caravaggio thomas jesus

Church according to Thomas

Had Thomas doubted? Thomas had not doubted that Jesus was “the Way.” But Thomas had doubted: himself above all others. The thing is, Thomas could not trust one, but not the other. The thing is, he could no longer live that ambivalence. And Jesus now gave him the gift: he would never be able to doubt again, at least not himself.

It is perplexing that the story of Judas Didymus is the original “last word” of the Johannine Gospel. The Johannine community understood itself first and foremost as “witness through faithful attestation.” But tradition has tended to remember “Doubting Thomas” as the stereotype of how to not be a disciple, let alone an exemplary one, who deserved to be remembered at the very climax of a book “written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20: 31).

The Fourth Gospel presents us with a number of vignettes where Thomas is protagonist. Taken together, we might see a more complex character than the stereotype “Doubting” might suggest.

Judas the Twin makes his first appearance right before Jesus’ last days, when Jesus finally decides to return to Judea because his friend “Lazarus is dead” (Jn 11:14). He tells his disciples, concerned for his life because Jesus had just narrowly escaped stoning: “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him” (Jn 11:15).

Thomas seems to be the only one to take this statement at face value. As he puts it: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16). The Fourth Gospel does not present this as a statement of bravado, but just as a matter of fact. Being associated with Jesus of Nazareth could mean execution. And Lazarus was already dead. Thomas understood clearly, and with no extra gloss, that the disciple is not greater than the Master and should follow wherever the Master goes—even unto death.

Nonetheless, there is a hint of (Johannine) irony that the very matter-of-factness with which he understood himself to be a follower made Thomas seem to question Jesus when the latter promised them that “after going,” he would “prepare a place for you, … so that where I am, there you may be also” (Jn 14:3). Thomas’ question is ambiguous, but paradoxically it is a sign of his unfaltering commitment: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (Jn 14:5) Or, in other words, “Tell me where you are going, and I will follow you.”

In this light, it is precisely because he sees Thomas’ unwavering desire to be a faithful disciple that Jesus corrects him, forcing him to understand even more radically what he was asking of him. Jesus speaks directly to Thomas when he says: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). Jesus is telling Thomas: the faithful disciple does not merely follow me where I go; I myself, am “the Way,” who you are meant to be.

What that statement meant, might not have been immediately clear to the disciples, but Thomas, with his characteristic “simplicity of mind,” took it to heart. Herein lies the paradox of the Twin: he seems to question, but really he is more than willing to not question his own Master. He seems to doubt, but really is more than willing to trust Jesus. Indeed, his very questioning reveals how Thomas understood his discipleship: as trusting completely and irrevocably even when he did not understand.

The third time we meet Thomas it becomes clearer to what extent he had appropriated Jesus’ word. But once more, Thomas’ naivete confuses. For he would indeed trust no one—not even his friends—that they had seen Jesus. He would trust only Jesus himself, for he had told him in no uncertain terms that only he was “the way, the truth, the life.” And not only would Thomas trust no one but Jesus himself, but he also knew what proof would convince him that it was indeed the Risen Christ and not a figment of his own imagination. After all, Thomas’ true weakness is that he did not even trust himself, his own heart and mind: “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” (Jn 20:25).

But the Master himself fulfils the promise he made to Thomas: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (“Follow me” did not even need to be said, for Thomas would always follow.) And now he gave Thomas the gift to attest fully and irrevocably that indeed it was Jesus. Jesus speaks directly to Thomas, and only to Thomas, and the one who trusted no one but his Master, finally gets to not only see, but to touch, and thus to be witness of the fullness of the truth of Christ alive: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”

Then the final statement: “Do not doubt but believe” (Jn 20:27).

Had Thomas doubted? Thomas had not doubted that Jesus was “the Way.” But Thomas had doubted: himself above all others. The thing is, Thomas could not trust one, but not the other. The thing is, he could no longer live that ambivalence. And Jesus now gave him the gift: he would never be able to doubt again, at least not himself. He had seen and touched the marks; he knew that the one who was crucified was now alive; he had touched this deepest truth that Jesus was his “way.”

And indeed, he knew this truth exactly as he had known it right before the raising of Lazarus prefigured Jesus’ own death and resurrection: the willingness to die with him had merely mirrored the willingness of Jesus to die for him. Now, he no longer had to die, for Jesus had already died for both, died for all, that all may live. He touched the wounds, knowing full well they were his own that his Master took on—and not just his own, but the woundedness of the world. Thomas too had already died and risen again.

Thomas understood—fully and completely—that the Master and him were one, because the branches are the Vine. At the same time, his profession of faith attested to what was even deeper: “My Lord and my God!” You are indeed the Way to the Father, because you and the Father are one. You, Master, are indeed Lord and God, the Way you have prepared for me, and thus my Lord and my God, the Way of divinization.

Jesus’ last words to Thomas denote his mission: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

What to our ears comes across as a rebuke, to Thomas was the absolute certainty that he had been granted the gift, to know, to understand, to see more closely than all others, even to touch the wounds of the world healed in Jesus’ resurrected flesh. That certainty, the gift, now he had to share with those who “have not seen,” but who will still be blessed because they will “come to believe” his witness.

Thomas will proclaim the Truth, that Jesus is Life itself, that only Jesus is the Way. Not with sentiment or adorned language. Not even with gesture, or any doing. Just as raw fact, as simplicity of attestation: I have seen, I have touched, I know. And I won’t tire of saying it. And alas, his saying it will also be misunderstood, scorned, not believed because that was exactly how his Master’s words had been received. Thomas and the Master are one; Thomas’ destiny the Master’s destiny, that the Fourth Gospel had meticulously detailed in scene after scene where even when God himself witnessed to Jesus… he was still denied.

“Doubting Thomas” becomes an Apostle, but his witness bears fruit in India, way beyond the Empire, and his words remain recorded in many apocryphal (and alas, questionable) texts. Still, when we see him in Chapter 21, the final addition to the Johannine Gospel, he is right beside Peter: for the first generation of Christians, Judas Didymus had fulfilled what he had promised, even if his legacy is “doubted,” his attestation often ignored.

For if the tradition, as the Lukan Emmaus narrative prefigures, will know and remember Jesus in that Jewish ritual of the breaking of the bread, Thomas will insist that Jesus himself was the slaughtered Lamb, that the final and indubitable test is the resurrection, and that he was forever witness that Christ had indeed taken upon himself all the wounds of the world, to be, in his wounded flesh, the Way to the Father.

Thus, on his part, Thomas will simply continue enacting symbolically the hardship of “walking the way,” his feet almost ritualistically taking him to all nations, his simple words ever misconstrued, but where in his unity with Christ, his consolation is that the Master had already once and for all, washed his feet and called him “friend.”

Article was first published on Nadia’s facebook.

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