One of the most impressive things that I have ever seen with my own two eyes is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. There’s a lot going on up there. It has 47 different panels and scenes, but my all-time favorite, the one that I could stare at for hours, the one that flares my spirit, is God’s creation of Adam. I think you can recall it in your imagination – Adam reclined on a grassy knoll on the left, God the Father ranged out in a billowing cape on the right, and right in the middle, their two hands, nearly touching, separated only by an extension of Adam’s finger.
I’ve often wondered, “Are God and Adam about to touch for the first time, or are they moving away from their first touch?” I’m inclined to believe they’re moving away, that God is stepping back and getting his first good look at his masterpiece, that he’s feeling like you do when you’ve just printed off the final copy of that term paper that you know is your best work and that you’re actually excited about. And that leaves the tiniest little space between them, the tiniest little space in which to hold each other in view, to see each other face to face, and to love each other in freedom.
But down the line, something happens. We can say that Adam closes his eyes, and our eyes too. We lose sight of the God who never stops holding his hand out, who never draws back from us. And then we get scared that we can’t see God anymore, like a game of infant peek-a-boo that we can’t stop playing with ourselves, so we go groping around for other securities. And we stumble over all the jagged edges of life, and we sustain all sorts of bruises and wounds.
I imagine that’s the situation we find St. Thomas in. If Thomas has a wound, I would venture to say that it’s separated-ness. The experience of the Cross scattered him and the other apostles away from Jesus, even though earlier in the Gospel of John he says to the apostles, “Let us also go to Jerusalem with Jesus, so that we may die with him” (cf. 11:16). Here in today’s Gospel, Thomas is not with his friends when Jesus appears. He’s off somewhere else, on his own, doing his own thing. And when he shows back up and they tell him what happened, you can imagine some of the thoughts that might have gone through his head, “Why couldn’t Jesus have come while I was here? Does he forgive them, and not me? Does he have words of peace for them, but not for me? Am I excluded?” St. Thomas stands for anyone who has had thoughts like these, anyone who has ever felt cut off from others, alone in a group, on the margins of life.
Maybe that’s why he reacts the way he does to the news. “Unless I see and touch his wounds, I will not believe!” On one level, the resurrection is an extraordinary claim, which can stir up doubt about its truth and desire for an equally extraordinary type of “proof.” On another level, Thomas’ refusal of belief gives voice to the pain of his exclusion. “I will not believe this awesome thing,” he could be saying, “if it makes of me an outsider, a second-class belonger.” On an even deeper level, though, Thomas’ words can be heard as the Spirit’s words, blowing over the wounds of his separated-ness. “My faith cannot hold,” he could be saying, “if this space between me and God persists the way it is. My faith will be too weak unless Jesus crosses the distance between us and fits me within the concrete signs of his love and mercy. I would touch his wounds! I would have my own wounds touched, and healed.”
Could it be that Jesus leaves Thomas out of his first appearance precisely so as to have him make this cry of the heart? Thomas cries out on behalf of all people who know the pain of separated-ness. And without even knowing it, he identifies the source of healing for that pain – touching the body of Christ, being incorporated into the concrete, raw, radical mercy of Jesus and his body, the Church. Jesus doesn’t leave Thomas out. He gets Thomas to put into words this aching desire for communion, and then he delivers. Jesus delivers on our desire here at this table of mercy and communion.
Yesterday, I was ordained a priest. A priest is one who has been touched by the wounds of Christ and who turns around to touch the wounds of others, not in a prodding way, but in a healing way. To draw people into communion. Last week, our eight neophytes were baptized also as priests, not ordained priests, but sharers ever-still in the one, common priesthood of Jesus. Our mission is the same, to be transformed by God’s mercy, and to go out to others, especially those on the margins, with that same mercy. To pay attention to the people who receive little attention. To accept the people who find little acceptance. To draw out the good in the people who set our teeth on edge. This is what our common priesthood is about. Mercy. Mercy that heals. Mercy that transforms. Mercy that anchors faith that can cry out, “My Lord and my God!” Mercy that crosses all distances and touches again the hand of God.
Father Chase Pepper, C.S.C. was ordained a priest in the Congregation of Holy Cross on April 11, 2015 along with five of his seminary classmates. Fr. Pepper has been serving for the past year at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is originally from Huntsville, Alabama.