What does it mean to touch – and be touched?

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An image provided by the Jesuits of Ireland


Many of us are sacramental Christians. For us, what is tangible —that is, what we can touch— is often our doorway to the intangible. And so, practical material things having spiritual meaning can become our doorway to immaterial things that are spiritual and mystical.This is especially true in the Eucharist, but also in Baptism. In these rites, we touch, and are touched.

This is one reason why Jesus was so influential in the lives of the original 12 disciples. To see him, to touch him, and to hear him speak ~ these had been critically important experiences for them. Even before his death, they began to sense that knowing Jesus was in some way an entrance into deeper truth and greater life. But this also made it harder for them to deal with his empty tomb, when they had to face his apparent disappearance and absence. With their loss of immediacy with Jesus, fear was added to their sadness. Then, they hid behind locked doors in the crowded Holy City. What should we to make of their experience in that room, especially as we hear about it in John’s Gospel?

Visitors to this blog know I like to find images from art to help us hear the Gospel. This is because artists can help us see and notice things that might otherwise escape our attention. And yet, works of art can also sometimes lead us to mishear what a Gospel reading actually says. This is especially true of the annual day when we hear about Thomas and the other 10 disciples who are hiding after Jesus’ death. As always, we need to engage this Gospel with discernment. For it is really about all of the doubting disciples, as well as about how they all came to believe. Unfortunately, most paintings of this event mis-portray what John actually says, and what he doesn’t say. The classic picture is the one by the famous painter, Caravaggio. He portrays Thomas not only peering closely at Jesus’ side; but also shows him with his fingers poked into Jesus’ spear-wound. (Note also the one above.)

Why are such images misleading? It’s because paintings and labels like these lead us to overlook or misperceive some very important details within the story. For though Thomas has been invited to touch Jesus, John does actually describe him as doing so. (Also, note how Bible editors sometimes steer readers toward certain conclusions by editorial headings before paragraphs.)

First, we find ten of the disciples hiding behind locked doors out of fear. Consider how Jesus had more than once told them to fear not! And at the Last Supper, he had already given them ‘his peace.’ Rather than remember what Jesus had shared with them, as well as his miracles, the remaining disciples have succumbed to fear. Even though Mary Magdalene had already told them she had seen the Lord. How can these facts be squared with any other description than that the ten behind locked doors are doubting, as well?

Second, observe how John describes Jesus’ initial appearance to the ten, when he finds them fearful and doubting. At first, they do not recognize Jesus. It is only after he shows them his hands and his side that they then recognize him, and rejoice at his presence. When they see him, then they believe, and not before. And so, once again, Jesus leaves them with his peace, and now gives them his Spirit.

Notice what the others say to Thomas when he then arrives: “We have seen the Lord” ~ the very same witness Mary had earlier given to them, but without having had much prior effect. Thomas naturally replies to them by saying something like this: ‘Look, I haven’t see him, like you guys have. And so, just like you, I won’t likely believe until I see him, as well.” Thomas’ statement to them therefore does not need to be heard as him setting the conditions for his belief. It may simply be a practical prediction of fact, opening a doorway to his and their later way of experiencing Jesus sacramentally. And, as N.T. “Tom” Wright observes, in John’s Gospel Thomas was the first to call Jesus “God.”


See John’s Gospel, chapter 20, for this story in its wider context. To see the homily/sermon on which this text is based, please click here.

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