“The Incredulity of St. Thomas”
By Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri)
(Y 1591, Cento –Bologna-, X 1666, Bologna)
National Gallery London
“Guercino’s painting, now in the National Gallery London, shows us the moment when Jesus appears in the locked upper room to all the gathered Apostles. Guercino, a largely self-taught painter, was greatly influenced by Caravaggio, as is evident from the ‘chiaroscuro’ in this painting.
Jesus, his torso almost shining white in the darkness, has challenged Thomas to take his “hand and place it in my side” (Jn. 20:27). The red cloaked Thomas, lunges forward and does just that, though restrained by the two Apostles behind him.
An appalled Peter, behind Jesus, holds up his hand to control Thomas, but scripture then records Thomas’ great profession of faith “My Lord and my God” (Jn. 20:28).
Jesus then gives us his words of consolation: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn. 20:29)”.
Fingers outstretched, Thomas tentatively reaches towards Christ, clutching his other hand to his chest; we can sense his nervousness. Two men lean in behind him, craning their necks to see, while Saint Peter looks on over Christ’s shoulder. Guercino has built a powerful sense of anticipation and tension through the picture’s tight crop and dramatic lighting. The figures, transfixed by Christ, watch and wait to see what will happen.
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’. After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’.
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord’. But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe’.
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’. Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe’. Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
The text presents a very simple structure:
1. A description of the appearance of Jesus to the disciples on the evening of Easter Sunday;
2. The presentation of Thomas and the reason for his absence;
3. A description of the appearance of Jesus to the disciples a week later.
In the Gospel of St. John, after the Resurrection of Jesus, things seem to happen very fast: the discovery of the empty tomb, the appearance to Mary, and, in the evening of the same day, the coming of the Holy Spirit, with no delay of fifty days (Pentecost) .
However, the fruits of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, are not as immediately shown as it is described in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.
What St. John writes in these few verses, happened on Sunday night, the third night after Jesus had broken bread with his disciples for the last time (Holy Thursday).
Where were the disciples since Holy Thursday? Jn. 20:10 suggests that they “returned to their homes”, but, in the Gospels, we are not told that any of them had a house in Jerusalem or surroundings. However, we read that they were together, afraid of the Jews: “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews”. Were they together in the place Jesus had chosen for the “Last Supper” (the ‘upper-room’)? The following Sunday, Thomas is with the disciples in the same house and Jesus appeared to them, once again.
The Gospel does not try to confuse us. The purpose of all these details seems to point out that the Risen Christ has power to bring together the scattered community of the disciples, scandalized by the Cross and dispersed after the death of Jesus.
The recurrence of Jesus appearing on a Sunday mirrors the first Christian Community being together in the Sunday celebration of the Paschal mysteries, notwithstanding the persecution on account of their faith.
The Gospel of St. John has two endings. The original ending, which we read here, as the conclusion of this passage, and a “second ending” at the end of the following chapter, after the appearances of Jesus in Galilee. Verse 31 is almost repeated at the end of Chapter 21. In the following chapter, the disciples have returned each to his own business (fishing).
A Wall between two Worldviews
In this short text, we read twice that the doors of the house were locked and closed, and that the Risen Lord had to enter through the walls to meet the disciples and reassure them with the greeting of Peace and the descent of the Holy Spirit.
This is not written to show the ability or power of the risen body of Christ to pass through bricks, but to indicate that the Christ with his death and resurrection has destroyed what separated Jews and Gentiles, the Old and the New Israel. The disciples need to overcome their fear of the Jews with a renewed courage to preach to them the Good News, and the inauguration of the Messianic times.
The Breath of Life
God is the origin and the source of life blows the Spirit into Adam’s nostrils so that he may live. The breath of God is the principle of life, the Wind [Ruah], the natural force which represents in its extended meaning, the creative, infilling power of God and his Spirit. This Breath comes from the Risen Christ, outpouring his New Life into a group of fearful disciples, after his victory over death.
By the blowing of the Spirit, God makes all things new and starts a new creation.
The value of Community
“[Thomas] was not with them when the Lord came”.
We saw how in the “garden” [of olives] (a clear allusion to the other garden [of Eden] in Genesis), Jesus ordered the Chief Priests and the Pharisees who came to arrest him, to let his disciples go away.
Since that moment, what we know about the disciples is that Peter fought with his sword and followed the trial of Jesus from a distance, while he himself suffered his own particular trial as he denied the Lord. And later on, we see John at the foot of the Cross. There is no more mention about then until the day of the resurrection. Then Jesus appeared to the Eleven. But Thomas was not with them.
