One of the coolest churches I went to in Europe was this itty bitty (by Roman standards), dark thing covered with scaffolding. A few blocks from St. John Lateran, Santa Croce is a monument to the work of St. Helena, mother of Constantine and patron Saint of archaeologists. She actually carted back a few shiploads of dirt from her time in the Holy Land so that this church could be built on holy ground.
The interior is rather lackluster, but around a corner and through to the back is a display of relics unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere–including the Holy Land itself.1 There’s marble from Bethlehem, Calvary, and the tomb; the cross beam of the good thief’s cross; a nail; a thorn from the crown of thorns; pretty awesome, all.
But the clincher for me was this: St. Thomas’ finger.
Okay, yeah, but if you’ve been Catholic in Europe for any time at all, you’ve gotten used to the veneration (never worship) of shriveled body parts. This isn’t just a finger, though. This is “put your finger in the holes in my hands.” This is the finger that probed the wounds of the risen Christ, the finger that proved the Resurrection.
Or maybe it’s just some old nasty finger. The point here isn’t the authenticity of the relic but the truth of the Gospel.
Because prophecies and miracles and centuries of conversions aside, it really all comes down to this: the pierced hands. The pierced hands tell us that this man was truly crucified. And the living flesh that surrounds the holes declares that he rose again.
If Jesus claimed to be God2 and he rose from the dead, he’s God. The resurrection is the ultimate proof of Christianity, as Jesus himself told us (Mt 12:38-42). So when Thomas touches the holes in Jesus’ hands and side, he knows with certainty that Jesus rose from the dead. And if he rose from the dead, he can’t just be some great moral teacher, as C.S. Lewis so brilliantly explains in Mere Christianity:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” ((Among my favorite things ever written, if you’re keeping track.))
So when Thomas sticks his hands in the side of Christ, he doesn’t just know that this man was crucified and verified dead. He doesn’t just know that this crucified man is walking around happily 2 days later, teleporting between Jerusalem and Emmaus and walking through doors. (And I’m not talking alohomora throught the door, I’m talking Casper the Friendly Ghost through the door.) No, Thomas doesn’t just know that this Jesus guy is something special. In that moment, with that intimate gesture of love and proof, Thomas knows that Jesus is God. Creator of the universe, ground of all being, our origin and destination. No big deal.
Whatever they may not have understood before the Passion, the Apostles knew at this point that Jesus’ claims were radical, so radical they were revolutionary, for good or for ill. There was no going back to regular everyday Judaism if this Jesus was for real, and he was. This was no ghost, no impressive con artist “Walking” on “water” and “healing” the “blind.” This guy was d-e-a-d dead. And now he’s fine. There’s was no going back to life as they knew it.
Not that they didn’t try. Thomas doubts so seriously that he needs physical proof. I’ve met more than one Thomas in my day, claiming that he’ll believe in God if God shows himself. “Blessed are those who have not seen but have believed.”
Peter believes, he just doesn’t know what to do about it. So after the Resurrection, Peter goes fishing. Jesus rose from the dead, but for Peter it’s just another day at the office. How many of us have been there, moved by the Spirit one moment and then back to gossiping and lying the minute the retreat is over?
Both of these men are called out, Thomas by being reprimanded for his unbelief, Peter by being reminded that his mission is far greater than fishing. But there’s something so sweet about their correction. Jesus could easily have ignored Thomas, saying that if he wasn’t ready to believe, that was his problem. He could have let Peter be a mess and chosen the much holier John instead. But God doesn’t cut his losses when it comes to souls. He does whatever it takes.
I’ve often wondered if Thomas wasn’t the whole reason Jesus rose with holes. His glorified body was healed of the signs of his scourging, but the holes in his hands and side remained. What if the God of the universe chose to spend eternity in a “damaged” body simply because that’s what Thomas needed? What if that line in the Gospel is really there only for you? What if the Holy Spirit inspired that composer centuries ago just so that you’d hear that song today? What if God created lilacs just so the smell of them would remind you of his love? It’s not impossible.
See, we serve an infinite God who manages to dwell in the human heart. Somehow, he’s able to be for everyone and for each one all at the same time. For Peter, he built a charcoal fire.3 For Thomas, he rose with holes. What are the pierced hands he holds out to you to prove his love? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
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- For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, a relic is an item associated with Christ or a Saint–a body part, more famously, or a prayer book or item of clothing. They’re not magic, but God often uses them as means to help us identify with a Saint and grow in holiness. He sometimes even uses them as channels of miraculous grace. This is Biblical: see Acts 19:12. [↩]
- While he never said the words outright, it’s hard to read Jn 8:58, Jn 14:6, or Jn 17:5–among many others–any other way. [↩]
- A charcoal fire only shows up twice in the Gospel: Jn 19:15-18 and Jn 21. Peter’s denial and his reconciliation. Coincidence? HA! [↩]