Commentary on the Readings
2nd Sunday of Easter – April 28, 2019 – Year C
It’s Hard to Believe Even for Those Who Have Seen
“Fortunate are you to see what you see!” Jesus said one day (Lk 10:23). The disciples who accompanied the Master during his public life are called by Luke witnesses of the events that have taken place among us (Lk 1:1-2). It is undeniable; they are blessed because they have seen. Among them, there is also Thomas.
Yet this experience was just the first stage of a demanding journey, one that had to bring them to faith.
Many who like them have seen have not come to believe. It’s enough to think of the “woes” pronounced by Jesus against the cities of the lake that witnessed the signs he performed and they did not convert (Lk 10:13-15). Seeing is the cause of bliss, but it is not enough.
After Easter, the Lord—who can no longer be seen by the material eyes—proclaims another beatitude: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20:29). They are blessed if, by listening, they come to the same goal, the faith. To them, Peter turns moving words: “You have not yet seen him and yet you love him; even without seeing him, you believe in him and experience a heavenly joy beyond all words” (1 P 1:8).
It is the joy assured to those who trust the Word, not that of people, but that of Christ, contained in the scriptures and given to the Church by the apostles —as John reminds us in the conclusion of his Gospel.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Blessed are we, though not having seen, believe.”
The reading describes the life of the first Christian community of Jerusalem. Let’s see the features because they should be reproduced in our communities today.
It was, first of all, a united community: “The believers were of one accord” (v. 12). The Christian faith cannot be lived alone, in isolation from the others. A Christian is not one who lives in isolation and communicates directly and solely with God. The Church is not the place where every individual believer goes to get what he/she needs to save his/her soul. Christians are a family, in solidarity with each other and, in some way, they feel responsible for everything that happens to their brothers and sisters.
Today, we also gather to pray, like the first Christians in Jerusalem. During the celebration, we shake hands, smile at each other, and join our voices to praise the Lord and we pray for each other. It is a sign of what we should always be, not only inside the church but also outside.
The second characteristic of the early Christians: they were esteemed people. “The people held them in high esteem” (v. 13). The lives of those who had embraced the faith aroused interest and admiration because it was radically different from that of other people. They did not act to flaunt their integrity and moral superiority. Those who watched them were not irritated, disturbed by this singular life, but were encouraged to imitate.
The third characteristic is the strong attraction that the primitive community exercised over all: “So an ever-increasing number of men and women believed in the Lord” (v. 14).
What drove many people to become disciples of Christ? The second part of the reading clarifies it (vv. 15-16): “… The crowd … carried the sick and those who were troubled by unclean spirits and all of them were healed.” Note that it is not about curious and strange miracles. They are very different from those attributed to witches, sorcerers, and magicians today. The gestures made by the apostles are like those of Jesus. They are works in favor of people: the healing of the sick, the salvation of those who are oppressed by evil or live in a state of unhappiness. This is a proof that Jesus is alive and communicated to the disciples his own healing power.
The reading presents us the vision with which the book of Revelation opens. The author—who identifies himself as John—says to be in Patmos, an island in the Aegean Sea. He was deported there because of his faith in Christ, probably because of his refusal to worship the emperor.
Times are tough. We are in the years when Domitian reigns in Rome. He is a megalomaniac who has filled the empire with his statues. At the example of Julius Caesar and Augustus, he gave his name to a month of the year and named it Domitius, the month of October in which he was born. He erected everywhere temples in his honor and established that each circular issued in his name begins with the words: “Domitian, our Lord, and our God orders that … .”
This claim of the emperor to be worshiped as a god raises conflicts of conscience in the Christians of Asia Minor. Many of them refuse and therefore undergo harassment and abuse. To encourage them to remain firm in the faith, the author of Revelation writes his vision and uses images that, to be understood, need an explanation.
John sees a son of man in the midst of the seven candlesticks. He has a white robe that reaches down to his feet and is girded with a gold band (vv. 12-13).
The son of man is the risen Lord. The long vestment—which was the uniform of the priests of the temple—now indicates that Jesus is the only priest. The gold band at the hips was the symbol of royalty. Jesus, therefore, is referred to as the only king. The seven candlesticks represent the whole of the Christian communities (the number seven indicates totality). It is also recalled that, in the East, during the ceremonies in honor of the emperor, it was customary to bow down to an image, placed in the midst of the candlesticks.
