Norm Pasche put into my hands the book In the Spirit of Happiness written by the Monks of New Skete. What I’ve read of it so far it has been wonderful and has opened me to some fresh questions – and in the book I was delighted to find the Monks to say, ‘as Father Laurence said to Brother James in the kitchen, “We have to be sure to mention that what characterizes a monk’s life are the questions that consume him, the same questions that all human beings have to face to truly know themselves.”’ In reading again the story of ‘doubting’ Thomas (John 20:24-29) I’ve found it necessary to begin to explore what for me is a new question: “How is it that the wound of another can become for us a means of grace?”
We’ve this long history of doing a disservice to Thomas. And when he becomes the center of our attention, usually in a Sunday following closely on Easter, he is held up to scrutiny for his ‘doubting’ nature. Unfortunately for those of us who have taken that approach, exploring whether doubting is good or bad, both arguments being made in alternate years, it comes as a shock that there is no word for doubt in the Greek text about which we thought we were so insightful. Matter of fact there is a lot of what we’ve come to believe is in this story that just isn’t. To add to it, the word translated ‘believe’ should probably be translated as ‘trust’. The recent Toyota television commercials, being run in the face of a series of safety recalls that has one Toyota owner after another testifying to how much they believe their car to be safe, should remind us that just because we believe something doesn’t necessarily make it true. I don’t think John included in his Gospel the story of Thomas as a morality story about the benefits of belief. So, to John 20:24-27
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Reading the story of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ in the upper room is like coming upon some horrible accident where body parts are torn and exposed and we become transfixed and unable to see anything or anyone else in the scene. It’s a natural human response and helps us to understand how, in real time, that same thing had happened with Thomas. He too had been in the crowd and had witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and the experience had pierced him – transfixed him. So the story directs our attention to Jesus’ woundedness – his hands, his feet, his side. We seek to understand the brutality and understand the inscrutable “why” of this spectacle of human torture.
From late in the first century, Christian apologists such as the writer of the Book of/to the Hebrews have attempted to supply answers to the ‘why’ question. One of the most debated questions about the book of Hebrews is its’ date and authorship. Numerous theories have been advanced from Paul to Apollos, from Barnabas to Silas. When the question of the authorship of Hebrews was asked of Origen’s some two centuries after Jesus he said: “in truth God [alone] knows.” But whoever wrote it, most likely a hundred or so years after Jesus, it connected the how of Jesus’ experience on Golgotha to Hebraic ritual sacrifices for Jewish Christians. And, where in so many other ways, we separate the Gospel from its Jewish roots, we seem to be stuck in this one very limited traditional understanding of how God has been at work of redemption. Yet it is but one of many theories. And today, without understanding, we have come to call the day of its remembrance “Good Friday”. Preparation Friday, yes; Great Friday, yes; Long Friday, even God’s Friday, these were previous names for this day of remembrance – only now, in our age have we come to call it “Good Friday”.
That is what enables “Dial the Truth Ministries” to say that Jesus had to die to “pay the penalty for your sin!” They don’t go on to say to whom the debt was paid, God or Satan. Another response to the ‘why’ question is that by Jesus’ physical death your spiritual death, required by your sinfulness, is negated. Yet others say that he had to die because by letting others believe himself to be God was blasphemy punishable by death. Others say it was because he revealed the ways in which the civil and religious leaders rationalized the injustices they permitted for their own self aggrandizement.
There are a couple of other ways we might interpret Thomas’s experience. One would be as we sing in the chorus “Let Me Be Christ To You”. And the idea is that as a follower of Christ, our hand touching another restores them to wholeness – Christ at work through me. I really like that idea. Pope John Paul II wrote that: “as the Apostles once did, today too humanity must welcome into the upper room of history the risen Christ, who shows the wounds of His Crucifixion and repeats: ‘Peace be with you!’ Humanity must let itself be touched and pervaded by the Spirit given to it by the risen Christ. It is the Spirit who heals the wounds of the heart, pulls down the barriers that separate us from God and divide us from one another, and at the same time, restores the joy of the Father’s love and of fraternal unity”. Such an interpretation confirms the very notion of ministry. I really like the spirit of love and compassion and the need to join Jesus in his ministry of healing and reconciliation. The problem is that that is not what we see in this passage in John’s Gospel.
