On a consistent basis I receive urgent phone calls from people who want a priest for something, usually the Anointing of the Sick. Sometimes I’m able to respond, and sometimes I’m not. For example, a call came in at 9:10 a.m. on Passion Sunday. At the time, I was distributing free palm leaves to half-hardy annuals, and wasn’t able to respond to the request until later in the day.
People will rarely wait until the last moment when they have a medical emergency, but they’re content to wait until the last moment to address their spiritual needs. There are probably multiple reasons people wait until they’re facing a crisis before they think of their spiritual needs, but one of those causes is the weird and self-destructive values that our society embraces.
In our society, death is considered to be something like a mortal sin. A few months ago I was called to anoint someone near death in a local nursing home. Some family members were present. They asked me if I thought it was a good idea for them to leave the nursing home after the anointing was done. They had been told by a social worker that they should say “good-bye” to their dying relative, and then leave. They felt they were being asked to abandon their loved one. I told them that it would be an act of kindness and fidelity to remain by their loved one’s bedside until the end.
The social worker’s advice was predicated on the belief that death is shameful, and that the dying person would be uncomfortable to die in the presence of family members (and probably, that the family members were too emotionally immature to cope with the experience of death). I’m sure that some people wait until the last possible moment to address their spiritual needs because they embrace this cultural value that death is a cause of shame and embarrassment.
This quirky cultural value that death is shameful or sinful should be rejected as shallow and unrealistic, but it might be able to give us some insight into the lack of faith that Thomas displayed in today’s Gospel reading. Thomas interpreted the Cross to be the definitive end of the message of hope and renewal that Jesus had preached. The fact that Thomas doubted the resurrection is, in itself, helpful to us modern disciples who also have doubts from time to time. Nonetheless, there is something at work in the story that goes beyond mere doubt.
Thomas was an eager and faithful disciple. He welcomed Jesus’ message about a renewed covenant and the coming of a Kingdom that would change the entire world. When Jesus died, it looked as if all of Jesus’ inspiring preaching was empty and meaningless. Thomas probably felt as if he had been deceived by Jesus. His doubt was the result of his disappointment; quite naturally, he did not want to be disappointed again. When he protested his unbelief, it was not intended to be a betrayal of Jesus; rather, it was an attempt to avoid being hurt again.
Upon Jesus’ second appearance to the Eleven, Thomas’ previous faith in Jesus was vindicated because Thomas came to understand that the Cross was God’s vindication of Jesus. Thomas responded to this insight by saying, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) Thomas managed to get over the barrier of disappointment that had held him in unbelief. We must do the same.
Life has its unavoidable ups and downs; sadly, sometimes the unfortunate events in our lives so cloud our vision that we can see nothing but disappointment. The death of a loved one holds the possibility of becoming an all-consuming tragedy. I’m sure that the families of those killed and injured in the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels can think of nothing but the tragedy of their losses. Disappointment, loss and tragedy can become insurmountable obstacles; they can be the causes of unbelief for us just as they were for Thomas.
It is crucial that we keep in mind at all times that we share in Jesus’ victory over sin and death when we hold fast to faith in the Resurrection. St. Augustine said that, “Without a doubt the Lord could have risen with a body from which all the marks of wounds had been erased; but he knew his disciples bore within their hearts a wound so deep that the only way to cure it was to retain the scars of his own wounds in his body.” (Sermo 88)
Thomas received the benefit of seeing and touching the risen Lord, but the Gospel is quick to remind us that seeing is not a prerequisite for believing. (John 20:29) Just as the resurrection is an ambiguous sign that leads some but not all to faith so, too, the injustices we suffer in life do not necessarily have only one meaning and consequence. Thomas was compelled to faith by Jesus’ wounds; our wounds hold within them the possibility of moving us to a stronger faith in God.
Like Thomas, the difference is made for us when we understand that loss is inevitable, but loss of faith is not inevitable. Jesus remained faithful to God until the end; because of his faithfulness he was vindicated by God, and became our redemption from sin and death. I was very edified by the family members I met in that nursing home a few months ago; despite their grief they stood by their loved one until the end. Whatever emotional discomfort they, or their loved one, experienced was entirely insignificant in comparison to their act of fidelity.
In a similar way, by remaining faithful, we can overcome the obstacles that would keep us from God. Resurrection is vindication for those who remain faithful. We can expect God’s vindication if we, too, are faithful until the end.