The sense of this great scene is as follows: the risen Lord, not the emperor, is the center of worship of all Christian communities. He is the king who guides and governs them by his word; he is the priest who, giving his life, offers the only acceptable sacrifice to God.
The author of Revelation turns to all Christian communities the invitation to make a review and ask who do they place at the center of their meetings on the day of the Lord: is it the Risen One and His Word or other people and other words? He wants them to wonder who they worship, to which king they obey: to Christ or to the powers that be.
Today’s passage is divided into two parts corresponding to the appearances of the Risen One. In the first (vv. 19-23), Jesus communicates his Spirit to his disciples. With that, he gives them the power to overcome the forces of evil. It is the same passage that we will find and comment on Pentecost. In the second (vv. 24-31), the famous episode of Thomas is told.
The doubt of this apostle became proverbial. It is often said of one who shows some distrust “You’re unbelieving as Thomas.” Yet, in hindsight, he seems to have done nothing wrong: he only asked to see what others had seen. Why demand only from him a faith based on word?
But was Thomas really the only one to have doubts, while the other disciples would have easily and immediately believed in the Risen One? It does not seem that things went that way.
The Gospel of Mark says that Jesus appeared to the eleven “and reproached them for their unbelief and stubbornness, in refusing to believe those who had seen him after he had risen” (Mk 16:14). In Luke’s Gospel, the Risen Christ addresses the amazed and frightened apostles and asks: “Why are you upset, and how does such an idea cross your minds?” (Lk 24:38) In the last page of the Matthew’s Gospel it even says that when Jesus appeared to the disciples on a mountain in Galilee (therefore long after the apparitions in Jerusalem), some still doubted (Mt 28:17).
All, therefore, doubted, not only the poor Thomas. How is it then that the evangelist John seems to want to focus on him the doubts that have gripped the others? Let us try to understand.
When John writes (about the year 95 A.D.) Thomas was already dead for some time. The episode, therefore, is certainly reported not to put this apostle in a bad light. If his problems of faith were highlighted, the reason is another. The evangelist wants to respond to the questions and objections that Christians of his communities insistently raised. It is the third-generation Christians, people who have not seen the Lord Jesus. Many of them do not even know any of the apostles. They find it hard to believe; they are struggling in the midst of many doubts; they would like to see, touch, and verify if the Lord is truly risen. They wonder: what are the reasons that may lead one to believe? Is it still possible for us to have the experience of the Risen Lord? Are there evidences that he is alive? How is it that he no longer appears? These are the questions that we ourselves ask today.
To them, Mark, Luke, and Matthew respond by saying that all the apostles had hesitations. They have not got it right away nor with ease to believe in the Risen One. The path of faith was long and tiring also for them, even though Jesus had given many signs that he was alive and entered into the glory of the Father.
The answer of John is different: he takes Thomas as a symbol of the difficulty that every disciple meets to come to believe. It is hard to know the reason why he chose this apostle, perhaps because he had more difficulty or took more time than others to have faith.
That which John wants to teach the Christians of his communities (and us) is that the Risen One has a life that escapes our senses; a life that cannot be touched with bare hands or seen with the eyes. It can only be achieved through faith. This also applies to the apostles, who also have made a unique experience of the Risen Lord. One cannot have faith in what is seen. You cannot have demonstrations, scientific evidences of the resurrection. If anyone wants to see, observe, touch, one must renounce his faith.
We say, “Blessed are those who have seen.” For Jesus, however, blessed are those who have not seen, not because it costs them more to believe and thus have greater merits. They are blessed because their faith is most genuine, and purest, indeed, is the only pure faith. Who sees has the certainty of the evidence, has irrefutable proof of a fact.
Thomas appears two more times in John’s Gospel and never cuts—we would say—a good figure. He always has difficulty in understanding, equivocating, misinterpreting the words and choices of the Master.
He speaks for the first time when he received the news of Lazarus’ death. Jesus decides to go to Judea. Thomas thinks that following the Master means losing one’s life. He does not understand that Jesus is the Lord of life. Dejected and disappointed, he exclaims: “Let us also go that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16).
During the last supper, Jesus talks about the path he is treading, a path that passes through death to be introduced into life. Thomas intervenes again: “Lord, we do not know where you’re going and how can we know the way?” (Jn 14:5). He is full of perplexity, hesitation, and doubt, unable to accept what he does not understand. This is demonstrated for a third time in the episode narrated in today’s passage.
