This Sunday’s gospel was that oldie but goodie, the story of doubting Thomas. I’ve heard the standard homilies about Tom, how we are all doubters, etc. But this week I heard a message which brought many of us in the pews to tears.
The presiding priest always gives great homilies. He’s been everything from a fraternity brother to a combat soldier as well as a priest and Army Chaplain so he never speaks from the ivory tower. I’ve seen him pull out a human skull, a bullet and the U.S. Army Field Guide to Interrogation during his homilies.
Father began by pointing out that Thomas wasn’t with the apostles when Jesus appeared in the Upper Room. I’m not sure I ever thought about the significance of that, maybe I figured it was bad luck on Thomas’ part. Father had another theory. The apostles gathered in the Upper Room to share meals, to be a family. Maybe Thomas chose not to be with them. This family had just suffered a great loss; surely sadness, confusion, even anger and guilt afflicted them all. Maybe it hit Thomas in a particular way and he withdrew. Maybe Thomas was depressed.
Father spoke of knowing loss, and we could see that pain in his eyes–he didn’t have to tell us about those he saw killed and maimed in war. He spoke of how depression and guilt come over you in waves, isolating you and keeping you from your family. For many, he said, this depression keeps them from the Lord’s table, much like Thomas.
My father didn’t have an easy childhood. In fact, when his hospice nurse asked if he wanted to record some childhood memories for his family, he said, “I didn’t have a childhood.” I’ll never be sure if he believed in God or not, but his anger and sadness kept him out of church. Even at the end, the last time he spoke with me he said, “There’s no hope.” I had a hard time answering that, but finally said, “There is in God.” Over the years I had come to understand his pain, why he withdrew from faith, but I had to offer him this, at least.
Did the apostles understand Thomas’s pain? Did they sense that his crisis of faith sprung from a deep sadness? I’m sure they missed him at the table. This group of men had traveled together for three years. They had seen Jesus perform miracles and witnessed what they thought at the time was the His ultimate defeat. They were certainly family and probably grieved Thomas’ absence as we grieve that of the Thomas’s in our own families. As I looked around the pews I saw people wiping away tears, relating to the pain of depression, to an anger or sadness that keeps loved ones away from their own table.
I imagine Jesus in the Upper Room looking at his beloved apostles and, like a shepherd, like a parent, focusing on the one who was missing. He knew human sorrow–we know He wept for the death of Lazarus and for the pain Lazarus’ sisters felt when he died. While Thomas is often cast as somehow sinful in his unbelief, and we by extension, maybe Jesus was just simply sad that Thomas wasn’t at His table. After all, what did Jesus say when He returned a week later? “Peace be with you.” For those of us who have struggled with the pain of depression, with the pain of an estranged family member, indeed any of our human brokenness, isn’t peace what we so desperately seek? At that moment, when Thomas had come back to the table, Jesus offered what Thomas needed. Peace.