“Thomas Sunday” – a.k.a. Divine Mercy Sunday in recent years – seems a good time to reflect on reconciliation and forgiveness. After all, one of the transformative effects of Christ’s dying and rising is our redemption, which involves “justification” That’s just an expensive theological word which means that the Divine Judge, acting on his own infinite authority, accepts Jesus’ obedience and humility as having “balanced the accounts” for our own pride, rebelliousness, and self-indulgence. God chooses to let the “right and just” behavior of the human Jesus “erase” or “override” our own sinfulness – past, present, and future.
Paul explains to the Romans: “Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, …the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus” (3:21-24). I suppose another way to put it is that God allows his love for us, and his desire for us to be with him eternally, to cause him to “forget” what we “deserve.” Psalm 103, verse 12: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us.” Or again, Jeremiah 31:34: “I will forgive their iniquity and no longer remember their sin.”
I am writing this on Holy Thursday inspired by the humbling experience of having just heard an uninterrupted stream of confessions for an hour and a quarter solid. After more than a quarter of a century of priestly ministry, I am still deeply moved by celebrating this sacrament. Rumors of its “death” are obviously greatly exaggerated; and I believe that we might have far more “takers” if we did a better job of explaining it. It is not psychotherapy. We will never (in this life) “get over” our sinfulness by “understanding” it. Nor, on the other hand, should we ever accept that we must “simply learn to live with it.”
But the main difference from psychotherapy is that the “work” of the latter depends largely on the client, who is assisted more or less resourcefully by the therapist. The sacrament of reconciliation – and the divine (and human) forgiveness which it mediates – is much more about the effort and action of GOD. It is an occasion to celebrate with thanks and praise the wonders of GOD’s mercy, as we sit with another sinner (the priest) and name our brokenness. We then celebrate, sinner to sinner, that God – knowing every painful detail of our individual sin, failure, and betrayal – loves us still, calls us still. The sacrament at its best is an experience of the penitent saying, “Is ours an incredible and amazing God, or what?!” and the confessor responding, “Tell me about it!” We should leave the sacrament feeling joyful, liberated, and eager to move forward with renewed and deepened zeal toward ongoing transformation for more authentic discipleship.
Isn’t that rather like Thomas’ story in the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter? When Jesus first visits his followers in the Upper Room, Thomas has the misfortune to be absent. Jesus comes to the Eleven through locked doors – in other words, in spite of their doubts and fears. He shows them his hands and side as abiding evidence of the cost of his love, freely poured out for them and for all of us. But instead of asking “Where the heck were YOU guys on Friday?!” he says instead, “Peace be with you.” Naturally, they rejoice. And he then breathes his Holy Spirit into them, creating them anew and sending them out to heal and forgive others.
Naturally, the Eleven preach this Good News to their brother Thomas at the earliest opportunity. (In the context of John’s Gospel, their claim to have “seen the Lord” means more than a mere visual sighting; they are also saying, “We GET him now in a whole new way; we BELIEVE as we never did before.”) But poor Thomas, still haunted by painful memories of what HE had seen and heard on Good Friday, confesses the “sin” of doubt. He says in effect, “As near as I can tell, human hatred, violence, jealousy, and competitiveness, and all that is dark in humanity, have triumphed over God’s peace, joy, and hope represented in Jesus.”
So, more than ever representing God’s presence and work in the human condition, Jesus comes again to the Upper Room the following Sunday. He again wishes “peace” to all of them, with Thomas present this time. And he then addresses Thomas directly, saying, in effect: “Look, all I care about is that you believe. If it helps you to poke and prod my wounds a bit so that all of this can be real to you, then have at it. I am past being hurt by humans; and I love you more generously and freely than ever. So let’s do whatever it takes for you to be with me…”
Talk about absolution and healing for Thomas’ weakness, struggles, and doubts! And to his great credit, Thomas “sees” – HE totally “gets” it. As I read it, he never does need to touch the wounds – seeing them is quite enough. He falls to his knees and utters one of the most profound affirmations of Christ’s divinity in the New Testament: “My Lord and my God!” The energy and faith unleashed by this encounter will eventually lead him to Syria and India, where he will bear faithful witness to what he has “seen” until he is finally speared to death by pagan soldiers. I pray that you all may come this Eastertide – especially through the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist – to “see” and believe (and preach) as Thomas did.
©2012 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.