As Real As It Gets

Yesterday the Church celebrated the feast of St. Thomas. This is the Thomas who was also called Didymus, which means “twin.” He is perhaps better known as “doubting Thomas” because of the story that we heard in yesterday’s Gospel:

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 Thomas 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.” (Jn 20:24-29)

Every time I read this story, I can’t help but think that it speaks directly to our culture’s obsessive positivism. Although Thomas had journeyed with Christ, witnessed his miracles, and heard the intimations of death and resurrection, he would not believe. He wanted proof, hard facts, observable and measurable results. He wanted to subject this Jesus to the test. Faith in Christ, for Thomas, a Christ crucified and risen, was an unallowable possibility – it was simply unreasonable.thomas_caravaggio

This should strike a chord with us. Thomas embodies the post-Christian West, with its fixation upon hard facts, its reductions to positivism, its sundering of faith and reason, and its unreasonable raising of man to the position of ultimate arbiter of truth. Yet, what is particularly striking about this story is not Thomas’ doubt, but God’s mercy in accommodating himself to Thomas’ position. Thomas might be a saint for our times, but it is God who continues to appease our pretentious demands.

Note the following:

In the first place, the Gospel writer notes that “the doors were locked.” While certainly describing the physical setting, one can’t help but make the literary connection to imagery for hardness of heart. The locked doors, sealed and allowing no light of truth to pass through. However, even these doors, symbolizing Thomas’ hardness of heart are not enough to prevent the resurrected Christ from entering. This is the first act of mercy toward Thomas – going to the place of his hardness of heart.

But there is another step, another act of compassion – Jesus subjected himself to Thomas’ interrogation. “You want proof, Thomas? Look here. See it with your own eyes. Put your hand in my side.” Thomas wants physical proof and he demands it with all of the skepticism he can conjure up. I have a feeling he got more than he expected when Christ passed through the locked doors that day.

Consider this passage in light of our times and in light of the new evangelization. For whatever reason, the masses have missed the message, they were away from the upper room, just like Thomas, distracted, busy, unconcerned, or unconvinced. Whatever the reason, the message of the Gospel did not reach the heart. This heart has grown cold and unbelieving, demanding hard evidence for the existence of God or the divinity of Christ.

Now consider the new evangelist. For reasons that we cannot fathom, God has entrusted to him the word that is capable of penetrating the heart that is locked and sealed and skeptical. He has been entrusted with a word capable of disposing a heart to the possibility of faith. This is the work of missionary discipleship (see Evangelii Gaudium 119-121). Journeying with individuals as they venture toward that threshold, just as Jesus, in his compassion for Thomas journeyed right into the heart of his doubt with an invitation.

Yet Jesus did more than enter into the doors. He extended a real invitation, in the flesh. “Look. Touch. Put your finger in the nail marks.” In other words, our faith is not in the ethereal. It is not in airy thoughts. It is something concrete and tangible.

Do we see this tangible invitation today?

Indeed. In the Eucharist. Jesus promises to be with us always (Mt 28:20). He establishes the Eucharist, an abiding “bread of presence,” a sacramental presence that is tangible, visible to eyes of faith, brought about through words of consecration (see Jn 6, Lk 22, and Lk 24). Do you believe or not? He makes himself tangible for you and for me. In fact, He makes himself real food for our souls.

Jesus gave this act of oblation an enduring presence through his institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. He anticipated his death and resurrection by giving his disciples, in the bread and wine, his very self, his body and blood as the new manna (cf. Jn 6:31-33). The ancient world had dimly perceived that man’s real food—what truly nourishes him as man—is ultimately the Logos, eternal wisdom: this same Logos now truly becomes food for us—as love. (DCE 13)

He passes through the hardness of our hearts and proposes himself to us in the flesh. Thomas made his act of faith, “my Lord and my God.” What do we say?

For the last couple of years, I have been captivated by this story, especially in light of my work with teens. Here we have a generation that is bombarded with ideas and philosophies spread like faddish wildfire through a gazillion mediums. They are constantly being asked to believe this or to disbelieve that. And when it comes to the faith, many approach with the same type of skepticism that Thomas had.

It is myself, and the other youth ministers that I am honored to minister with in Cincinnati, we who happened to be there the week before, when Jesus came into our midst and encountered us in the flesh, who are called to testify, and to disciple our younger brothers and sisters – proclaiming the gospel which is capable of dispelling doubt and disposing the heart to faith.

But, what is more, we bring teens face-to-face with Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. We bring them before Jesus, to adore him, really and truly present in the blessed sacrament. We don’t bring them theories about life, lofty philosophies, or moralism. There is plenty of that everywhere else. This is an encounter with something visible, tangible, and real. An encounter within which Jesus himself invites them – “Look. Place your finger in my wounds. Touch my very heart.” This Jesus, really present, is healing their emotional wounds, their physical ailments, their hearts and minds, and is, himself, calling for an end to sin and disbelief. He invites, those who encounter him to proclaim the faith publicly, just like Thomas – “my Lord and my God.” His mere presence demands a response – always in full freedom – yes or no; I believe or I do not believe.10478189_661343583948837_2490373386360921224_n

This encounter, fostered through the Eucharistic disciple, generates more Eucharistic disciples. From an encounter with Christ always comes worship and a proclamation, a desire to journey with and disciple others that they might experience, like Thomas, a powerful, and tangible encounter with Jesus Christ. This is the way of the Gospel. It was then, and it is now.

He has come into our midst to extend a real invitation.

You can learn more about some of our youth ministry efforts, including how to get involved in the movement by visiting www.encountercincinnati.org.