It seems that John enjoys outlining the figure of Thomas in this way. In the end, he does him justice. He puts on his mouth the highest, the most sublime profession of faith. His words reflect the conclusion of the disciples’ itinerary of faith.
At the beginning of the Gospel, the first two apostles come to Jesus calling him Rabbi (Jn 1:38). It is the first step towards the understanding of the Master’s identity. After a short time, Andrew, who has already figured out a lot more, says to his brother Simon: “We have found the Messiah” (Jn 1:41). Nathaniel intuits immediately with whom he deals and says to Jesus: “You are the Son of God” (Jn 1:49). The Samaritans recognize him as the Savior of the world (Jn 4:43), the people acknowledge him as the prophet (Jn 6:14), the man born blind proclaims him the Lord (Jn 9:38) and for Pilate he is the King of the Jews (Jn 19:19). But it is Thomas who says the last word about the identity of Jesus. He calls him: “My Lord and my God.” It is an expression that the Bible refers to YHWH (Ps 35:23). Thomas is, therefore, the first to recognize the divinity of Christ, the first who comes to understand what Jesus meant when he said: “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30).
The end of the passage (vv. 30-31) presents the reason why John wrote his book. He told of the “signs”—not all, but sufficient ones—for two reasons: to arouse or confirm the faith in Christ and why, through this faith, one comes to life.
The fourth evangelist calls signs the miracles. Jesus did not perform them to impress whoever was there. He even had words of condemnation against anyone who did not believe unless he saw miracles (Jn 4:48). John does not tell them to impress his readers, to “show” the divine power of Jesus. The signs are not evidences, but revelations about the person, nature, and mission of Jesus. One comes to believe in a robust and long-lasting way, from the material fact and rises to the reality that it indicates. He does not understand the sign which, in the distribution of the loaves, does not capture that Jesus is the bread of life, or in the healing of the man born blind, does not recognize that Jesus is the light of the world, or in the resuscitation of Lazarus, does not see in Jesus the Lord of life.
In the epilogue of the Gospel, John uses the word signs in a broad sense: it means all the revelation of the person of Jesus, his acts of mercy (the healing, the multiplication of the loaves) and his words (Jn 12:37). Who reads his book and understands these signs clearly confronts the person of Jesus and is invited to make a choice. Who recognizes in him the Lord will opt for life and adhere to him.
Here is the only evidence offered to one who looks for reasons to believe: the same Gospel. There the Word of Christ resounds, and his person shines. There are no other proofs outside this same Word.
To understand, it is worthwhile to refer to what Jesus said in the parable of the Good Shepherd: “My sheep know my voice” (Jn 10:4-5.27). Apparitions are not necessary. In the Gospel, the voice of the shepherd resonates. For the sheep that belong to him, his unmistakable voice is enough to recognize and to draw it to him.
But where can one listen to this voice? Where does this word echo? Is it possible to repeat today the apostles’ experience on Easter day and “eight days later”? How?
We definitely have noticed that both apparitions take place on Sunday. We also have noticed that those who make the experience of the Risen One are the same (… one more, one less), that the Lord presents himself with the same words: “Peace be with you” (v. 19) and that, in both encounters, Jesus shows the marks of his passion. There would be other details, but these four are enough to help us answer the questions we posed.
The disciples are gathered in the house. The meeting to which John alludes is clearly that which happens on the day of the Lord. It’s the one in which every eight days, the whole community is called for the celebration of the Eucharist. When all believers are gathered together, there appears the Risen One. He, by the mouth of the celebrant, greets the disciples and wishes, as on the evening of Easter, and eight days later: “Peace be with you.”
It is the time when Jesus manifests himself alive to the disciples. Who, like Thomas, deserts the meetings of the community, cannot make the experience of the Risen Lord (vv. 24-25). He cannot hear his greeting and his Word; he cannot accept his forgiveness and his peace (vv. 19.26.23), nor experience his joy (v. 20) and receive his Spirit (v. 22). Who, on the day of the Lord stays home, maybe to pray alone, can experience God, but not the Risen One, because he makes himself present where the community is gathered.
What does one, who does not meet the Risen One, do? Like Thomas, he will have need of evidences to believe, but he will never obtain evidences.
Contrary to what one sees depicted in the paintings of the artists, not even Thomas has put his hands into the wounds of the Lord. From the text, it does not appear that he has touched the Risen One. He also gets to pronounce his profession of faith after hearing the voice of the Risen One, along with his brothers and sisters of the community. And the ability to make this experience is offered to Christians of all times… every eight days.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.