Thomas and transformed wounds

This post is a reblog of a post from my earlier blog, Stepping Stones, a couple of Easters ago. 


One of the most striking post- Resurrection scenes in John’s gospel is Thomas’ encounter with Jesus. While often we focus on Thomas’ doubt and his need to see Christ for himself, another dimension of the scene is Thomas’s focus on Jesus’s wounds. John reports that Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them in the locked room (John 20: 19-23). He is not present when Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon the apostles with the command to go and to forgive sins. That Jesus breathes on the disciples is startling for its physicality: in Greek, ψυχή has the double meaning of both soul (a principle of movement and life) and breath. The disciples have not only “seen the Lord” but felt His living breath, which He passes on to them so that it is felt, perhaps even breathed in, to become part of their own breath and own life.

From that intimate encounter, Thomas is absent. When his friends report that they have seen Jesus, Thomas asks not for proof of life, but proof of his wounds. For Thomas, the question is not only whether there is a Jesus who is alive and raised from the dead; perhaps there is also a doubt on Thomas’ part as to whether Jesus really was raised. But I would suggest an even deeper question in Thomas’ demand to see Jesus’ wounds. Thomas wishes to know: is this Jesus that they have seen raised from the dead the same Jesus who suffered and was wounded? Is there a real continuity between his human life, his sorrow, suffering and death, and this raised Jesus? Thomas wants to know it, and literally to touch it: “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” (John 20: 25).

Thomas’ demand that his own hands enter into Jesus’ wounds is also an entry point for us, to help us to make sense of our own suffering as well. Perhaps one of the most frustrating responses one can be given in the midst of one’s own pain—whether physical, emotional, or spiritual—is another’s well-meaning attempt to placate pain by suggesting that the suffering will end. Of course, in many cases this is true: for example, spraining one’s ankle in a competition is often a temporary pain and inconvenience. But in many of the deepest experiences of suffering, we know that suffering will not be followed by a return to stasis. Unlike television sitcoms where each challenge is resolved by the episode’s end and we witness a return to the same old situation, real lives often undergo fundamental alterations. Often the challenge is to learn how to incorporate pain into one’s ongoing lived experience.

Parents who suffer the intense grief of losing a child often report that life never simply returns to “normal” but rather that life requires incorporating the grief and pain in a way that life can still meaningfully move forward. Women who are traumatized by rape, or soldiers traumatized by war may experience their own “resurrections,” but such resurrection is not a return to what was before. Even smaller but still significant losses, such as losing a job and enduring a long period of unemployment, losing a promising athletic career to an injury, or a broken relationship, have enduring effects. John’s gospel opens up the possibility of understanding resurrection as a transformation in which wounds are healed but remain as openings.

Thomas and the other disciples have experienced a fundamental break in their lives with Jesus’ death. Jesus’ wounding is not only his own; His mother’s heart is pierced at her son’s suffering and death. Peter faces his Lord’s death, and then the sinfulness of his own betrayal of his beloved Christ. Those at the foot of the Cross have witnessed an almost unimaginable series of painful and humiliating events occur to the one they had known as both Messiah and Friend. They, too, have been wounded in their own way. When Thomas seeks Jesus’ wounds, perhaps he is also seeking an encounter with his own “wounds” and what will happen to them now in the midst of Resurrection.

When Jesus appears to Thomas, the Gospel is careful to point out that this is a week later (John 20:26). Whatever Jesus’ Resurrected body looks like—that it is transformed is clear in John’s gospel—it permanently carries with it the marks of suffering. Jesus’ Body remains marked with His wounds even after the Resurrection. Why does John draw our attention to these marks? I suggest that it is because His wounds provide an “opening” for us, his disciples to enter in. His hands are like our hands. We can know others in their suffering and be with them because we, too, have suffered, and because our greatest Friend knows and shares our wounds with us. The Resurrection has not meant the undoing of history, but rather its transformation.