The Gospel on Divine Mercy Sunday is St John’s account of the spiritually wounded Thomas who would not know peace until surrendering his wounds to the Risen Christ.
There is a scene in the great World War II prisoner of war film, Stalag 17, in which an American Air Force officer (played by actor William Holden) negotiates with the German Commandant over the treatment of a fellow prisoner. I was dragged into a similar role here a few years ago when I protested an injustice aimed at a friend.
For several years, I managed to avoid efforts to recruit me for an Inmate Communications Committee (ICC), a group of eight chosen from 1,500 prisoners here. The ICC advocates for better prison conditions and prisoner rights. I must argue over their inequities and living conditions, but I cannot argue for my own.
After protesting over another prisoner, I no longer had a valid excuse, so I reluctantly accepted. From the start, I was saddled with doing all the writing which includes detailed minutes of every meeting for distribution to prison officials, a monthly summary of progress, and a quarterly newsletter.
The job – which pays nothing – is in addition to my Library job which pays next to nothing. It also means writing endless memos, proposals, clarifications, and requests that I field each week. We succeed in only about ten percent of the concessions we set out to obtain, and that is more or less on par with William Holden’s success rate in Stalag 17.
About the only high point is that I am also required to be present at a Jobs and Education Fair in the prison gymnasium twice a year. It’s an effort to get the other 1,500 prisoners here into jobs, educational classes and programs, and typically about 500 show up. Among the dozens of display tables set up, the library and ICC each have one so I generally cover both.
One of these events took place on the day before I started to type this post. The Veterans Affairs table was set up next to the ICC table. It’s a nice display with information on veteran groups here, an annual POW/MIA Remembrance, and other programs.
The table was staffed by my friend, John, who I don’t get to see as often as I would like. John is a Navy veteran in his mid to later thirties. He lost his leg during active duty before coming to prison. John told me that when he arrived here, his prosthetic leg was taken from him because of an infection at the amputation site. John is very anxious to get the prosthetic leg back and get back on his feet again, but because of the fear of infection, the prison is withholding it. It was John, by the way, who told me of the release of Martin Nogues, the Marine veteran I wrote about in “Semper Fi: Forty Days of Lent Giving Up Giving up.”
I agreed that I would do some research in the library to see if there is a policy here that John might use to restore his prosthetic leg. Then, without thinking, I thanked him for “stepping up” to take charge of the Veteran’s table. I quickly apologized for my faux pas, but John had a good laugh.
Then he told me that he spends half his day thanking people for all sorts of small things: an assist out of the chair, a push up a steep ramp, picking up a dropped item. He said that my thanks was the first time in a long time anyone has thanked him for his service to others. That small, awkward gesture had a profound effect on John. As I left, he was beaming. I made a decision that I would find a way to help restore what he lost and get him out of that dreaded wheelchair.
I can sometimes become so aware of the spiritual warfare that engulfs me here that it diminishes my awareness of the wounds of others. We are all, in one way or another, wounded by life physically, emotionally, spiritually, and it dulls our senses.
It drives us onto self-centered islands of emotional distance and spiritual isolation. The wounds we carry foster pessimism and doubt, erode faith, and turn the joy of living into a crucible of mere tolerance. Peace evades wounded warriors, even in spiritual warfare.
THE DOUBT OF THOMAS
This is the great plague of our age. Virtually every day I receive mail from readers asking me to pray for a husband or wife, a son or daughter, who has lost their faith in response to the wounds of life and the sheer weight of living. In a war with one’s self, faith is often the first to go and the last to come back. If this describes you or someone in your life, then pay special attention to the Apostle Thomas in the Gospel from Saint John on Divine Mercy Sunday.
There are some remarkable elements in Saint John’s account of the death of Jesus and all that came after the Cross. The first witness to the “Seventh Sign,” the Resurrection of Jesus, was a woman whose own demons Jesus had once cast out. I wrote of her and the evidence for her first-hand witness in “Mary Magdalene: Faith, Courage, and an Empty Tomb.” I would like to reproduce a scene from that post that never took place, but it’s one that I have long imagined.
“Mary came to the disciples, Peter and the others, hidden by fear behind locked doors, and said, ‘I have good news and not-so-good news.’ Peter asked, ‘What’s the good news?’ Mary replied, ‘The Lord has risen and I have seen him.’ Peter then asked, ‘What’s the not-so-good news?’ Mary said, ‘He’s on his way here, and He wants a word with you about last Friday.”
The focus is so intensely on Jesus in the Resurrection accounts that it’s easy to forget the deep woundedness of everyone else in this story. They are all living with the deeply felt trauma of loss, and not only loss, but with an overwhelming belief that all is lost. They are devastated and stripped of hope.
John, the Beloved Disciple, stood with the mother of Jesus at the foot of the Cross and watched Him die. So did Mary Magdalene and other women present. The others fled. Peter, their leader, denied three times that he even knew Him. All that had been promised and hoped for was misunderstood, and now gone forever. The Chief Priests – emboldened when Pilate caved to their “We Have No King but Caesar” – sought only to round up the rest.
It was to this state of fear that Mary Magdalene showed up with news that defied belief. And when He first appeared to them behind that locked door, His demeanor was the opposite of what I imagined above to be a human response to their abandonment of Him. “Peace be with you,” He said. It is not a reference to a state of peace between disputing parties or someone subject to Earthly powers. The word the Gospel used in Greek – Eiréné – has more to do with spiritual welfare than spiritual warfare.
