From the Gospel we heard at the first Mass of Easter, all the way through the Gospels during the Octave, we’ve heard more and more details of those appearances of the Risen Lord Jesus. In fact, in the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter there are two appearances recounted to us, and they were just a week apart. St. John tells us that at the first appearance, which took place in the evening of the day on which Christ rose from the dead, St. Thomas wasn’t there. Later, when he heard that his fellow apostles had seen the Risen Lord, he made his now-famous statement, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” It was that statement which has led to the term in our language which is so familiar – that of being a “doubting Thomas.” And, of course, some eight days later, Thomas is given exactly the opportunity he said he wanted. He got the chance to examine for himself, but all he could do was to sink to his knees and exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”
This raises something interesting for us to look at more closely here. Consider how Christ treated Thomas’ unbelief, compared to how He dealt with unbelief generally during His earthly ministry. It takes only a quick look in the Gospels to see that our Lord’s treatment of the unbelief of the Jewish people and their leaders was very different from His reaction to the initial unbelief of Thomas. We see that the stern words of rebuke which He spoke to unbelievers during His earthly life were very different from the gentle language He used with Thomas. Let’s look at a few of those occasions in our Lord’s ministry when He spoke out about the unbelief which the Jews had for Him and His teaching. In the synagogue at Capernaum, for instance, they were offended when Christ called Himself the Bread which came down from heaven, which must be eaten to have eternal life. In fact, this presented such difficulties for so many, that even quite a few of His followers left Him. And what did He say as they left? “Stop murmuring among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him...” And on another occasion, as He taught in the Temple, the Pharisees accused Him of testifying on His own behalf, which they said was the reason why they didn’t believe Him. But instead of modifying His teaching, He was pretty tough on them when He said, “Why do you not understand what I am staying? Because you cannot bear to hear my word. You belong to your father the devil... You do not listen because you do not belong to God.” Or again, as He walked in the Temple on another occasion, the Jews asked Him, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” But His reply was a sharp one: “You do not believe, because you are not among my sheep.”
Instances such as those contrast with how Jesus treated His Apostle Thomas, when Thomas expressed his own disbelief, and that he was going to need some proof. Was Jesus stern? Did He berate him? No, Jesus simply said, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless but believing.” This was the gentle reply with which St. Thomas’s inconstant and weak faith was met.
From what we observe, it follows that there must be something essentially different between the unbelief of St. Thomas, and the unbelief of the world. Our Lord Himself is unchangeable, so it follows that when He gave different treatment to cases apparently the same, the cases themselves must actually be different. What was it, then, which made the unbelief of St. Thomas pardonable, while the unbelieving Jews were treated more harshly? Actually, it’s because we’re seeing two different types of unbelievers. First of all, those unbelievers who questioned Christ during His earthly ministry had doubts and questions which didn’t come out of any love for Christ, or from any sense of their own sinfulness and need for God’s mercy. The root of their unbelief lay in their desire to find Christ in the wrong. They didn’t like His teaching; they didn’t want to have Him for their Master; they couldn’t bear to give up their selfishness and their worldliness, and to become His followers – and that meant that there was nothing in them to which Christ could appeal. The only chance of their salvation lay in their repentance, which they had no intention of doing.
Isn’t it true that so much of the unbelief which we see in the world today springs from selfishness and and the attitude that “I’m going to go my own way”? The sad fact is, most people don’t like to give up the things that keep them away from life with God. They don’t want to deny themselves any comfort or any amusement they happen to desire. They can never have their questions answered, or their doubts settled, because both the doubts and the questions rise out of hearts which are at enmity with God. They refuse to subject themselves to the Will of God. If such people are to come to the knowledge of God and His mercy, it won’t be by arguing with them – no, it will be by praying for them, so that they themselves will decide come to know their spiritual poverty, and bring themselves before God in humility and love.
St. Thomas, on the other hand, represents another kind of unbeliever – and he makes us think of those times and situations in which even true disciples of Christ fall into temporary doubt or unbelief – times which many of us have had.
Notice some important things: first of all, Thomas’s unbelief arose during his separation from the other disciples. Where he was, and what he was doing, during that first appearance of the Risen Christ, we don’t know. But the unbelief that settled on him for that ensuing week was like a dark cloud on his soul, and it was due to his absence from his brothers in the Upper Room. Had he been there, he would have had the joy and assurance the others had received when they saw the Lord.
That’s an important lesson for all of us. We cannot separate ourselves from the Church, from our brothers and sisters in Christ, simply to do our own thing, and expect to be able to keep a healthy faith. Thomas’s separation meant that his mind was left to prey upon itself, and that’s what happens to anyone who tries to “go it alone” – we need the fellowship of the Church, and the sacraments of the Church, and the constant teaching of the Church. When God placed an obligation upon us to attend Mass every week, He did it for our good, and not because He simply wanted to keep us from what we might consider to be “more fun.”
So here’s the difference between the unbelief of the world, and the unbelief of Thomas: the world wants its own glory, and it measures everything by its own standards, and it wants nothing to move it away from its own selfishness. Thomas, on the other hand, loved Christ. He may not have fully understood, but his will and his affections were set on God.
And understanding this difference is especially important if we’re going to understand what Divine Mercy is about. God’s mercy doesn’t mean that we can simply do whatever we want and believe whatever we want, and God will somehow “wink” at it. That’s part of the gross misunderstanding we see in the world around us today.
For a person to receive God’s mercy means that he has to be like St. Thomas – that is, to follow Christ wherever He may lead, in the way of obedience. To receive God’s mercy means that we come to Him with love and repentance, and that we sink before Him with the words “My Lord and my God” on our lips. We cannot expect God’s mercy if we expect Him simply to take us the way we are. No, God’s mercy comes when we take God the way He is. To receive the mercy of God means that we come to Him with love in our hearts, as Thomas did – and with the intention to be obedient to what God asks of us, and with the desire to live faithfully within the Church which Christ Himself established. God’s mercy cannot be received by a clenched fist of defiance, but only by a heart open to the love of the risen Saviour who died for our sins and who now lives for our salvation, and whom we greet with the words, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Almighty Father, who hast given thine only Son to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification: grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness; that we may always serve thee in pureness of living and truth; through the merits of the same Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
Pictured: "The Doubting of Thomas" by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1881)