The Case for Thomas
Thomas gets a bad rap. In John’s Gospel, after Jesus first presents himself to the world’s principle preacher, Mary Magdalene, he then reveals the resurrection to his anxious disciples held up behind locked doors for fear their fate might mirror their Lord’s. After a blessing of peace, Jesus invites the disciples to witness the wounds of the crucifixion on his hands and side before he blesses them again with the Holy Spirit — a remarkable, faith-filling experience for everyone present except for an absent Thomas.
Upon hearing the disciples recount their encounter with the risen Lord, Thomas makes his position clear: that unless he sees and touches the wounds on the physical, living body of Jesus, he will not believe. Over the centuries, Thomas’s stance on the resurrection has earned him an association with doubt far more than discipleship as the model of faithlessness and brand ambassador for seeing is believing. Often critiqued and made an example out of for how not to be a disciple, Thomas’s name gets dragged through the mud and his insistence on touching Christ’s wounds gets dismissed as evidence of a lack. That’s similar to the way we think about wounds in general as well: that wounded-ness implies some kind of lack or imperfection or deficiency and is something of which to be ashamed.
And yet, the resurrected body of Christ — a body transformed in perfect completion— was still wounded, and Thomas wanted to make certain of that. Christ still bearing a wounded-ness that you can touch was non-negotiable for Thomas. Traditionally, this has been interpreted as Thomas needing proof that the resurrection happened at all. But what if this is actually Thomas just making sure that the resurrection happened how it should have happened: with Christ emerging still bearing the marks of his suffering. I wonder if Thomas understood something about the resurrection that maybe the other disciples did not.
So, why does Thomas insist on the risen Christ being wounded?
Why does Thomas insist on the risen Christ being wounded?
- Divine solidarity with human suffering
- Mirroring our own wounded-ness
- Doubt as a spiritual practice and reflective of Jewish tradition of wrestling with God
Do you know that feeling after you have just dropped something breakable and it’s pummeling towards the hard ground and there is nothing you can do about it? For me anyway, that in between moment is a mixture of feeling equally frozen and desperate. It’s as if time slows down to a dreadful, anxious crawl as you anticipate the inevitable: the sound of a crash, the sight of cracks and fractured pieces, and the impending ruin of the object as you involuntarily hand it over to the cruel clutches of physics. After the law of gravity passes its sentence, you reach for a broom and dust pan upon reaching the conclusion of total loss for the poor plate, bowl, glass, or whatever it was that found its fate scattered across the linoleum. Suddenly your favorite mug has been laid to rest in the tomb of the trash bin, and you mourn its loss while searching the cupboard for one that is whole and complete, without cracks or deficiencies. What a shame. I loved that mug.
Unlike me, who is quick to discard a broken dish or fractured cup as unfit for continued use, artists skilled in the Japanese art form of kintsugi would see opportunity and potential. In Japanese, the word kintsugi translates to “golden joining” or “golden repair,” and it refers to the art of fixing broken pottery with a lacquer that has been dusted or infused usually with gold, silver, or platinum. With this adorning adhesive, the artist connects the broken pieces and infuses the winding cracks, and the finished result is a piece of ceramic with veins of precious metal filling the now glinting ruptures from underneath the glaze. What was once a seemingly ordinary piece of pottery is transformed into a stunning recreation that is often even stronger and more beautiful than it was before all because the artist chose to highlighting the fissures and fault lines rather than hide them. For the kintsugi master, even the fractures and blemishes and perceived lacks in quality are worthy of the artist’s transforming touch and tender care.
In addition to being visually beautiful, kintsugi is philosophically significant as well. Part of the draw of this art form is that it embodies the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which refers to embracing the beauty in what is considered imperfect and flawed. Kintsugi expresses in art form a consideration of faults and flaws not as deficiencies to cover up but as a valued mediums of transformation deserving of attention and creative care to the highest degree. What makes kintsugi pottery so breathtakingly beautiful is the fact that it is vulnerable and that the evidence of its vulnerability is on display for all to see — for it is only by bearing the cracks of vulnerability that the gold is able shine through in the first place.
As Leonard Cohen famously once wrote in his song, “Anthem”: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in.” Kintsugi masters would agree and I think so would good theology. Like kintsugi and Cohen’s musings, we are full of cracks and wounds, physical and emotional, that point us to our own vulnerability. And like a ceramic bowl restored with streams of gold, I think Christ’s vulnerability affirmed by his wounded-ness invites us to shift the way we think about and tend to our own wounded-ness, our own vulnerability.
A week after Christ reveals himself to Mary and his disciples, he does so again with Thomas present — inviting him to see and to touch the wounds on his hands and side. Thomas acknowledges Christ with reverence, and Christ proceeds to seemingly chastise Thomas, saying, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet still believe.” One way of reading this is as an admonishment of Thomas. Yet, all of the other disciples witnessed Christ in the flesh before there was any talk of belief. All of the other disciples saw Christ before believing, and yet Thomas is always singled out because he dares to verify an incredibly important theological point regarding the resurrection: that Christ’s body must still be wounded. Thomas was the only disciple taking that seriously.
I want to suggest that Thomas’s insistence on Christ’s wounded-ness is Thomas holding God accountable for who God says God is and who Thomas already believes God to be: a divine who actually shares in suffering, who is just as vulnerable as God is almighty, whose wounds are not hidden but on display to be seen and touched. If God is not vulnerable, then Thomas refuses to believe because true love requires vulnerability and who is God but love incarnate. Christ must still bear the wounds because being wounded does not imply a lack but, rather, a capacity for love to begin with. Further, Christ in perfect completion still bearing his wounds gives all of us hope for the wounds we bear as well.
Christ’s perfect wounded-ness invites us to shift how we view and relate to our own wounded-ness, our own tender, oozing, painful places within us not by dismissing, degrading, or minimizing them but by touching them with acceptance and compassion. For there to still be wounds on the resurrected, death-transcending, perfectly complete body of Christ shows that wounds are not about perfection or imperfection. Wounds are not a value system by which we measure our worth. They are indications of our vulnerability — of our capacity to be affected by loss but also by love.
Our wounds are not shameful imperfections or deficiencies; they are not evidence of lack. Our wounds are simply locations to let love in more fully. Christ inviting Thomas to touch his wounds models how we are called to let our own be touched — not by hiding or dismissing them but by acknowledging and filling them with the lacquer of transforming love.
To touch the wounds of Christ is to touch our own wounds, and to touch our own wounds is to touch the wounds of Christ — for when we identify with our own vulnerability, we identify with the vulnerability of God, with the Word made wound-able flesh, not to be hidden or shamed but to be tended to with the adhesive power of love.