Whenever you see a picture of St Thomas the Apostle he is almost always represented as touching the wound in Christ’s side. But, in fact, the Gospel does not record him actually ever having done this.
Christ certainly showed him his wounds and invited him to put his finger into them but it seems that Thomas never took up the offer. What he did instead was to make an extraordinary profession of faith with the words, ‘My Lord and my God.’
Interestingly, apart from this incident, Thomas is portrayed in the Gospels as being very brave. In St John’s account of the raising of Lazarus when Jesus gets the message of Lazarus’ illness and he decides to go up to Jerusalem we find Thomas saying, ‘Let us go too and die with him.’
These are not the words of a timid and fearful man; these are not the words of a man beset by doubts. And yet when the other Apostles tell him of their meeting in the Upper Room with the Risen Lord, which for some unknown reason he had missed, Thomas flatly refuses to believe them.
What Thomas had missed out on was an encounter with the Risen Christ. And, no matter what the other Apostles said, he refused to believe. He wasn’t open to persuasion or reasoning. And I think we have to say, ‘Rightly so!’ After all, faith does not come from reasoning or from relying what anyone else tells us. Faith is a gift of God and it principally comes though an encounter with the Lord.
In Thomas’ case this was the actual presence of the Risen Jesus who showed him the wounds of his crucifixion. In the case of St Paul, it was his experience on the road to Damascus. In every case, let me suggest, faith comes through an encounter with the Lord. Mostly these are not physical encounters like that of Thomas, but they are just as real nonetheless.
Each one of us comes to faith by a different route. Things happen to us on life’s journey that help us to see the hand of God at work in our lives.
As a child we might be brought up by our parents to believe in God and we grow up accustomed to pray each day. In this way prayer becomes a natural and even essential part of our lives.
But this is not merely the saying of prayers. What our parents have initiated us into is a dialogue with the Lord, with a person, with God himself. Each time we pray we are entering into an encounter with God.
At some point or other the young person may face the criticism of others and then end up questioning whether this is a real dialogue with God or whether they are just talking to themselves.
If their prayers are more than merely superficial then they may well come to the realisation that this certainly is no empty dialogue but is in fact a real and meaningful conversation with the Lord. And through this insight their faith is strengthened and moves to a new and deeper level.
As life goes on our faith is validated by all sorts of events and occurrences. I clearly remember talking to a group of secondary school pupils. We were discussing prayer and I asked them if they ever felt that their prayers were answered.
One girl said that together with her whole family she had prayed very hard for her grandmother who had cancer. She explained that although they had prayed for a cure the grandmother actually got worse and eventually died. Despite this she felt that her prayers had been answered because her grandmother had died peacefully and was happy to go to God.
It was also clear that this girl’s own faith had been strengthened through this experience and that she felt closer to God and to her family as a result.
Thomas said that he wanted proof. He said that unless he could put his finger into the wounds he would not believe. But when Christ appeared to him that was enough, he never reached his hand out to actually touch the wounds. He did not need to. Instead he fell to the ground with the great words ‘My Lord and my God’ on his lips.
Throughout his life Thomas never lacked courage. Tradition has it that he preached the Gospel in many different countries ultimately travelling as far as India where he was martyred. His faith was surely tested more in that final moment of his death than it ever was before. But in the end he remained resolute. His words to Jesus, ‘My Lord and my God’ or something very like them were surely on his lips as he gave up his spirit.
Thomas had the extraordinary privilege of knowing Jesus in the flesh and also of meeting him in his risen form. But the greatest encounter of all was at the moment of his own martyrdom when he was drawn into the presence of God in heaven.
It is this final and ultimate encounter that we are all preparing for. And the best preparation of all is for us to open our eyes and see the hand of God in our lives and for us to spend our time in prayer and dialogue with him, but most of all by sharing his body and blood in the Eucharist.
It is in these ways that our faith is fed and strengthened. It is by doing these things that at that final moment, with God’s grace, we will make that great and wonderful prayer of Thomas our own.
There are two halves to this Gospel, till now we have only been looking at the second part about St Thomas. The first half however is an account of how Jesus breathed on the Apostles and bestowed on them the ability to forgive sins. We see here the origin of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He knows the havoc that sin causes in the human heart and it is for this reason that he gives the power to forgive sins to the Apostles and their successors. He knows how important this ministry is for the Church, he is aware that his followers will need to experience forgiveness again and again in their lives.
The bestowal of this great gift comes at a very crucial moment in John’s Gospel. It occurs during his very first meeting with the Apostles after the resurrection. This shows us how important this gift is for the Church, that it is the very first thing that Jesus does after the resurrection.
The Church takes this ministry of reconciliation very seriously and it sees itself as a fountain of forgiveness and healing for our battered and bruised world. Welcoming repentant sinners and dispensing forgiveness is therefore one of the principal tasks of its Bishops and Priests. May all of us make frequent use of this holy and healing sacrament.