Thomas and the Risen Christ
April 28, 2019
SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
(Or Sunday of Divine Mercy)
The early community
Ps 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-23
The stone the builders rejected
Rv 1:9-13, 17-19
Seven gold lampstands
Thomas and the Risen Christ
In the weeks after Easter the liturgical readings no longer feature readings from the Old Testament and Paul. Instead the first reading is from Acts and (this year) the second is from Revelation. In Acts, the first Sunday always features the early community. So it is today. We are in the third year of the three-year liturgical cycle. The previous two years of the cycle have looked at the better known of the Acts stories, but there are still some left.
Every year no matter what cycle it is, the Gospel reading is from John 20:19-31, about the encounter between Thomas and the Risen Christ. Since this is the only gospel story that explicitly takes place one week after the Easter event, the liturgy has no choice, it seems, but to feature it every year on this day.
There are aspects to the story that set it apart from the others. Here are some of them.
John’s is the Gospel that tells us the room is locked. This detail allows us to appreciate the unearthly quality of the resurrection body of Jesus. It is not limited by the laws of physics. It is in some ways unearthly.
Another Johannine touch is the conferring of the Holy Spirit at Easter. Acts of the Apostles has this occurring 50 days later, on the feast of Pentecost, although Luke, the author of Acts, treats it similarly to this Gospel of John (see Luke 24:50-53). Apart from the particular time frame involved, a certain sequence of events is emphasized in both accounts, Acts and John’s Gospel. First the resurrection itself, indicated by the empty tomb (John 20:1-10); then the encounter with Mary Magdalen in the garden, and the announcement that Jesus needs to ascend to the Father (20:17); finally, the coming of the Holy Spirit that evening, in the locked room — all on the same day in John’s account.
Another distinctive character of John’s account is the repeated event. A feature of John as a narrator is that he sometimes relates double stories. Examples include the double announcement of the Baptist (1:29; 36), or the double welcome at Bethany by Martha and Mary. Each scene begins with the same greeting (11:21, 32), indicating they are intended to be read against one another.
Here too, we have two events described in similar language, inviting us to compare them — the first Sunday and the second. Notice already in the first, the evening of Easter, there is already a repetition. Twice Jesus says “Peace be with you.” After the first, he shows them his hands and sides. After the second, he breathes on them and invites the Holy Spirit to descend upon them. Two different topics are presented, each with its own introduction.
The appearance on the following week is distinguished by the absence, then presence, of Thomas. This allows the narrative to emphasize the first of Jesus’ topics — his physical hands and sides. Even though Jesus can appear unexpected in a locked room, he is not a ghost. His reality is still physical, shown by the physical wounds, which Thomas is invited to touch. Here we see an answer to the belief that resurrection is about immortality of the soul. No, it is about the life of the whole person, indicated by the language of bodily resurrection. That is the biblical understanding.
Finally, we might mention that the risen body of Jesus includes the wounds. This is interesting if we expect that the resurrection body would be perfect, scrubbed clean of all negativity. Instead, it retains the history of the Passion and death of Jesus. These are banners of honor as well as wounds.
For reflection: Perhaps our resurrection bodies will record our struggle as well as our victory.
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.