Again, the scene John has us witness is the fulfillment of what Thomas had expressed that he needed – not that Jesus reached out and touched Thomas to heal his uncertainty and confusion but quite the opposite. Remember, what we see is Thomas being instructed to reach out and touch the wounds of Christ.
If we are the body of Christ in the story – the picture presented is about our brokenness and woundedness. In this we are not a perfect church or a perfect sacrifice. We then, like Christ, are called to make ourselves vulnerable to the groping hands of the uncertain and confused Thomases of the world. Is it in this that the world is brought to a new wholeness, a new confidence by touching our woundedness, our brokenness?
Another possibility is seeing those roles reversed. Thomas represents us and the brokenness of Christ represents the world. It is then, in the very act of compassion, where we, like Thomas, get our hands bloody touching the wounds of the world that our uncertainty and confusion turns into confidence. In that moment it isn’t about mysticism or theology or philosophy – it is about the experience of touching real people in real ways. This view is certainly consistent with what else we know of Jesus.
The Pharisees were masters at keeping their hands to themselves. They absolutely refused to reach out and touch those whom they found undesirable. Remember from Luke’s story of the Pharisee’s dinner party how the religious leaders said “If this man were a prophet he would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching him…” They believed that Jesus let himself be contaminated by her touch. And here Jesus confounded the world. Jesus was willing to get his hands dirty in loving others. There is intriguing story about the spiritual state of those who refuse to reach out and touch others out of fear of contamination. “So said a sheet of snow-white paper, ‘Pure was I created, and pure will I remain for ever. I would rather be burnt and turn to white ashes than suffer darkness to touch me or the unclean to come near me’. The ink-bottle heard what the paper was saying and it laughed in its dark heart; but it never dared to approach her. And the multicoloured pencils heard her also, and they too never came near her. And the snow-white sheet of paper did remain pure and chaste for ever – pure and chaste – and empty.”
Our skin is the largest organ we possess. It covers the entirety of our bodies. Our other senses (sight, hearing, smell, and taste) are located in specific parts of the body, our sense of touch is found all over. You can shut your eyes, stop your ears, plug your nose, and close your mouth, but you can’t turn off your skin. Our skin marks the boundary of our physical space. It is what stands between us and the world yet through it we touch the world.
Touch is so central to the human experience that our language is steeped in metaphors of touch. Diane Ackerman writes “We call our emotions feelings, and we care most deeply when something “touches” us. Problems can be thorny, ticklish, sticky, or need to be handled with kid gloves. Touchy people, especially if they’re coarse, really get on our nerves… What seems real we call “tangible”…
The limitation of touch may be its greatest strength. In order to physically touch someone we must be in their immediate presence. Touch connects us with others in particular and concrete ways. It prevents us from loving people in the abstract and draws us into full participation with the “neighbors” God has placed in our lives. It is much easier to live in an abstract world that exists only in our minds – loving people in general and not individuals in particular. By focusing on touch as means of grace we love those who dwell in our immediate presence – those within our reach.
Our having been ourselves touched by God, we are called to reach out and touch those God brings into our lives, and if the Thomas story is correct, they become as agents of grace and love to us. And as we are given the privilege to communicate this grace through healing, helpful, and less than holy hands, by being vulnerable to the world we too become agents of God’s grace to others. As terrifying as it may be to reach out and touch others, we reflect on the good news that Christ who spared no cost to himself by sharing our humanity and touching our world in all its brokenness, woundedness, filth and sin, did so in order to draw us back into God’s tender embrace.