Thomas, Jesus, doubt, and us. Today’s Sunday after Easter reflection

The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas-Caravaggio_(1601-2)

12-4-15 The Village at Bryndwr John 20:19-31 Thomas, Jesus, doubt, and us.

An interaction with the art of Michelangelo Merisi (or Amerighi) da Caravaggio and a couple of poems.
Reflection by Mart the Rev

We wander this side of Resurrection Day.  It is the only place we have ever wandered, for we weren’t there before the resurrection.  We are ‘after’ people.  Always have been, always will be.

We think we have it hard, being this side.  I mean, we have no hard evidence.  We want and demand proof.  And, if we don’t demand proof then those around us demand proof.  Those around us question resurrection, as they should, but they place limits on how their questions can be answered.  They demand, much as Thomas did, that ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’  But even then, even if they could touch and see, I am not sure that these everyone’s would believe… ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,’ says Jesus.  Belief is not a foregone conclusion after seeing.  People believe what they want to believe, and, people believe in what it suits them to believe.  Belief in the resurrected Jesus demands something.  Those who demand proof and even receive proof aren’t necessarily open to living a resurrection life.  That’s just the way it goes.  Not everyone is prepared to utter and then embrace what Thomas’ cry ‘My Lord and my God’ means.

It is hard having faith this side of Resurrection Day.  We are part of what Paul writes to the Corinthians… we are those who for now ‘only see in a mirror, dimly.’ [1 Cor 13:12].  This side of Resurrection Day we are not completely in the dark, but the best we have is twilight.
A poem: The Answer, by RS Thomas:

Not darkness but twilight

In which even the best
of minds must make its way
now. And slowly the questions
occur, vague but formidable
for all that. We pass our hands
over their surface like blind
men feeling for the mechanism
that will swing them aside. They
yield, but only to re-form
as new problems; and one
does not even do that
but towers immovable
before us.

[I think the poet is talking about resurrection here… ‘and one [of these questions] does not even do that but towers immovable before us.’

Is there no way
of other thought of answering
its challenge? There is an anticipation
of it to the point of
dying. There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
grave-clothes of love’s risen body.  R S Thomas

In the twilight we take the best look we can and we have to think carefully about what questions we ask so that what and who answers can actually answer.  There are some questions people ask that cannot be answered.  Like ‘why?’ when some calamity befalls us.  And ‘how?’ when demanding an explanation for resurrection within the confines of our modern scientific method.  We are helped by the disciple Thomas who missed the initial visit of the risen Jesus to the disciples.

Thomas is skeptical.  He thought that all things ended at Golgotha on the cross.  He demanded more.  He demanded more than the twilight that we get, but that he encountered the risen Jesus and had his demands fulfilled gives us twilight-dwellers in our age of skepticism something decent to hang onto.

Thus we walk into the story.

To aid us we have the Italian artist Caravaggio’s wonderful and somewhat graphic painting, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. 

I invite you to spend a minute or two contemplating it.  Have a think about what the artist is conveying to us, his audience.  Have a chat with a person near you about what you have observed.

Here are some of my observations…

There’s a willingness in Jesus to be open to the scrutiny.

The risen Jesus appears to be touchable.  There is a real presence about him.

Jesus carries his wounds.  That’s an interesting idea of resurrection – the wounds continue beyond the grave.

Balding men existed at the time of the painting and possibly before!

Thomas is not alone.  Was he the only skeptic in the room?  The other disciples depicted appear more than a little interested, but they didn’t let on. They hid behind Thomas.  How often do we wait for others to go first rather than leap in and take the first step and own up to how we feel about something?

Thomas has a real deep look!  It is kind of like surgical voyeurism!

Interestingly, this depicted Jesus helps him…Jesus is not afraid of this deep-level of scrutiny!

Thomas has an expression of utter concentration.  He has yet to register any reaction to what he is seeing and touching, I find that quite odd actually and I want to come back to that.

And finally, the painter invites us into this intimate scrutiny.  We get the next best view than that of Thomas.  It is as if the artist is saying, well, Thomas did all this and believed, what about you?  What do you make of this?

A poem: St. Thomas Didymus by Denise Levertov

So it was
that after Golgotha…
…and after the empty tomb
when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,
told me
that though He had passed through the door like a ghost
He had breathed on them
the breath of a living man –
even then
when hope tried with a flutter of wings
to lift me –
still, alone with myself,
my heavy cry was the same: Lord
I believe,
help thou mine unbelief.

