Ars Praedicandi: Second Sunday of Easter, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

A common joke states:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr.  Watson went on a camping trip.  As they lay down for the night, Holmes said:  “Watson, look up into the sky and tell me what you see”.  Watson said:  “I see millions and millions of stars”.  Holmes:  “And what does that tell you?” Watson:  “Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets.  Theologically, it tells me that God is great and that we are small and insignificant.  Meteorologically, it tells me that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow.  What does it tell you? ” Holmes:  “Somebody stole our tent”.

Sometimes, we miss the obvious.
This is as true with religion as it is with camping trips
and if there was one common consensus this past week
among those many preaching bloggers
who hold forth on the internet
something maybe not that obvious to the rest of us
it is that Thomas has gotten a bum rap.

And it is this gospel passage,
these 12 verses from the 20th chapter of John
more than any other,
that are the source of this maligning.

We have unwittingly contributed to this apostolic disparagement
and have even given him a title not found in the gospels.
We call him Thomas the doubter while
the gospel only calls him Thomas Didymus, Thomas the twin.

Yet the gospel evidence around this disciple is quite rich
and disallows a simplistic caricature
that reduces Thomas to being only and ultimately a Doubter.

Rather there is substantial Biblical evidence that this is also
Thomas the determined,
Thomas the hardnosed,
and Thomas the unscamable.

Thus, earlier in John’s Gospel,
when Jesus decides to go into dangerous Bethany
it is Thomas the brave who pipes up,
and insists the disciples go along
even if it means dying with Jesus (John 11:16).

And when Jesus is giving his long mystical discourse
during the Last Supper
on the place where he was going
and the other apostles are apparently nodding their heads
though they probably don’t have a clue
about what Jesus is telling them,
it is Thomas the irrepressible who honestly confesses
that he does not know where Jesus is going (John14:5)
and does not know how to find the way
and is determined to get a straight answer out of Jesus

And on that first Easter eve
when Peter the chicken-hearted and the rest of the apostles
are locked in the backroom of the Jerusalem Hilton
apparently afraid of their own shadows,
why is Thomas not there?

Who knows, maybe he’s out scowling the streets
looking for Jesus
and figures that while he’s out there
he might as well pick up some groceries
for his cowering apostolic friends.

When he does come back from his long search
or the grocery store
and hears that the others have seen the Lord.
is his response arrogant or just practical?
Maybe Thomas has seen enough snake oil salesmen
that he has no interest in being scammed
so he basically asks the gospel equivalent of
where’s the beef?
Blessed are you, Thomas the unscamable.

In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor
“Thomas is a stand-in for all of us
who want to see something for ourselves
before we decide whether or not it is true.” [1]

And of course when Jesus does appear,
the risen one does not rebuke him
but makes an amazing invitation
to touch the wounded body of Christ
which provokes the most profound profession of faith
in the gospel of John:
“my Lord and my God.”

Key to the power of this encounter
is one of the most intimate forms of human communication:
the gesture of human touch.
When thinking of important communication modes,
it is probably that the first things that come to mind are
speech, digital images, and music.

What we may not reckon with is the primal nature of touch:
touch is the first sense that babies develop in the womb.
Touch receptors develop on their face
by week 8 of pregnancy.

Touch is also essential for the health of newborns;
studies show that well-nourished, safely sheltered infants
without touch are likely to experience developmental problems
and even die.

Touch starvation or “skin hunger” also occurs with adults.
Without enough physical touch we can become
stressed, anxious, or depressed.

How many of us experienced that during COVID-19,
when grandparents ached to touch their grandkids,
and family members longed to touch
sick and dying loved ones?

But it is not only in times of pandemic
that we need the power of human touch,
which medical research demonstrates
is necessary for the wellbeing of adults.
Frequent hugs can lower blood pressure
and can aid in combatting depression.
It is demonstrated that NBA players play better
when they performed bonding gestures
like high-fives, back-slapping, and chest bumps.
The gift of touch enables us to make our way
physically and metaphorically
through a seemingly “senseless” world.

Most of us know the story of Helen Keller (d. 1968),
the most celebrated disability rights advocate
whose primary sense for making her way through the world
was touch.
Go back and watch the scene in “The Miracle Worker”
at the water pump when the experience of touch
opens Helen’s mind to completely new worlds.

Less well known than Keller was Laura Bridgman (d. 1889)
who lost the use of even more senses than Keller,
for example, Keller could smell and taste,
yet Bridgman became the first deaf-blind person
to receive a full education
all through the miracle of touch.

While it is not something we often ponder,
the Jesus of the gospels wielded the miracle of touch
with frequency and great aplomb.
Multiple times this very tactile savior touched the blind
in healing them (e.g., Mark 8:22-26);
he touched the bier of the widow’s son
before he raised her (Luke 7:14);
he touched the leper to heal him (Matt 8:3);
he touched the servant of the high priest
and healed his severed ear (Luke 22:51);
and he touched his disciples when they
crouched in fear after the transfiguration (Matt 17:7)

Images of touch appear in each of today’s readings.
In Acts signs and wonders were done
at the “hands” of the apostles,
both a metaphorical and literal reference.

In John’s vision in revelation
the glorified Christ touched John with his right hand
assuring him not to be afraid.

And of course, there was the tactility of the Gospel
in which Jesus invites Thomas’ hand
into the very wounds of the Crucified.

Anne Mullins shares this story:

Every two or three months, Thyago Ohana goes out on the busy streets of Vienna, Austria, with a big smile and a sign saying, “Free Hugs”. The handsome 32-year-old Brazilian, who works in international trade at the Indian Embassy in Vienna, chooses a popular locale, like the historic shopping street Kaerntner Strasse. There he opens his arms to anyone who wants a hearty embrace.

He does it because once, back in 2012, when he was feeling very stressed and anxious during a visit to Paris, a stranger gave him a free hug. He’s never forgotten how it filled him with unexpected calm and joy.

For those who take up his offer, getting a hug makes them laugh and smile. But sometimes it does more, as when an elderly woman in a tour group stopped and watched him. The group moved on, but she asked, “Can I have a hug?”  “Of course you can!” said Thyago who wrapped his arms round her.  When they broke their embrace, she kept holding on to his shoulders and looked into his eyes. “Thank you,” she said. “I can’t remember the last time I was hugged this way.” 

It’s a memory that still makes him emotional. “It was a really powerful moment of human connection. It’s why I keep doing it.”

The psychologist Dacher Keltner notes
that we live in a touch-deprived world.
We would rather stand apart,
maybe look out of curiosity,
but are cautious of getting too close,
with hand sanitizer on the ready.

Thomas the apostolic tactillian
challenges any stand-offish form of Christian discipleship,
a poignant challenge in these sometimes-disheartening days
when our world is witnessing too much crucifixion
and the wounds of the Christ
gape open in the flesh of humanity.

Thomas’ willingness to touch the wounds,
to get up close and personal with pain, even crucifixion,
prompts us to do the same.
Our families, our neighbors, the stranger, the marginalized
are skin-hungry for the compassionate Christ.

As we were touched by hand and water and chrism in baptism,
so we are missioned to reach out to others
with the boldness of Thomas
and the Compassion of Christ,
whom we profess as Lord and God, forever and ever.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (1999), p. 114.

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