What happens when we meet a close friend whom we’ve not seen for a long time? We embrace the person warmly. We talk about shared past experiences. We share how our lives have changed. In the midst of this encounter is a deep sense of happiness and peace. Months and perhaps years of separation seem erased as we and our friend encounter each other in the here and now.
It’s been only three days since the disciples have seen Jesus alive. But it must seem like an eternity to them. The disciples are gathered behind locked doors. They are afraid. They are confused about what to do. So they stay put. They are stuck. They’ve lost the sense of confidence they had when Jesus was with them. Probably their sense of peace has been shattered as well.
On Easter evening, the risen Jesus appears and shows the disciples “his hands and his side.” It is Jesus who makes the first, convincing move to enable the disciples to believe that he has truly risen from the dead. It is he who wants the disciples to see him, to regain their confidence and peace. To this end, he bestows upon them the gift of the Holy Spirit. With this gift, the disciples are able to rejoice, to believe that he is truly risen.
But this Jesus is not just an old friend who has been absent for a time. The disciples have never before seen this Jesus. He bears the marks of suffering and death. Yet he is risen, never to die again. He has conquered death. For himself and for all of us.
Thomas is a convenient stand-in for all of us as we strive to deepen our belief in the risen Lord. Unlike Thomas, however, we do not literally “see” the risen Lord. Whether we see clearly like the gathered disciples, or only through doubting like Thomas, the risen Jesus is, nevertheless, always present in our midst removing all obstacles to belief. This is also how the risen Lord comes among us: in those in need, in those who reach out in self-giving to help those in need. Going from disbelief to belief is not a mental exercise. It is encountering the risen Lord in the people and circumstances around us. Believing is living faithfully the risen Life Jesus gives us.
The challenge of this gospel is that we put aside our own fears and embrace belief, with all its consequences. Just as the risen Jesus was relentless in bringing the disciples from disbelief to belief, so is he with us. He is also just as relentless with us as he was with the disciples in bringing them to the cross. Even after his resurrection, Jesus always challenges us to both dying and rising. Having passed over from our Lenten discipline to Easter rejoicing doesn’t mean that we can forget about the dying required for living the paschal mystery. Now, however, our “seeing” is heightened: we have experienced once again Easter joy, a glimpse and promise of the fullness of Life to come. This glimpse of the fullness of Life gives us the confidence to believe, to live the Life given us now, to embrace the risen Jesus.