no distinction between loneliness and solitude. To go out to the desert as Jesus did - to be alone on purpose? – would have been nothing short of bizarre. Even emperors couldn’t count on their privacy: after all, Hadrian had to build a moat around his library to get some peace and quiet. Everyone lived everything out loud – and together – all the time; the air was thick with the lives of other people. This was Jesus’ world, and in it, so much more than in our world of self-imposed, self-curated bubbles, people understood things in the context of each other.

So – when Jesus comes back for Thomas, he does it in front of all of their friends, the ones who just days before were afraid to admit they had ever known such a person. It didn’t have to happen this way. Concerned for Thomas’ faith, Jesus could have appeared to him in private – in a dream, or in the evening on the rooftop when Thomas went up to contemplate the stars.

By now, we know these guys, the disciples. Once they get over the pesky question of a Risen Christ, they’ll become phenomenally charismatic evangelizers; to a reader of the gospels, it’s very hard to see why. Most of the time, they behave like a pack of divas jostling for the lead role – so much drama, always squabbling about whom the director likes best. And even now, at this incredible moment as Thomas is meeting the Risen Jesus – we might envision them peevish and petulant, muttering among themselves. “Why does he rate a special appearance?” or worse yet, “Jesus didn’t ask me to touch his wounds!”

The implication is most often that Thomas merited the command performance because his faith was the weakest, and everybody else had already seen, and therefore believed. But what if it wasn’t like that at all? Nowhere does it say what was going on in their heads. They could have had just as much doubt as Thomas, they may have had exactly the same questions – or even harder ones. Perhaps they doubted precisely because they had seen, and not felt. How do you know Jesus is risen? As the once tongue-tied fisherman so eloquently testifies in his letters, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” Would a mere vision of Christ alone have been enough for Peter to stake his life on such a statement? Maybe the disciples were asking themselves: was it nothing but a dream, a wish, a hallucination? Did Jesus really pour out his spirit upon us – and what does that even mean? Did any of us know for certain that what we thought we saw was real? Maybe only Thomas dared to ask what everybody else was secretly thinking and were too worried about the impression they might make to say. But Thomas doesn’t care what the others think: his desire to know is stronger than his fear of ridicule. Maybe hearing or even seeing wasn’t enough for them either; and that is why Thomas’ proof is their proof too.

If I were delivering these words as a lecture, this is the point where I would press a button and a great big projection screen would roll down, and I could show you the picture I want you to see.

It is a painting called The Incredulity of Thomas, by the Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, and it is like no other I’ve ever seen. I think it comes closest to capturing what happened that day in all its unsettling power.

Caravaggio lived in a violent world, as Jesus did. In seventeenth-century Naples and Rome, it was every person for themselves: no police force, no competent administration of justice, corrupt authorities, fabulous wealth contrasted with the most wretched poverty – and Caravaggio was a stranger to none of it. He knew what it was to inflict wounds and to receive them with an immediacy that I hope most of us have escaped. Within several years of this painting, he was murdered.

I mention these things because they inform his depiction of Thomas and Christ - in a scene physically and emotionally stripped to the bone.

He shows a man meeting his best friend, back from the dead. Life as Thomas knows it is dissolving before his eyes, even as the atoms of a new, magnified life are furiously arranging themselves to take its place. It is a sacred moment – because doubt is sacred. Thomas persists in asking the uncomfortable question, and he gets an answer beyond what anyone could have dreamed. After this, nothing can be the same – and now we understand why Thomas’ doubt is absolutely necessary for what comes next. It is not through words, or visions, but through an encounter of the flesh that Jesus chooses to share his final, astonishing gift.

Caravaggio fearlessly probes the reality of the resurrection – and he challenges us to do the same. It is not easy, and it’s not tasteful, or pleasant, but it wasn’t for Thomas and the disciples either – and it certainly wasn’t for Jesus. Think on this: Jesus is risen, but unhealed. These are no scars, but open wounds – agonizing and raw. Trauma is Greek for wound – and Jesus has experienced a trauma of unimaginable proportions. The Savior lives – but the cost of that resurrection is still being paid by Jesus’ body. Perhaps it is a debt that is being paid to this day, and to the end.

As Caravaggio shows us, this encounter is one of pain – and incredible tenderness. He doesn’t shy away from the visceral details of what is happening, as do most artists who show Thomas on his knees, hands thrown up in amazement. Here, Thomas is caught at that moment where in fear and trembling, he accepts Jesus’ invitation: Come, put your hand into my side.

In a manner so hard for us to witness, we see Jesus paying vulnerability’s price. Jesus’ lips are parted in a gasp as Thomas probes – not just touches – his body.