It refers to a state of mind, heart and soul, the equivalent of the Hebrew “Shalom”, and its usage means harmony with God within one’s self. It is the same sense that the Prophet Isaiah used in his Messianic expectation of the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). It is what Saint Paul refers to in his letter to the Colossians, “Let the peace of Christ reign in your hearts” (Col. 3:15), and once you have it, you are required to spread it. This peace is the foundation and gift of Divine Mercy.
But Thomas missed the whole thing. When he arrived and found them stunned and exuberant, he retreated into his own deep wounds. Thomas did not stay to see Him crucified. Like the others, he could not bear it. He and they fled when Jesus appeared before Pilate mocked, beaten, broken, as the accusing mob grew, beyond control to threaten even Pilate himself. But Thomas saw enough to know that it was over, that all hope had gone out of the world. So when faced with the great risk of trusting and hoping again, he said,
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger into the nail marks, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)
TRUSTING DIVINE MERCY
For this, the Apostle is forever called, “Doubting Thomas,” but I see something more painful than his doubt. I see him also as Hurting Thomas. He had to touch the wounds of the Risen Christ because the wounds of the Crucified Christ had already touched him, had broken his heart, and devastated his faith, and destroyed all hope. As so many of you know only all too well, coming to trust again after such hurt is a very risky business.
I find it fascinating that the story of Thomas and his struggle with trust and hope after the events of Holy Week is the Gospel for Divine Mercy Sunday. When Jesus presented Himself to Thomas, and invited him to probe the wounds in his living hands and side, Thomas did not oblige. Instead, he surrendered his own wounds, and responded in a leap of faith, “My Lord and my God.” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote of this:
“In His two appearances to the Apostles gathered in the Upper Room, Jesus repeats several times the greeting, ‘Peace be with you’… It becomes the gift of peace that Jesus alone can give because it is the fruit of his radical victory over evil… For this reason Saint John Paul II chose to call this Sunday after Easter ‘Divine Mercy,’ with a very specific image: that of Jesus’ pierced side from which blood and water flowed.”
This image, revealed to Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska as the image of Divine Mercy, is that of the same wounds transfigured:
“I saw the Lord Jesus dying on the Cross amidst great suffering, and out of the Heart of Jesus came the two rays as are in the image.” (Diary of St. Faustina, 414)
“The two rays denote blood and water. The pale ray stands for the Water which makes souls righteous. The red ray stands for the Blood which is the life of souls… Happy is the one who will dwell in their shelter…”(Diary, 299)
It is these very wounds that Christ presented to Thomas, not only that he may believe again, but that he may hope again, and trust in that hope. In a post that was widely read and shared on These Stone Walls, I wrote of a pivotal dream I had about these same wounds in “How Father Benedict Groeschel Entered My Darkest Night.”
Many readers know that I had surgery a year ago, and it left a scar, about six inches in length, just under my right ribcage, the opposite side of the piercing of Christ. In my dream, I awoke in my prison cell with the scar open and both water and blood, side by side, rushing out and soaking everything. Crucified with the wounds of false witness and imprisonment, that dream became the catalyst of my finally understanding Divine Mercy. My wounds are not healed – and neither are many of yours – but they are now placed in trust in the light of Divine Mercy. They are hidden with Christ in God.
I saw perhaps the most stunning evidence of this just as I sat down to type this post. On January 2, 2013, I wrote a post about a horrific wound inflicted on one American community that also wounded the heart of every person of faith and good will. My post was “Tragedy in Newtown and a New Year’s Resolution for Our Town.”
I wrote it when the wound of that terrible day was foremost on our minds. In Newtown, Connecticut, a broken young man opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the final weeks of 2012 near Christmas. The tragedy killed or wounded dozens of small children. I wondered how those at its epicenter could ever recover. Such wounds never heal.
But they can transform. In the April 2017 issue of Magnificat, Jennifer Hubbard published a moving essay for Divine Mercy Sunday. Jennifer lost her youngest child, Catherine Violet, in the Sandy Hook tragedy. Of Divine Mercy 2017, Jennifer wrote:
“The moment I deny the grace extended to me, I become the anticipated thunderous boom at which I cowered. I deny the one whose example I long to follow, and I forget it was with his last breaths as he hung from the cross that Jesus prayed for our forgiveness. Head bowed low and knees firmly planted, I pray for the courage to love as I have been loved and forgive as I have been forgiven.”
Over the last month, many readers of These Stone Walls have entered into a journey: “Consecration to Divine Mercy: 33 Days to Merciful Love.” We hope many others will follow. When the prayer of Consecration to Divine Mercy is offered, the wounds and hurts of our lives will still be here. But when placed in the service of Divine Mercy, they become not your wounds alone, but those of Christ,
“For you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3, the Second Reading of Easter Sunday)
Editor’s Note: Prepare for Divine Mercy Sunday with these special posts on These Stone Walls:
- Divine Mercy: The Second Greatest Story Ever Told
- ‘You Did it to Me’: Wisdom and Works of Mercy
- Saints and Sojourners: From Prison to Divine Mercy
- The Divine Mercy Canonization of Saint John Paul II
- In the Company of Saints &Villains: A Divine Mercy Story