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Friday, April 13, 2007

2nd Sunday of Easter (C): The Faithful Thomas

by Caravaggio; photo grab: wikipedia

The Text: John 20:19-31
On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, "Peace be with you."
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you."
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
"Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained."

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve,
was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples said to him, "We have seen the Lord."
But he said to them,
"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nailmarks
and put my hand into his side, I will not believe."

Now a week later his disciples were again inside
and Thomas was with them.
Jesus came, although the doors were locked,
and stood in their midst and said, "Peace be with you."
Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe."
Thomas answered and said to him, "My Lord and my God!"
Jesus said to him, "Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed."

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples
that are not written in this book.
But these are written that you may come to believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that through this belief you may have life in his name. (NAB)

Commentary:

Right after we buried our confrere, the slain SVD missionary Fr. Fransiskus Madhu, SVD, I asked Fr. Gerry Gudmalin, SVD, Francis' companion and parish priest of the Lubuagan (Kalinga) Mission, what will be their next move. Without blinking an eye, Fr. Gerry spoke of remaining in Lubuagan and the other SVD missionaries in the Kalinga mission, even in the face of violence and death.

"Let us also go, that we may die with him" (John 11:16). This is what Thomas says as he addresses his fellow disciples. The occasion: it is the eve of Jesus' passion. News of the illness of Lazarus, a close friend of Jesus, reached the master and his disciples. But Jesus waits for two days on the other side of the Jordan River, as if to give Lazarus the dignity of dying and being raised again. Jesus is determined to go to Bethany near Jerusalem. His disciples are afraid of the consequences. The last time he was there, he was almost stoned to death (John 10:31). So the disciples restrain him: "Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again" (John 11:18)? But Thomas persuades his fellow disciples to go with their master and die with him. They heed Thomas.

Experts on the Gospel of John think that Thomas's reaction is unequivocal (i.e., he means what he says). Unlike Peter who makes an empty promise to Jesus to remain faithful until death (John 13:36-38) (note that Peter talks to Jesus alone), the word of Thomas is intended for his fellow disciples. It is for this reason that Thomas will stand out among the disciples to encounter the risen Lord after his resurrection.

Today's interpretation of this Sunday Gospel text is often times colored by the English expression "doubting Thomas" (synonym for "cynic, disbeliever, doubter"). Indeed, Thomas comes a late believer of Jesus' resurrection, but never too late to formulate the most profound and radical confession of the Gospel of John: ho kurios mou kai ho theos mou ("My Lord and my God", John 20:28).

The disciple who has not remained faithful to Jesus when he faced violent death needs to make a kind of an oath of allegiance to the master after the resurrection. This is what Peter does when meets the risen Lord at the Lake of Tiberias (21:1-17). Thomas does not need such a renewal of vow. He has been faithful to his master.

Thomas is a kind of a model disciple, one who sincerely seeks to understand the message of Jesus (see 14:5) and at the same time commits himself to the person of Jesus. Without fear, he announces in public his readiness to share the violent death of the master and so accompanies the him on way to Jerusalem.

The violent death of Fr. Madhu is a powerful example of such fidelity. He was shot by an M-16 armalite while preparing to celebrate Palm Sunday Mass commemorating Jesus' entrance to Jerusalem. The "stampita" (little card) distributed during before the mass has the text from the Fourth Gospel: "I appointed you to go and bear fruit" (15:16). This passage belongs to the farewell discourses of Jesus where the Johannine theme of martyrdom, or at least witness until death, is best articulated. Jesus announces that his own disciples will experience hatred of the world (15:18-25). As the Holy Spirit will bear witness in or through them, they will also bear witness (Greek martureite vv. 26-27). They will be expelled from the synagogues and be killed (16:1-4). In an earlier text, Jesus compares himself with a grain of wheat falling to the ground to give life to a new plant, to a new life (12:24). Likewise, the followers of Jesus will share this destiny.

Thomas expressed clearly his fidelity to Jesus in his willingness to share his master’s violent destiny. Fr. Fransiskus Madhu, SVD missionary, felled by five bullets, shared this destiny not "in word but in deed" (cf. 1 John 3:18). The Church Father, Tertullian (ca. 155–230 A.D.) once wrote, "Sanguinis martyrum, semen christianorum" ("Blood of martyrs, seed of Christians").

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Sources:

Johannes Beutler, "Faith and Confession: The Purpose of John" in J. Painter, R. Alan Culpepper and F. F. Segovia (eds.), Word, Theology, and Community in John (St. Louis, MS: Chalice Press, 2002), pp. 19-29.

Raymond Brown, A Risen Christ in Eastertime: Essays on the Gospel Narratives of the Resurrection (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1991).

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