The Thomases among us

Al Cariño
Reproduced with Permission

For John the evangelist, Easter Sunday is also Pentecost Sunday. While the Synoptics, in describing the death of Jesus, used the phrases "he gave up his spirit" (Matthew), "he breathed his last" (Mark) and "he expired" (Luke) John used the phrase "handed over the spirit." With this, he wants to convey a double meaning in the dying of Jesus: as giving up His last breath and as passing on the Holy Spirit. Because of this second meaning, Jesus could already say to the disciples gathered in the upper room on the first Easter night, "Receive the holy Spirit." The Synoptics placed this event only at the Descent of the Holy Spirit after Jesus had ascended to the Father.

In today's gospel (Jn. 20:19-31), we see the disciples huddled together in the upper room, hiding behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. But Thomas was not with them. Why? To answer this, we have to take a brief look at his person and character.

Thomas is often described as the "doubting Thomas." But the gospels, specially that of John, depict him in a different way, namely, as the "courageous Thomas." And this because of his uncanny habit of speaking clearly his opposing views, regardless of the pressures to agree or remain silent.

We can cite many examples for this. After Christ told His disciples that He wanted to go to Judea despite the fact that His life was in jeopardy, Thomas exhorted the others, "Let us also go to die with him" (Jn. 11:16). When Jesus told the Twelve about eternal life and then adds, "Where I am going you know the way," the disciples did not ask where even though in reality they did not know what Jesus was talking about lest they appeared stupid. But not Thomas. Breaking into the Lord's dialogue, he asked, "Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?" (Jn. 14:5) Had he remained silent like the rest, we would never have heard the great summary of the Lord's mission: "I am the way the truth and the life."

In short, Thomas was independent minded. He was not the type who just went along with the crowd. This explains why after the death of Jesus, though the other disciples needed the security of numbers and so hid behind bolted doors, Thomas was not with them. He remained outside, on his own. No wonder he was not present when the Risen Christ made His surprise visit that first Easter night.

When Thomas was finally with them the following week, the others joyfully greeted him in unison: "We've seen the Lord." Thomas remained unimpressed and simply said that he wanted to see and touch His wounds first before he would believe and share their joy. When Jesus appeared again and invited him to see and touch His wounds, Thomas offered no apologies and did not try to "explain" his need for further proof. The risen Way, Truth and Life was now before him and he expressed what he felt and believed by falling on his knees saying, "My Lord and my God." Still and all, Thomas came to believe in Jesus in the same way that the other disciples did -- when he actually experienced the reality of the Risen Lord.

It was because of this unique character of Thomas that he stood for all those who have not seen the Lord but are asked to believe in him. If Thomas did not wait to see Jesus before he believed in Him, then the beatitude aimed at the generations of people who will not see the Risen Lord and yet believed would not have been uttered by Jesus: "Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed." We have Thomas with his unique character to thank for that.

What lesson can we draw from the unique character of Thomas? A very simple but essential one: even if faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, it does not mean that once we have received it, we will have it with us for the rest of our life. This is what John the Evangelist wanted us to learn from Thomas. Thus, just as Thomas did, John wanted us to think, probe and question our faith. He wanted us to make faith real and meaningful to us. In short, he wanted us to have that kind of faith which is born out of conviction.

Why? Because faith, like love, is constantly exposed to the temptations of doubt, indifference and complacency. For only that faith which is thought about, probed, questioned and therefore allowed to grow and mature could make the early Christians withstand the onslaught of persecution and the deadly pangs of lions in the Roman arena. It is this kind of faith that sustains Christians in China who are forced to go underground because religions -- except those recognized by the state, e.g., the Catholic Patriotic Church -- are not only banned but are also considered a crime. Finally, it is this kind of faith that can make us stand up against the indifference and complacency of our skeptical and unbelieving world.