I needed
blood to tell me the truth,
the touch
of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nail-holes
didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge,
refusing to loosen
unless that insistence won
the battle I fought with life

But when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
obstinate need,
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unravelling,
I witnessed
all things quicken to colour, to form,
my question
not answered but given
its part
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun.                                     Denise Levertov

 

In response, Thomas cried out ‘My Lord and my God!’

He uttered the words that everyone in the ever-after twilight is invited to say in response.  To reckon with this ‘vast unfolding design lit by a risen sun.’

There is, always, with Jesus, an invitation to live into another story.  Some will choose to simply relegate Jesus to history as a great teacher, story teller, healer and friend of the poor.  But to do this is to choose to ignore what Thomas saw.  The resurrection challenges us to a wider perspective.  Incidentally, this wide perspective was what Jesus always offered – he was constantly pointing people to see life through a God-shaped lens.  He was on about life – life abundant – life at and in its fullest.

 

One of the things that lingers with me in the Thomas story is that we don’t really know what Thomas actually did before he made his declaration.  We know that he insisted that he would not believe unless he could put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in Jesus’ side.  And we know that Jesus invited just such a level of scrutiny.  But we don’t actually know if Thomas acted on the invitation.  The text suggests he didn’t.  Here is how it goes: “Then he [Jesus] said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’”

Seeing was believing for Thomas, there is no evidence that he actually touched Jesus.  If he had touched him wouldn’t Jesus have asked…’Have you believed because you have touched me rather than seen me?’

Is seeing enough?  It was for Thomas.  I am not sure that touching would have added anything more for him – the wounds were more than evident.  I actually wonder if anyone touched Jesus in his post-resurrected state.  Mary Magdalene, meeting Jesus at the empty tomb, was instructed not to hold onto Jesus.  Jesus appeared and disappeared through closed doors, and Thomas was acknowledged for his seeing in order to be believing.  Does anyone have to touch Jesus for him to have to prove that he has been resurrected?  Not me… I don’t need to poke Jesus in order to believe in his presence… I simply have to trust the eyes of faith to see in order to believe.  In the twilight – the only light on offer here, I catch glimpses and I see enough to declare Jesus as my Lord and my God.  Do you?

We come back to the painting.  I wonder if the artist was drawn into the notion that Thomas did actually poke his finger into Jesus’ side.  The painting suggests so because there is Thomas poking and Jesus helping him.  But what if the artist had read the text carefully and had identified that Jesus acknowledged Thomas as ‘seeing and believing’ rather than ‘touching and believing.’  What if the artist knew that Thomas did not touch Jesus, why then would Caravaggio still depict a touching Thomas rather than a seeing one?

I wonder if the artist is challenging his audience.  I wonder if he is challenging us with this – even if you could touch Jesus or at least watch Thomas touch him, even then, would you believe?

You see, there is on the face of this artist’s Thomas, and on the faces of the other two disciples, absolutely no clarity about whether what they were doing or watching was registering as believing.  Wouldn’t Jesus inviting the scrutiny have been enough?  Wouldn’t Jesus being there with the tunic lifted have been enough?  Wouldn’t Jesus gripping Thomas’ hand have been enough?  But no, this Thomas has to jolly well stick his finger in and move it about, and even then, even then there is no dawning of faith, enlightenment, and revelation on his face.

Even with all that you have heard and seen and touched, says the artist to the audience looking at his work, with all of that, will you believe?  No, he says, I am not sure that you will.  You ask too much.  You ask your questions but don’t want to find an answer lest it demands your all… and you don’t want to give your all… you don’t want to share in the declaration that Thomas made without touching.  You don’t want to live in the power of the resurrection life at all.

So the artist leaves the story hanging with his Thomas still looking, still with furrows on his forehead, just like the others in the room, and Jesus looking upon them with compassion, like he does… wondering when, and if, and what will really be sufficient for people who will look for any excuse under the sun to explain the resurrection away.

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One thought on “Thomas, Jesus, doubt, and us. Today’s Sunday after Easter reflection

  1. Wonderful turns of phrase, Martin, and great choice of painting and poems. I really likes such things as ‘demanding an explanation for resurrection within the confines of our modern scientific method’ and ‘There is, always, with Jesus, an invitation to live into another story…….. The resurrection challenges us to a wider perspective. ‘

    Well worth the time taken for a quiet read and reflect of your message.

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