Reading 1: Acts 4:32-35
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24
Reading 2: 1 John 5:1-6
Gospel: John 20:19-31
Those of us who have been fortunate enough to survive the deadly coronavirus may find it easy to relate to the fear and grief of Jesus’s first disciples. While their reason for locking themselves in the upper room may be different from our time in lockdown, our fear of possible death and of the unknown future may be akin to theirs. The risen Christ comes into their midst and shows them the pathway beyond fear and grief to healing and hope.
His greeting, “Peace be with you,” recalls his promise at the Last Supper of peace that casts out fear (14:27). Jesus then shows the disciples his hands and side, the unerasable evidence of the brutality inflicted on him. Oddly enough, instead of increasing their terror, this gesture causes them to rejoice. The explanation for this joy is found in the Last Supper scene, where Jesus speaks to his disciples about his impending death, likening his pain and theirs to the labor pangs of a woman giving birth, whose agony turns to joy after the new life is brought forth. Jesus had assured them that when they would see him again, their hearts would rejoice with a joy no one could take from them (16:20-22). Jesus again says, “Peace be with you,” and then sends the disciples to continue the mission for which the Father had sent him. In John’s Gospel there is no calling or sending of the Twelve; the mission is entrusted to all disciples empowered with the Spirit.
Jesus then breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The image is reminiscent of the creation of the first human being, into whose nostrils the Creator breathes the breath of life (Gen 2:7). It also calls to mind Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, over which he prophesies, “I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live” (Ezek 37:5). Just as God restored hope to the disheartened Babylonian exiles, so the risen Christ breathes peace and joy into the fearful disciples. It is not possible for them to take up the mission on their own power. They know their own brokenness and frailty. It is only by accepting the power of the Spirit that they can continue the mission Jesus entrusts to them. Already at the moment of death, Jesus had “handed over the Spirit” (19:30). These are not two separate bestowals of the Spirit; they are two moments of the one “hour.” In the Fourth Gospel, the “hour” of the passion, death, resurrection, ascension, glorification, and bestowal of the Spirit is all one movement, not separated in time, as in Luke-Acts, where there are forty days of resurrection appearances (Acts 1:3), then the ascension (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9), then on the fiftieth day, Pentecost, the giving of the Spirit (Acts 2:1-4).
The power that the disciples receive with this infusion of the Spirit is the ability to heal and forgive and to build up the community of beloved disciples. When Jesus shows his wounds, we see that forgiveness does not erase them, nor does it dismiss them as unimportant. Telling the truth about the violence inflicted is essential for forgiveness and healing. Jesus then tells them to hold on to every beloved one, just as he himself had done. In his final prayer, he had said, “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me” (18:9; similarly 10:28; 17:20). The word “sins” is not found in the Greek text of verse 23b. Rather than an instruction to withhold forgiveness for some sins, the instruction is to “hold on” to each precious one, “binding up” the wounds. The language is similar to that of Ezekiel 34:4, 16, which describes God’s work as “binding up the injured.”
This powerful scene offers much for reflection as we continue to heal from the griefs and losses of this past year; the endless deaths, the shocking violence in our nation’s capital on January 6, the unspeakable hate crimes directed at Black, Brown, Asian, Jewish, and Muslim sisters and brothers. It is only by holding on to one another, not allowing any to be victimized, that the joy and peace of the Risen One prevails. Not only does resurrected life make possible a transformation in human relationships, but it also makes possible our interconnectedness with all of the cosmos.
In the second scene of today’s gospel, we hear that Thomas was not with the others when Jesus came to them. He finds it impossible to believe that they have seen the Lord. Once again Jesus stands in their midst and greets them as before, “Peace be with you.” He directs Thomas to probe his wounds, not to literally thrust his hand into them, but to probe (the Greek word in v. 27 is ballein, which literally means to “throw” yourself into) the meaning of them. Then he, like the others, can also become an agent of forgiveness and healing and communion. When Thomas makes his acclamation of faith, Jesus affirms that there are two ways of blessedness: believing by having seen, and believing without having seen.
For these first disciples life, as they had known it would never be the same and there was no roadmap, no way of knowing how the promises of the Risen One would be fulfilled. Equipped with belief in the One, the power of the Spirit, the willingness to forgive, and the determination to hold on to each beloved sister and brother, they carried on the mission by imitating the friend who had laid down his life out of love for his friends. In this uncertain time, the same gifts are given to us. How will we use them?
Sr. Barbara Reid, OP
Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, Distinguished Professor of New Testament Studies