The Easter season is filled with beautiful stories of the resurrected Jesus appearing to His disciples. Perhaps one of the most well-known is the one in which an apostle acquired the unfortunate nickname, ‘Doubting Thomas.’ That designation is somewhat overstated because throughout John’s Gospel Thomas displayed many moments of belief when the others were dragging their feet a bit. It seems odd that because he faltered that one time over whether Jesus really did appear, the poor man was forever labeled. To be fair, all of the apostles had demonstrated more than a little doubt, floundering terribly at the arrest of Jesus, abandoning Him by running and hiding; and after Judas, the worst stumble was that of Peter who denied even knowing Jesus. Only two believed enough to run to the tomb when Mary Magdalene had said Jesus was risen and not there. Yet poor Thomas is the one remembered for having doubts about the apostles’ report of seeing the Risen Jesus. That just does not seem fair, especially since it was in being authentic and honest about struggling to believe their story that Thomas was finally able to proclaim with great reverence that in fact he did believe. For me, Thomas is the easiest ‘character’ to relate to in the entire lot of the apostles. Furthermore, he was willing to be totally transparent about his struggle to wrap his mind around Jesus having overcome death. Perhaps the greatest gift of Thomas is teaching us to open our spiritual eyes and really see beyond what is visible so that we too might say, “My Lord and My God!”
This past Sunday was Divine Mercy Sunday. I love that the Gospel about Thomas intersected with this celebration because I think we all struggle to see Jesus at various moments in our lives no matter how great our faith may ordinarily be. And it is through the mercy of God that we are forgiven for the lapses that might affect our actions. I think our conflict is made worse by the state of affairs in our world as we wrestle with all sorts of issues and realities. But it is only through and with mercy that we can reconcile the humanness of our doubts with the deep and abiding faith which underlies everything we say and do as Christians. We do not have to understand everything, nor can we, but we do have to trust that the Mercy of God, which has been demonstrated in the penultimate way through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is what will save us all in the end.
To wrestle with our faith, to have doubts, is normal; it is part of the journey and it is nothing for which we should be ashamed. To be a person of faith means that we recognize and consequently rely with gratitude upon the mercy of God and the many gifts we have been given, without which we could not do very much at all. Our hard work is necessary, but without the grace of God, we would progress very little, if at all, in our life of faith. As humans we do want to understand, but many things are far beyond us. Therefore, like Thomas we will often wrestle deeply with a situation involving faith or morals, or we will falter because of the knowledge that evil is prevalent in our world and we feel powerless before it. I think that for Thomas, it was less an issue of belief than it was one of comprehension. The evidence for this is that once he did see, he was willing to live in the ‘not understanding how it was possible’ that Jesus was in fact standing before him, resurrected from the dead. He did not say, “How is it that you are here, Jesus?” or “Explain how this happened.” Instead he landed on his knees and exclaimed the truth of his faith: “My Lord and my God!” He believed the unbelievable. And in so doing he learned that indeed, as Jesus said, “Blessed are those [of us] who have not seen and have believed.” (John 20:29) Yes, we are truly blessed with the gifts of faith, hope, and love.
Mercy, like love, is not always a 'warm-fuzzy' feeling kind of thing. To be merciful sometimes involves deep pain. The pain Jesus willingly accepted is the prime example of this. Because of mercy and love, He took on our humanity and ultimately paid the price to overcome evil. But here is where we get confused: when He died and rose evil did not go away. Just as our propensity to sin does not end when we are baptized, though sin has less hold over us due to the graces we receive that help us combat our sinful tendencies, so evil did not get annihilated forever either. The mercy of God continued, however, for those of us who believe and accept the gift. That is the key. Jesus lavished upon us love and mercy beyond our ability to comprehend when He died and arose from the dead. And He left us with greater ability to persevere in the trials of life because He provided the Sacraments, powerful instruments of continued mercy, the very power of God offered to help us in this world of dangers. The death and resurrection of Jesus empowers us to fight the good fight, as St. Paul said. The final victory will only come when Jesus returns and time as we know it comes to an end.
