Touching the Wounded God

Michael Smither, "Doubting Thomas"

Michael Smither, “Doubting Thomas”

Today is the feast of St. Thomas, particularly beloved by all who have experienced his doubts and longed for the reassurance of concrete evidence. Here’s the story as John tells it:

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.” (John 20:24-29)

Anglican poet Malcolm Guite has an interesting take on the story. Calling Thomas the “courageous master of the awkward question” and “father of my faith,” he sees him cutting through evasion and abstraction. Rather than seconding Jesus in his admonition that “blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe,” Guite celebrates the seeing and the touching.

In doing so, he chooses the world-embracing rather than the world-denying tradition of Christianity. Many of the most “touching” moments in the Gospels occur when Jesus physically touches people, applying mud to a blind man’s eyes or washing the feet of his disciples. The poet notes that Jesus’s instructions are to continue his mission of touching. When we “reach out” to other people in the name of Jesus, we touch Jesus:

Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,
Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh.

Here’s the poem:

A Sonnet for St. Thomas the Apostle

By Malcolm Guite

We do not know… how can we know the way?”
Courageous master of the awkward question,
You spoke the words the others dared not say
And cut through their evasion and abstraction.
Oh doubting Thomas, father of my faith,
You put your finger on the nub of things
We cannot love some disembodied wraith,
But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.
Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,
Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh.
Because He loved your awkward counter-point
The Word has heard and granted you your wish.
Oh place my hands with yours, help me divine
The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.

Reading the poem gets me to rethink Jesus’s initial encounter with Mary Magdalene a few verses earlier. At that moment touching is denied her:

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. (John 20:17).

Joyous although the moment is, I can imagine Mary being frustrated that she can’t take Jesus in her arms. After all, it is the touching and eating that makes the disciples’ later breakfast on the beach with Jesus seem so intimate (Luke 24:37-43):

[The disciples] were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.  He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

When the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, we can’t then simply ignore the flesh. If God so loved the world that He gave us his only begotten son, then we can love this world as well. Or as Guite puts it,

We cannot love some disembodied wraith
But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.

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