It is good that as we in the west celebrate the Octave Day of Easter our Orthodox friends are also celebrating Easter. But as the cry Christos Anesti echoes round the world, there is a darker, more dreadful memory being recalled. Our distance in time from the Armenian Massacre does not lessen its horror, nor does the situation of Armenians and Greeks under Ottoman rule seem so very different from the position of Christians and Yazidis today in areas dominated by Islamist regimes. Contempt is sometimes as difficult to bear as persecution, but it always tends towards destruction. What begins as comparatively minor injustice ends in cruelty and the taking of life. But why do I link these events with St Thomas and the gospel of the day, John 20.19–31? Please spend a moment or two looking at this picture by Caravaggio.
Christ stands before us without the usual crossed nimbus. Caravaggio wants to emphasize his bodyliness, the physical reality of the Resurrection. This is no ghost, this is Jesus of Nazareth, risen from the dead. Thomas places his finger deep within the wound in Christ’s side, but his eyes are wide, questioning, not looking at him at all. We know that Thomas will respond with ‘My Lord and my God!’ but for the moment he is doubting, wondering, overwhelmed by the experience of being invited to test Jesus. Those terrible wounds will become channels of grace and healing, but Thomas must know their dreadfulness before he can know their power. It must have been a moment of unequalled terror as Thomas felt the wounded flesh and knew he was touching the wounds of the Son of God.
Thomas and the other disciples had locked themselves away in a private room for fear of the danger outside. They were confused, wary, unsure what to believe or do; and suddenly they experience mercy. Thomas had refused to believe, and the very forcefulness of his refusal suggests a tormented mind. Now, in this dramatic fashion, he is set free from his doubts and hesitations and, like the other disciples, he is commissioned to set others free. But at what cost to Thomas himself? Did he have to battle the rest of his life with a feeling of guilt, of having failed to come up to the mark, of having failed to believe when he ‘ought’ to have done so?
We cannot know; but the doubts of Thomas have not only helped confirm the faith of us who come after, they have also helped us understand something of the nature of divine mercy. It is more than mere clemency. However deserving we may be of correction, God does not see us as primarily wayward children, in constant need of a salutary rap over the knuckles (or whatever the modern equivalent may be). His attitude towards us is one of utter compassion. He shares our suffering, our failures, our most difficult moments. He has identified so completely with us that he has become human in the person of Jesus Christ. The Armenian Massacre, the suffering inflicted on Christians and Yazidis by IS and similar groups, God knows these things from the inside, as it were. Today we celebrate Christ’s victory over everything contrary to life and happiness, even death itself. He will bear the wounds of his own death on the Cross for all eternity; and for all eternity the redemption he won for us will be lavished upon us. That is the mercy we celebrate; that is what Thomas experienced when he touched Christ’s wounded side.