Even when I was a child, I heard the term ‘doubting Thomas’ applied to certain people under certain conditions. At first, I had no idea what it meant, growing up as I did in a non-religious household. Later, I learned it was a reference to someone who didn’t believe something unless they could personally experience it. Still later, I discovered it was a religious reference about the disciple Thomas and how he had to see and touch the wounds of Jesus before he would believe that our Lord had truly risen from the dead.
In its simple form, it’s a good story for children, teaching them to trust what they are taught before they become old enough to look up the information for themselves. For some adults it is a tale that describes our need to have faith in a God we cannot see, hear, or touch. For other adults it is merely an idiom they use for people who must ‘see it to believe it.’
In all the retellings, the situation seems to revolve around Thomas, as if he is the central figure in the tale, the one who causes the problem and the one reprimanded for it. That has, for some reason, always bothered me. Why, I couldn’t really say, I just felt that I was missing something. So this morning I would like to suggest that we pick up our binoculars and, for the next few minutes, refocus them on Jesus.
Maybe there is a little of Thomas in me that can’t just take a narration from Scripture on face value. But I have learned one thing for sure about Jesus, and that is that there is never just one lesson where he is concerned. I was powerfully reminded of that when I felt drawn to use this portion of today’s Gospel for my sermon. In short order, I found the verses to be numerous and complex layers beckoning me to go deeper into the words. When I started pulling the layers apart, gently, patiently, I found what had been disturbing me about the passage. Jesus was still wearing his wounds.
Say what? Hang on a minute! This was very confusing to me. I admit I had not given this a second thought before; I had just taken it on face value and kept going. Now, though, it seems to be standing out like a Biblical sore thumb. Anxiety producing inconsistency! Doubt incurring strangeness! Should I just go on and pretend I didn’t notice this? No, for better or worse, I had to dig into it.
When Lazarus was called from the tomb, there is no record of any kind of decomposition leaving its mark on him. 4 days dead in the regional heat, he should have had some definite signs. Apparently, he did not since everyone was rejoicing and no one seemed repelled by him.
The daughter of Jairus also rose cured of her disease. She seemed strong and healthy, though when she died, she must have physically borne some indication of the suffering she had endured. Indeed, she got up, walked around and Jesus told them to feed her. The body restored I understand. The body resurrected with it’s wounds worries me.
I shudder to think of being resurrected in this body with all its imperfections and issues. And I don’t believe that those who die by violence will be resurrected in shattered bodies. An elderly person, a comatose patient, a paraplegic, what God would make them spend eternity that way? We are promised a body glorified. But here is the resurrected Jesus with his wounds all still plainly visible. Why would Jesus want a less than perfect resurrected body to walk around in?
There are those that think Jesus kept the marks of his crucifixion so as to convince others, like Thomas, that he was really himself and not a Jesus-look-alike. I don’t think they are wrong. However, as I’ve said before, you never get to take anything Jesus said or did at surface value. Maybe Jesus was bringing us to another understanding, another step along our way to see those around us. Really see them!
At my entrancing interview, the committee (having read my background material) asked me how such a wounded person could want to learn to deliver pastoral care to others. I objected, saying that I am not wounded, but deeply scarred and that was precisely what I could bring to the table. I was wounded, now I am scarred. Was Jesus the walking wounded, or did he bear Divine scars?
We connect with the walking wounded every day. Sometimes we may meet a veteran who was wounded in action. We see those that are victims of an accident. But there are other kinds of wounds wherein we do not see the marks that the sufferers bear. Many of those suffering have been brainwashed into thinking there is some sort of shame in exposing those hurts. People might turn away from them if they are openly bleeding from some past trauma. The wounded are afraid to show the pain because experience has taught them that the predators see them as weak and easy picking. In our all-too-human manner, we picture Jesus resurrected whole and perfect, acting as if the trauma had never happened. That’s what we’re all supposed to do, right? “Put on a happy face! Smile though your heart is breaking! Fake it ‘till you make it!” On top of the pain, the wounded are asked to lie, to pretend, to be false.
I work with special needs children 5 days a week, and of these children 90% are victims of past trauma. Purposeful trauma. Intentional torture. Abandonment. Neglect. Every type of abuse. They are young, and even though they are now nestled into the bosoms of safe, loving families, they haven’t had the years it takes to make those hurts into scars. I pray that they will.
The truth is not everyone can. Some will not have the opportunity; some are so very broken they can’t be lifted out of the pit that the violence shoved them into. Most of the time their wounds are so concealed that we walk by them without a clue that they might be bleeding and in need of help. They have been conditioned to keep the pain to themselves for fear of being abandoned. Even for those who do heal, the scars are always present.
Jesus would not ask them to conceal their wounds. He didn’t. It makes me love him even more. After death and resurrection, he was the same as he had been before in being authentic, honest, and unflinching. He knew how to set us free, and it’s not through deception. Thru showing himself thus to the disciples, he taught us that we not only can, but should, look at the walking wounded and the deeply scarred.
.After all, at the sight of the wounds of their Lord, the disciples didn’t run. They didn’t jeer at him or belittle him for exposing the signs of the pain he had endured. They identified with his suffering because they, too, had suffered. They understood that Jesus knew that one didn’t erase the pain that easily, or that quickly and that that there was no humiliation in being honest about wounds.
Many of the deep, theological writers of the Church have given plausible reasons for the Lord’s body to still show its wounds. For me, as ignorant as I am, those reasons are just not good enough. For instance, St. Bede declared that Jesus kept them as a sign of his victory. I’ve heard something similar said to people in modern times, that scars are valuable because they show those things we survived. I’m not getting my wallet out to buy that. Augustine said that Jesus kept them to convict those who wronged him. I don’t know that Jesus would need to be reminded of the people who were responsible for his death. St. Gregory believed that, once resurrected, our Lord could not be subject to change without returning to mortality. The hairs on my skin always stand upright upon hearing that God MUST do or CANNOT do whatever God pleases, as if we could attribute rules to God’s behavior.
Yet even if those beliefs are all true, they don’t touch our pain. We need more than triumph, conviction, or the inability to change. We need to relate to Jesus as if he were here, today, in the room with us. Standing in awe, bathed in the warm glow of his holy presence, listening as if we might hear the angels singing, we want to feel what it means to see those horrific marks upon his body. I think we might feel overwhelming empathy, not just for his pain, or our pain, but for the pain of all the walking wounded, the long-time scarred, the overlooked and hurting people in our world. We could almost hear the chains breaking, falling ‘clunk’ to the floor. We could rub our wrists where the fetters around our pain held us prisoner in the dungeon of fear. We could trust others to help us bind up and heal our wounds. In the aura of the wounded Jesus, we could turn and bind and heal the wounds of others.
We could experience peace with our past and if we did that then we could have what Jesus promises to all.
We could have freedom.
We will know the truth and the truth will set us free…John 8:32