The Gospel reading for the second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday, tells the story of “Doubting Thomas.” I was grateful for the reminder that Saint Thomas was late to the game (so to speak) not just by a day or two but for a whole week! What exactly was Thomas doing for those eight days?
As Mike Lewis pointed out during the recording of this week’s podcast, we know very little about Thomas the Apostle. The tradition is that Thomas traveled to India and evangelized there, going farther — geographically speaking — than any other apostle. Besides this episode in the upper room on the eighth day after Easter, Thomas is quoted only one other time in the Gospels. It’s when he asserted, after news of Lazarus’s death arrived, that he was willing to travel back to Bethany, near Jerusalem, with Jesus, even if it meant that he would be stoned alongside him (“So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.” [Jn 11:16].) A portrait emerges — from what little we know about him — of a man who is brash and confident and who adores his Lord.
If that’s true, then what exactly was Thomas doing for the eight days from Easter Sunday to the day Jesus came to him in the locked room? What plans had he made? What might his experiences have to teach us about our own experiences during a global pandemic?
I suspect Thomas was working quickly — in a characteristically Thomas way — to figure out who he was, his purpose in life, and what he would do without his teacher and Lord. The emphatic way in which Thomas reacted to the other disciples when they shared their experience of seeing the risen Jesus even suggests he was angry: “I will not believe,” Thomas said. Jesus had warned his disciples that he would die, but did Thomas not understand? In his desperation to comprehend and process the reality of Jesus’s death, there was no room for the hope of the Resurrection.
For many of us, our first response to the coronavirus pandemic was likely similar to Thomas’s. Our world suddenly became drastically different. We have been surrounded by chaos. And how did we react? Like Thomas, we immediately had the urge to plan and make decisions. We began looking ahead and figuring out how to move on.
David Cloutier, in an essay in Church Life Journal, reflects on the topic of making plans during a pandemic. Cloutier emphasizes just how difficult it has been to think even a day in advance, let alone a week or a month. In short, he suggests that we had become too comfortable with the concept of a world that was knowable and predictable. In this knowable and predictable world, our ideas about “what we should do,” as Cloutier says, were always “subordinated to the question ‘what is going to happen?’” During this pandemic, we no longer have the ability to think this way, and therefore it becomes fairly impossible to make plans.
But that doesn’t stop us from trying. Rod Dreher, in a post for The American Conservative, reflects on our tendency to seek control over what we fundamentally cannot control. Most especially, many of us are desperately trying to find ways to avoid poverty, which is at the same time both completely understandable and misguided. He writes,
The most frightening thing about poverty to me is not the material asceticism, which really isn’t that scary to me. It’s the feeling of loss of control. If there’s one thing we modern Americans — liberals and conservatives, secular and religious — cannot stand, it’s the thought that we aren’t in control of our lives.
Like Saint Thomas, we run the risk of making plans that drive ourselves even further away from the message of the Gospel because they are plans made with a false view of the world, without the reality of the Resurrection. These plans are based on the premise that this world is dark, cold, and permeated with lies, but because they are based on what we can see and experience, we tell ourselves that this is what is real.
Exactly what plans did Thomas make during that week after Easter? No plans that made sense after what he experienced on the eighth day. Thomas touched the hands and side of Jesus Christ, and this experience transformed him. As Pope Francis said during his Divine Mercy Sunday homily,
Thomas arrived late, but once he received mercy, he overtook the other disciples: he believed not only in the resurrection, but in the boundless love of God. And he makes the most simple and beautiful profession of faith: “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). Here is the resurrection of the disciple: it is accomplished when his frail and wounded humanity enters into that of Jesus. There, every doubt is resolved; there, God becomes my God; there, we begin to accept ourselves and to love life as it is.
All of Thomas’s well-made plans went up in smoke in a radical encounter with mercy. Because it calls us to look to new hope-filled horizons, mercy upsets the plans of the despairing. What may appear to us as chaos could really be an invitation to let go of our desperation to have control and to rely on the grace of God. During this pandemic, we have become fully aware that “what we should do” can no longer be based on certainty about “what will happen.” This is the opportune time to live our lives based on “what has happened” — namely, Jesus’s merciful death and Resurrection.
Unlike the experience of Thomas, mercy most often comes to us in more subtle ways: through others, through the Church, through the Scriptures, and through our encounters with God in prayer. We may not be able to physically touch Jesus’s hands and side as Thomas did — “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe,” Jesus says — but God’s love does have very practical implications. Francis wrote in Misericordiae Vultus,
[God] does not limit himself merely to affirming his love, but makes it visible and tangible. Love, after all, can never be just an abstraction. By its very nature, it indicates something concrete: intentions, attitudes, and behaviours that are shown in daily living.
Mercy is far from ever being what we expect (as if we could anticipate God’s plan for our lives!), but in these simple invitations, God communicates his perfect love and asks us to share his mercy with others. One can imagine Thomas saying, “What use is there believing in ghosts? Our Lord is dead.” Likewise, we might pride ourselves on being self-sufficient, realistic, and practical. But God’s mercy finds a way to break into the locked room of our hearts, and there he reveals the way forward, despite all our fears and anxieties. Thomas’s example illustrates that when we listen to God and proclaim our trust in him, we might just find ourselves evangelizing in places far beyond the limits of our imagination.