It may simply be a sign of my own dubious discipleship, but I always feel Thomas gets a bad rap.  It’s not like the other disciples leapt eagerly to belief.  Jesus’ appearance grounded their faith.

More, however, than giving Thomas his due, I think there is something going on in his story that is missed by the doubter/believer shtick.   He doesn’t just demand his own personal appearance for the empirical solution of his doubt.  He insists on the link between the crucifixion and resurrection.  

There is something here about the integrity of the Pascal Mystery and, in this season, the integrity of Easter faith.  The dramatics of our liturgies can script us out of confrontation with the demanding drama of salvation.  Our cries of “Alleluia, death is no more,”  “He is risen” and trumpet-charged “This is the Feast of Victory” can ring so hollow.  Yes, of course, I believe all of this, but do I really believe in it?

Caravaggio’s portrayal of Thomas’s encounter with the risen Christ conveys the challenge of the resurrection well.


 

The scene has a claustrophobic intimacy.  Their faces close, Christ’s hand draws Thomas’ filthy finger to probe the wound on his side.  Thomas and the other disciples are portrayed as pruriently inquisitive.  But the hands make it seem almost as if Jesus must pull him to actually touch.

Christ draws us to confront his disturbing victory.  Look.  Feel.  Death really is overcome.  You have nothing to fear.  

This is not particularly calming.  This salvation is an unsettling gift.  

"Look.  I stood against the powers of the mighty Empire and the righteousness of the Authorities of religion.  I was powerless against their denunciation and violence.  They hung me as an example of what they will do to any who dare oppose them.  In my resurrection, you are free to do likewise."

Jesus’ hand conveys the awful grace at work in all aspects of our lives.  Pulling us, urging us to love as he did, to dash ourselves in struggles that seem as pointless as the cross.  Confronting us with the excruciating possibility that salvation can come to the many struggles we so anxiously seek to shrug off.

This challenges the Neo-pelagian heresy so deeply rooted in our faith.  If we would only dare believe, then Easter freedom would be ours.  Alas, we don’t.  God’s victory is defeated in our hesitance.  But grace doesn't work that way.  It’s always there, working to free us even as we wallow in hesitation.

With Thomas we ask the right question.  And with Caravaggio's Thomas, perhaps we hesitate to accept the answer.  Thank God it’s not simply up to us.

Comments

Thomas McCullough | 4/16/2012 - 10:34pm
I find Thomas comes across with more of a personality than most disciples show (save Peter) in the NT. John 11 has him asserting an aggressive willingness to join Jesus in death. Further he, upon seeing Christ risen, is the first to name him God.
Bill Collier | 4/16/2012 - 9:14pm
Presumably, those are two additional apostles intently looking on. Seems they are in trust-but-verify mode. In addition, I've always thought that Thomas's doubt likely drove him to overcompensate as a missionary. Tradition has him going perhaps the longest distance of all the apostles-all the way to southern India, where he eventually met a martyr's death. Last month's National Geographic had as its cover story an interesting piece about the apostles, with Thomas as the focus of the article.
David Pasinski | 4/16/2012 - 5:40pm
I don't recall seeing this painting, but find it disturbing as you say... but ultimately so engaging. Caravaggio takes it further than the gospel, of course, since there is no mention of Thomas taking up the invitation, but this interpetation is nonetheless dramatic and meditative.

Speaking of Thomas however in this non-canonical sense, I am struck also by parts of the gospel in his name - even though discredited and adjudjed as 'gnostic." But if we can meditate on a non-canonical interpretation of Caravaggio's, perhaps understanding some of "his" theology is likewise ground for insight.

Do I open myself for lecture or inquisition on that?
Beth Cioffoletti | 4/16/2012 - 4:33pm
I have always loved this Caravaggio painting because it takes me out of my head and makes everything real, right here, and visceral.  I can feel the finger going into the bloody wound, something that makes me cringe and pull back from, I am gently encouraged to enter.  Don't be afraid, it says to me.  See what is in front of you, enter it and rejoice.
Gerelyn Hollingsworth | 4/17/2012 - 9:54am
The three men examining the wound may be Jesus' brothers.  Judas Thomas puts his finger in the wound.  The other two, so close, could be Joses and/or Simon and/or James.

Wiki for more on Thomas:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_the_Apostle

From that:

Thomas speaks in the Gospel of John. In John 11:16, when Lazarus has just died, the apostles don't want to go back to Judea, where Jesus' fellow Jews had attempted to stone him to death. Thomas says bravely: ''Let us also go, that we may die with him'' (NIV).