Doubting Thomas

The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio

3rd July 2012

Today is the feast of St. Thomas, remembered for his incredulity regarding Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. Lots of us identify with St. Thomas because he expresses such an understandable doubt: he wants proof, and many of us echo that yearning for certainty, indeed, this is one of the most prevalent themes of the Psalmist, the verses of the Psalms are the way Jesus prayed, and the Psalmist cries out to God:

"How long will you hide your face from me" Ps 13

"Thy face LORD do I seek, hide not they face from me" Ps. 27:9

"As a hart longs for flowing streams, so my soul for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?" Ps 42:1-2

"Why do you hide your face" Ps 44:24

"O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is." Ps 63:1

"Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face" Ps 88:14

"Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress" Ps 102:2

The image of Thomas examining Jesus' hands and side presents a tangibly corporeal image of the risen Jesus, one which lends itself perfectly to the dramatic realism Caravaggio was renown for. However, have you noticed that the Gospel doesn't say that Thomas touched Jesus; he didn't go through with the examination, rather his willingness to believe without touching Jesus is genuine faith. In fact, it is typical Johanine irony that the doubter now utters the highest Christological confession in the Gospels "My Lord and my God". St Augustine comments on this: Thomas "saw and touched the man, and acknowledged the God whom he neither saw nor touched; but by the means of what he saw and touched, he now put far away from him every doubt, and believed the other" (In ev. Jo. 121, 5). From Thomas’ words emerges the conviction that Jesus can now be recognised by his wounds rather than by his face. Thomas holds that the signs that confirm Jesus' identity are now above all his wounds, in which he reveals to us how much he loved us. In this the Apostle is not mistaken.

It is interesting to note that another Thomas, the great Medieval theologian of Aquinas, juxtaposed the formula of blessedness which follows: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” Jn 20:29, with the apparently opposite one recorded by Luke: "Blessed are the eyes which see what you see!" (Lk 10: 23). However, Aquinas comments: "Those who believe without seeing are more meritorious than those who, seeing, believe" (In Johann. XX lectio VI 2566).

In fact, the Letter to the Hebrews, recalling the whole series of the ancient biblical Patriarchs who believed in God without seeing the fulfilment of his promises, defines faith as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb 11: 1).

The Apostle Thomas' case is important to us for at least three reasons: first, because it comforts us in our insecurity; second, because it shows us that every doubt can lead to an outcome brighter than any uncertainty; and, lastly, because the words that Jesus addressed to him remind us of the true meaning of mature faith and encourage us to persevere, despite the difficulty, along our journey of adhesion to him.

The famous painting at the top of this piece was painted by Carravagio—more properly, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio— between 1602 and 1603 with oil on canvas. In it, we can see the Gospel story distilled to its very essence. The characteristic "lunette" positioning of the characters focuses our attention on four faces, arranged in the configuration of a diamond. The Apostles bear mute witness to the miracle of the Resurrection. The furrowed brows of the Apostles contrast with Christ's face, which displays a look of spiritual suffering, a sort of gentle resignation to the indignity if being surgically investigated by His sceptical follower. Resignation for the fragile fate of men who need to verify deep down the miracle they are witnessing.

Holding aside his burial shroud, Jesus guides Thomas' hand towards Him and draws the disciples forefinger deep into His open wound, deep enough to lift the skin. The place where finger meets flesh is a different kind of vanishing point, achieved without the calculations of perspective. All converges at the place where the miracle is proved to be true, and the metaphysical and the empirical meet.

The famous art expert and Carmelite Sister Wendy Beckett provides the following reflection in today's Magnificat:

The story of doubting Thomas spells out in capital letters the genuine leap of faith it took to believe in the Resurrection. To Thomas’ consternation, Jesus not only reappears in the upper room, but He will not allow Thomas to wily in the background. He summons him and repeats the challenge that Thomas had thought so private. Sheer embarrassment makes him touch and handle…

Thomas is forgiven, that goes without saying. Jesus is an instinctive forgiver. But his doubt had meant that Thomas has missed the glory. It is those who have not seen who receive the blessing, and we are among those privileged believers.

There is a lesson here about repentance. god will always forgive, and his love remains unaltered no matter what we do. But in doing what is against his will, we hurt ourselves. Our capacity for love is diminished. We can restore it, and that is the purpose of penance. It is not to set ourselves right with god, but to repair the spiritual hurt we have done to ourselves and perhaps to other people. (Think of a disobedient child climbing a tree and breaking a leg in a fall. However the parents make like of the disobedience, and the child is truly sorry, the leg stays in plaster.)

Some will say: what has Thomas done wrong? Doubt is often an excellent thing. Credulity is infantile: we all have to weigh evidence and make up our minds, and until we do, there is honest doubt, surely. But honest doubt is not willful doubt. Willful doubt is wrong precisely because it is not honest. It has an agenda, it is evading the truth for its own reasons. Jesus is quite stern with Thomas. He knows that the Apostle struggled and then set their will on faith. Thomas obviously felt that he was better than Peter and the others, and his self-conceit tempted him into his foolish dare. Was there some reason why Thomas felt less threatened when he knew that Jesus was dead? Did the prospect of being an Apostle, with all it entailed, secretly frighten him? If we are like him in his weakness, let is hope also to be like him in his strength, since Thomas died in the end for his faith.

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