The 2nd Sunday of Easter or The Sunday of Divine Mercy
First Reading: Acts of the Apostles 4:32-35
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24
Second Reading: 1st Letter of St. John 5:1-6
Gospel: According to St. John 20:19-31
The story of “Doubting Thomas” is generally not one that comes to mind when pondering the boundless mercy of God. Events from Good Friday tend to take center stage when people think of the merciful actions of Jesus: the forgiveness of those who mocked and killed Him, the promise of paradise for the Good Thief, the uniting of Mary and John as mother and son. Yet, the mercy offered to Thomas can be a lifeline to those who are infected by the bug of skepticism, empiricism and rationalism, and thus this story seems a most appropriate description of mercy for the modern Western audience.
Several years back, when Stephen Hawking died, I mentioned to my classes that he was no longer an atheist. This was not a statement about my Catholic faith. Instead, it was a statement of pure reason, a statement of indisputable fact. If there is a God, as I believe, then Stephen Hawking was confronted by that God once he shuffled off his mortal coil. But if there is no God, then there is only death and thus there is no longer a Stephen Hawking. So today Hawking is either a theist or he is nothing at all – literally.
I am not a psychologist, but it would not be a stretch to find at least some of the roots of Hawking’s atheism in the physical difficulties that he faced throughout his life. Aquinas was a most logical thinker and therefore knew that one cannot prove a negative: It is logically impossible to prove that God does not exist. But he also knew the realities of life, and so he proposed that the only real argument against God is the existence of suffering in the world. The question that so many ask, and one that someone like Hawking would certainly be justified in asking, is “Why?” The apparent silence of this allegedly loving God in the face of this most important question seems reason enough to bring a person to atheism.
When Jesus enters the upper room a week after He first appeared to the disciples the drama focuses on the one Apostle who was absent for the previous meeting – the sceptic who had said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Jesus does not say to Thomas, “Look at My glorified body and believe!” Instead, He says, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Jesus asks Thomas to believe in the Resurrection, in the power of God over death, and thus in God Himself, by showing His scars, the visible signs of his physical suffering. And when He then says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed,” He is reaching across the centuries to people like Stephen Hawking and offering him a reason to believe. Jesus asks to be believed because He knows suffering first hand, He knows the pain that life entails, yet He also knows that there is a loving God who guides us through the pain and lifts us up above the suffering.
When we think of mercy we think not of science or reason, but of the heart. It is through a meeting of the hearts that God in Jesus reaches out to Thomas, to Stephen Hawking, to all of us. The call to place a finger in nail holes and a hand in a wounded side is not a call to justice, a sort of “you asked for it” gotcha moment. Quite the contrary, it is His eminently merciful way of dispelling the very understandable doubts that Thomas had.
Thomas was up to the challenge of the mercy offered by Jesus, and it changed his life forever. That offer of mercy still stands today, and it is the hope of all Catholics that everyone, even the most hardened atheists, will be up to that challenge. Imagine the beauty of Stephen Hawking lifting his arm to put his finger in the nail holes and his hand into the wounded side of the One Who mercifully replies, “Do not be unbelieving, but believe.”