This is why the Paschal mysteries are so important: we acknowledge that we are awaiting the Second Coming of Christ and that until then we are at war with evil, but we have His grace to help us to persevere. It does not mean that there will be no suffering; on the contrary, there will be much. But we know that the ultimate victory will be ours, if not here, in Heaven. Therefore we are not to be fearful, and if we wrestle with doubt because of what we cannot understand perhaps we can ask St. Thomas to intercede for us that we may be able to trust that though we cannot see, God’s grace is indeed present. The apostles saw Jesus with their own eyes and they were not preserved from pain and suffering. But they had the joy of knowing their Lord was with them and that all of their efforts at sharing the gospel, and offering mercy and love, did make a difference. They could not have known when they died that there would be billions of Christians who would follow in their footsteps throughout history, also trying to build the Kingdom through mercy and love. Their efforts did indeed make a difference or you and I would not be here at this very moment sharing the faith.
That we celebrated Divine Mercy Sunday this week, (instituted by St. John Paul II who had deep faith in the gift of mercy), should be a reminder to us that God’s mercy is a great gift to us. St. Faustina Kowalska, the one to whom Jesus entrusted the task to share this devotion, wrote a prayer which ends like this: “You Yourself command me to exercise the three degrees of mercy. The first: the act of mercy, of whatever kind. The second: the word of mercy – if I cannot carry out a work of mercy, I will assist by my words. The third: prayer – if I cannot show mercy by my deeds or words, I can always do so by prayer. My prayer reaches out even there where I cannot reach out physically. O my Jesus, transform me into Yourself, for You can do all things.” As Faustina has pointed out, our prayer reaches where we cannot go: God’s mercy can reach anywhere, so all we need to do is pray. And in praying our hearts move us to reach outward in word and deed. In opening our eyes through mercy we will begin to see beauty, just as St. Thomas found that he could see in a new way.
Through our celebration of Divine Mercy we can learn from St. Thomas, the one who struggled with not seeing and who teaches us that we do not have to understand in order to believe and accept. We can learn from St. John Paul II that in God is mercy which is ‘the second name of love.’ * We can learn from St. Faustina that in word, deed, and prayer we can be people of mercy, sharing the divine love even in our own faltering efforts. And finally we can trust that the mercy of God is always available in abundance to us and to the world which is in real need. Mercy does not ensure that we will have a trouble-free life, not in the least, but it does ensure that we will be bathed in the presence of Jesus, who is always with us, indeed until the end of time. We need not be afraid. We have the mercy of God to support us and to share. Let us say with St. Thomas: My Lord and My God!
May we ask for the intercession of St. Thomas to help us to learn to trust even when things do not make sense! May we ask for the intercession of St. John Paul II that we may know and share mercy, the second name of love! May we pray with St. Faustina that our prayer may reach where we cannot go! May we rely upon the Sacraments to provide the graces we need to persevere in the difficult challenges of our lives! May we trust in Jesus' promise that He is with us until the end of time as we work to build the Kingdom in whatever way we have been called! And may we be not afraid! Let us continue to meet in the Merciful Heart of Jesus our Risen Lord! Alleluia! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*In his encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, section 7, St. John Paul II wrote: “... mercy is an indispensable dimension of love; it is as it were love’s second name and, at the same time, the specific manner in which love is revealed.”
Both the above quote from St. John Paul and the prayer of St. Faustina were found in Crossing the Threshold of Mercy: A Spiritual Guide for the Extraordinary Year of Mercy, ed. By Mark-David Janus, CSP, PhD
The first and fourth images in this entry are icons by Fr. William Hart McNichols. The first is called The Risen Lord Appears to St. Thomas and can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-risen-lord-appears-to-st-thomas-257-william-hart-mcnichols.html. The latter icon is called St. Faustina Kowalska Apostle of Divine Mercy. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-faustina-kowalska-apostle-of-divine-mercy-094-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
After the icon of St. Thomas is an inset of the Risen Christ from a painting by Fra Angelico. I really liked the tenderness and mercy which are seen in Jesus' eyes and overall expression.
The third and fifth images are my photos. The seascape was take in Jacksonville, Florida. I chose it because it is a sunrise through many clouds, so you cannot truly tell it is a sunrise. This is symbolic of the "lesson" of St. Thomas: sometimes you cannot see something that is truly there. We have to trust that the sunrise is taking place in this photo, just as we have to trust that God is present when things seem to be indicating the opposite.
The last photo was taken in Nova Scotia, Canada. I chose it because it reminded me of the waters of Baptism in which we are washed and which are a source of rich life-giving grace.
Heart Speaks to Heart