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.
We just read in the Gospel lesson that “Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.” So we ask: “Where was he?” We don’t know. There has been a lot of speculation over the centuries. I was struck by one observation of a man struggling with alcoholism. He said that it seemed to him that Thomas may have been so devastated by Jesus’ crucifixion that he went on a week-long bender. That’s not impossible. But I would suggest that Thomas was out looking for Jesus on his own. Whatever else, Thomas did seem to pride himself on being independent.
There are a couple of things here that I’d like to note. The first is that while Thomas was away, the text tells us that our Lord appeared to the apostles “on the evening of that first day of the week,” the Day of his resurrection. This is significant because for Jesus, as for all Jews, the climax of the week was not Sunday but the day before— Saturday, the Sabbath—the last day of the week, the day of rest.
Let’s look at this more closely. The third of the Ten Commandments ordered God’s people to keep the Sabbath holy, by offering special worship to God and by resting from unnecessary work. In his book Jesus of Nazareth Pope Benedict writes: “It is clear that only an event of extraordinary impact could have led to the abandonment of the Sabbath and its replacement by the first day of the week. Only an event that marked souls indelibly could bring about such a profound realignment in the religious culture of the week.” (p. 259)
As noted, on the evening of that first day, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas was absent. He did not see Jesus until he joined the other apostles a week later in the upper room. There and then he uttered the words that are the climax of St. John’s Gospel. When Jesus invited Thomas to touch him and to stop his unbelief, Thomas—awestruck—proclaimed: “My Lord and my God!” In this one phrase, Thomas affirmed that Jesus was Lord or master, and by calling him God, he was also proclaiming that Christ was the Incarnate Deity, the second person of the Blessed Trinity; this Jesus was actually God. This was the first time in all the Scriptures that someone actually said this.
This is why the earliest Christians designated Sunday as “the Lord’s day.” It celebrates the actual day of the Resurrection, while remembering that one week later, there was the proclamation of the Incarnation right from the mouth of Thomas the Doubter. From then on the Faithful have gathered together each “Lord’s Day,” each Sunday, to pray, to hear the word of God, to affirm the truth of the Resurrection and the Incarnation, and to receive the bread of life.
The Catechism tells us that: Sunday is expressly distinguished from the sabbath which it follows chronologically every week; for Christians its ceremonial observance replaces that of the sabbath. In Christ’s Passover, Sunday fulfills the spiritual truth of the Jewish sabbath and announces man’s eternal rest in God. For worship under the Law prepared for the mystery of Christ, and what was done there prefigured some aspects of Christ: Those who lived according to the old order of things have come to a new hope, no longer keeping the sabbath, but the Lord’s Day, in which our life is blessed by him and by his death. (CCC # 2175)
The second point that I want to make is that Thomas’s experience has an important lesson for us all. If, as I suggested earlier, that Thomas was out looking for Jesus on his own while Christ appeared to the huddled disciples in the upper room, then there is much for us to consider. It must be said that we normally and regularly encounter Jesus not one-on-one, but when we gather with our brothers and sisters in the great family of God which we call the Catholic Church. Purely personal encounters with Christ such as that enjoyed by Mary Magdalene on the morning of the resurrection, by the two disciples on the road to Emmaus that afternoon, or by the apostle Paul outside Damascus do happen. And when they do occur, such one-on-one encounters are never just for the individual, to give that person a great spiritual experience. There is another, more important reason. You see, down through history Jesus comes to specially chosen souls so that they can go to others as his witnesses, empowered by the Holy Spirit to say: “I have seen the Lord.”
Today, there are many people who are sincerely seeking the Lord, but who prefer to do so apart from the worshiping and believing community. Many, if not all of these folks will claim that they are “spiritual but not religious.” I would remind you that the words religion and religious come from the same Greek word for ligaments. Religion, by design and intent, is to bind people together, just as ligaments connect muscle to bone. That’s why we call monks and nuns “religious.” They are linked not only with each other in community—they also have a special link to God and to those of us who are not part of their community. That’s why the Carmelites out here on the edge of town are so important to us. Although they are cloistered, they are committed to an apostolate of intercessory prayer, which includes you and me and anyone else who requests their intercessions. They are religious and they are not only connected to other Carmelites, they are tightly linked to us.
It must be said that the Catholic religion is personal, but it is not private. People who neglect the communal dimension of our faith are constructing a private spirituality of their own devising, one in which they are the supreme authority. They need to learn the lesson Thomas learned: that the Lord comes first and foremost to us when we are gathered together with our fellow believers.
Let’s look at an example from Jesus himself. He taught us to pray not “My Father,” but “Our Father.” We pray as members of a community. We need each other. We believe not as isolated individuals, but as members of this family into which we were reborn in baptism: the Catholic Church. That is how the apostle Thomas came to faith in the risen Lord: when he rejoined his fellow apostles.
Faith is a gift. And the Lord uses his Church to give us this gift. It is in the Church, however, that our faith is nourished. Here is how the Catechism explains it: Faith is a personal act, the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals himself. But faith is not an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone. You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life. The believer has received faith from others and should hand it on to others.” And the Catechism continues: “Our love for Jesus and for our neighbor impels us to speak to others about our faith. Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers. I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in their faith.” [CCC #166]
St. Luke states it succinctly in Acts 2:42: From the beginning on the Lord’s Day, the Faithful came together and devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.
Let me close with this. St. Thomas the Doubter wanted to do it his way. He was a precursor to Frank Sinatra who sang from an old man’s perspective looking back over his life. Sinatra proudly proclaimed “I Did It My Way.” Perhaps, but when we approach the Throne of Grace and look at the Lord and say “I Did It My Way,” just imagine how that will be received. It’s by doing it Christ’s way, in the company of the other members of the Faithful that God is pleased and the fullness of blessing comes to us. This is intended to be a bit more grist for the mill.