Yet, even now Jesus gazes upon Thomas with immeasurable love, takes the hand of his friend and guides it to this very place where an instrument of death once entered – which has become a source of new life instead. Jesus bears witness to this truth: the essence of love is unguardedness. Love leaves us open to being wounded, as Jesus was. To love recklessly, without counting the cost, means that when the bill comes due for having loved, we pay – with our own lives if necessary.

Are we brave enough to enter the wounds of Jesus?

Countless pop songs are there to remind us that “love hurts.” But – Love. Hurts. The 2012 French film Amour accompanies an elderly couple through the wife’s descent into dementia and terminal illness. In it, we see the reality of just how much love hurts – in a manner as brutally frank and uncompromising as in today’s gospel. The husband spoon-feeding his wife and changing her diapers, playing her favorite music and reminding her of her own name over and over in the hopes that the last bit of her mind that can still hold on to memories won’t forget. Does it hurt him to do these things? Without a doubt. Is it love that drives him? There is nothing else that it can be.

Thomas recognizes Jesus by the wounds. It’s an act, as Caravaggio shows us, that requires courage on both sides. Do we have the courage of Jesus and Thomas – to know fully, to experience the Risen One? To comprehend, as much as a human mind is able, what Jesus underwent on our behalf? The Latin that we use in the Creed to describe what happened to Jesus, passus est – he suffered, a suffering which also implies death – derives from the same root as compassion, the suffering-with.

How can we say that we truly know anyone unless we have entered into their suffering? It is this compassion, this suffering-with, that forges the bond of love, and which here, in Jesus’ case, becomes the gateway of the resurrection.

Thomas comes to know Jesus not by words, but wounds. He understands at last: this is his God. And only now does Jesus reply to Thomas’ challenge.

“Happy are those who have not seen, and yet believe.”       

Again, it’s often presented as a snarky jab at the doubter. But given the trajectory of this entire meeting, and given what we know about Jesus’ modus operandi, I think that would be a serious mistake. What Thomas is getting back from Jesus is exactly what he gave: an impossible challenge. It’s a demand for a miracle – the very miracle that will be accomplished after Pentecost when the disciples go out and spread the good news.

For the last three years, Jesus has not just been telling the disciples what to do, but showing them how to do it: a schooling that has culminated in the events of Holy Week. Now is the moment for the master’s last and greatest lesson,

Draw near and feel how I have laid myself open for love.

Then go, for the sake of Love’s Reign, and do the same.

It is a teaching that speaks to everyone, everywhere, for all time.

Who are these people who can believe without seeing? Certainly not the disciples. We’ve seen what happened on Holy Thursday, on Good Friday – where was their faith then? For people who believe without seeing, there would be no need for the Incarnation.

But because we are not those people – Thomas is not, nor is anyone in that room – Jesus comes back. And so that we may believe his love for us transcends death, he invites us into his risen Body. Decades later, the evangelist would record what had been witnessed that day so that we too might come to believe – and have life.

With his typical ardor, St. Ignatius of Loyola offers us another vision of this moment – one attuned to our own needs. The imagery is a little intense for modern tastes, but I want to share it here because like Caravaggio’s painting, his prayer conveys the core message behind the meeting of Thomas and Jesus:

There is no virtual Christianity, and there is no safe distance in love. It’s rough, and uncomfortable, and a hell of a challenge – it’s all in, or not at all.

Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O Good Jesus, hear me.
Within your wounds hide me.
Permit me not to be separated from you.
From the wicked foe, defend me.
At the hour of my death, call me
and bid me come to you
That with your saints I may praise you
For ever and ever.

Thomas was called Didymos, the twin. We have no way of knowing whether this was some kind of inside joke, or whose twin he actually was. I would like to suggest that he is ours: with the same doubts, the same fears, the same human limitations. We can be what he was and do what he did; our birthright as Children of God guarantees it. According to tradition, after all – it was Thomas, the fiercest doubter, who traveled further than any other follower of Jesus, so hotly burned the fire of his belief. Let us take Thomas as our inspiration - this man who dared to ask the most dangerous question.

Lori Frey Ranner is a New Orleans native. She holds a double B.A. in History and Classics from Loyola University New Orleans and an M.Phil. in Byzantine Studies from the University of Oxford (Keble, 1996), with a concentration in Ecclesiastical History.

Her area of academic specialization is Latin and Greek ecumenical relations in the period following the Fourth Crusade. Between 1999-2014, she held the post of lecturer at Loyola New Orleans in the Departments of History and Classics. She currently teaches Latin, Ancient Greek, and World Religions at Ursuline Academy.

She is married and mother to three children. In her random bits of free time, she is writing one novel, editing a second, and turning a third into a podcast.