His absence is not an occasional detail in John’s Gospel. St. Thomas is the prototype of the faithful Christian at the dawning of the Second Century who left the community out of fear and persecution.
Thomas is the “lapsed” believer who comes back to the community and makes the most direct profession of faith: “my Lord and my God”.
A faith that does not need to touch
Thomas is called the ‘doubting Disciple’, the one who was in need to confirm his faith by touching with his hands. But, if we think carefully, he might as well be a courageous man who needs to understand and reason his faith, just as any other believer does.
All the disciples were in need of reassurance: the beloved disciple, the first to believe saw the empty tomb and returned home; Mary heard her name said in the unique way that only Jesus would have called her, and recognized him; the two disciples of Emmaus walked with him; Peter answered three times about his love for Jesus. Eventually, all of them were in need of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them, to break open the walls that separated them for fear of the Jews.
We may still think that Thomas had his faith reassured after putting his hands in the wounds of Jesus, but the Gospel simply tells us that, once Jesus had said: “do not doubt but believe”, Thomas made the most perfect and complete expression of Christian faith: “My Lord, and my God”, while nothing is said about touching Christ’s risen body.
The Book of the Signs
Far from manifesting a random choice of event in the life of Jesus in the writing of the book of the ‘signs’, St. John, shows that he wants to elicit faith in the non-believer and awaken the depths of the believer’s relationship with the Risen Christ.
The purpose of the book, is therefore, neither historical nor hagiographic. It is not an unenthusiastic recollection of facts, but the passionate articulation of the faith of a community, that calls non-believers to faith in the Lord.
Therefore, when we read the Gospel, we are not reading just a simple book. There are scholars, even non-believers, who study Scripture with the eye of science. They have advanced in the historical understanding and value of the ancient writings of the Bible; however, even when we sit down to make a little research or when conduct a bible study session, we are coming up against a mystery: faith in the revelation of God perfected and brought to fulfilment in the life, passion, death and resurrection of His Son.
Jesus, You understood Thomas’ doubts. You understand the doubts of all your disciples, and You understand my doubts, as well. If things seem to fall apart around me in this unprecedented time of suffering and stress, You understand my lack of understanding, my failure to see You in all this. You call me to be in touch with the sufferings of my sisters and brothers, to touch their wounds, to listen to their hurts. I thank you for leading me to a better understanding of your love for humanity.
No one overtakes God in generosity. With God, the unexpected happens. The unthinkable is made possible. I can think of what I need to tell God that I am not able to tell anybody else, about my emotions, my history, my deepest desires, my personal needs and secrets. We expect God will accept it all, because it is all part of our humanity and our search for fullness and happiness.
Jesus has pronounced a blessing upon me: ‘Blessed are YOU who have not seen and yet have come to believe’.
What does it mean for me to be counted among those who are blessed because I believe in Jesus?
Jesus is Risen and He has finally shown his truest identity as God. Am I able to recognize Jesus as my Lord and God? What would I answer Him in reply to His generosity, even in the midst of so many uncertainties and doubts?
Will I be able to find God in the stillness of my home, in the quieting of our world so used to rushing and to frenetic activity? Can I find God in the ‘non-productive’ days I are living in?
The music and lyrics below here can help us mediate as we contemplate the Risen Christ inviting us to “touch the wounds of our world”.
by Salt to the Sound
“Beyond the veil,
Behind these walls,
Before an Altar ordained with gold,
Stained glass faces –all I see-
In all that glitters, do you see Me?”
Beauty lies where You are.
Will I find You here?
Within these walls, you’ll find no gold,
A humble wanderer, stories untold.
Long have I journeyed on this road,
Seeking mysteries, echoes of old.
And You asked me here
To dwell with You,
To find deep peace,
To find deep peace.
Will I find You here?
To find deep peace.
 GRACEY, Lionel, “Understanding the Liturgical Year Through Art. Book One”, 2015, pp 44-45.  Acts. 1:4-5: “‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  Acts. 2:6: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”  Jn. 20:19.  Acts. 1:13-14: “They went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers”.  Jn. 21:25: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written”.  Jn. 21:3: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing’. They said to him, ‘We will go with you’. They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing”.  Gen. 2:3: “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being”.  Ez. 37:11-14: “Then [the Lord] said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”  Jn. 18:8: “Let these men go”.  Jn. 20:17: “Do not hold on to me” Jesus said to Mary: touching is not essential for he/she who listens to the Word of God.