By: Father Francois Beyrouti 414 years ago, in the year 1601, the Italian artist Caravaggio did a painting of today’s
Gospel text. Although this is a very powerful and famous painting Caravaggio, as did many other artists, got something very important wrong. In Caravaggio’s painting Saint Thomas actually puts his finger tip into the open side of Jesus. However, the Gospel of John does not say that Saint Thomas touched Jesus.
In the first part of the Gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples but Saint Thomas was not there. When he returns they tell him “we have seen the Lord.” (John 20:25a) Saint Thomas tells them “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25b)
Jesus appears a second time and tells Saint Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” (John 20:27 NAB.) Immediately Saint Thomas answers “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
What Caravaggio and so many others overlook is that Jesus invites Saint Thomas to touch his wounds but Thomas does not. He simply sees and believes. This theme of seeing and believing is repeated over ten times in the Gospel of John. In chapter one Jesus tells Nathanael: “Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” (John 1:50. See also: John 4:48, 6:30, 6:36, 6:40, 11:40, 11:45, 20:25, 20:29, 21:24).
Jesus also tells the crowd in John 6: “This is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40)
Why is Caravaggio’s mistake an important one?
Sometimes we want God to impress us, sometimes we tell God what we need him to do for us, and sometimes we put conditions on believing in Him. In all these situations God invites us to deepen our journey of faith by seeing and believing. We sometimes see with our eyes. But more important sometimes we see more by closing our eyes and opening the eyes of our heart and mind.
At times we need to keep our eyes wide open, like when we are driving. A good driver keeps his or her eyes on the road. While driving it does not help to try to see more with your eyes closed. If you do this you will get in a car accident and you can’t tell the police officer that the priest told us that we can see more with our eyes closed.
Other than when you are in your car, think of the many ways that you have seen more with your eyes closed. When you look at your children, brothers, sisters, or friends, do you see more than what you can see with your physical eyes? Even in young children, we can see exceptional talents of logic, creativity, humor, and a multitude of other gifts. We can see what is there and we can see how if these gifts are developed they will grow to exceptional levels.
In a similar way, every day Jesus gives us opportunities to see and believe many things that are not immediately obvious. It is important to ask ourselves why we believe and what we need to believe more. Can you identify moments in your spiritual journey when you first believed?
For the disciples and the early Christian community, the resurrection changed everything. The disciples were confused and disappointed when Jesus died. Their faith disappeared because they thought Jesus was going to save them from something in this world, whereas Jesus wanted to save them and us from sin and death.
It was only when he appeared to them that they saw and believed. They did not only see Jesus physically. They saw his power over death and they saw what his resurrection meant for their life. Our spiritual journey is very much like that, we need to sometimes keep our eyes open to see the blessings that God has put in our life, but more often we need to see beyond what our physical eyes can see.
The problem with Caravaggio and other painters is that it looks like Saint Thomas only believed when he touched physically. The painting looks like Saint Thomas is performing a medical examination, but Saint Thomas did not believe because he saw and touched the physical body of Jesus. He believed because he saw the risen Lord and this marked the beginning of his life of faith.
Jesus told his disciples and Jesus tells us: “Peace be with you.” Jesus first gives us temporary peace when our hearts are full of questions and Jesus gives us permanent peace when we go beyond the physical to see and believe.
Saint Thomas did not believe because he touched but because he saw. Jesus has given us much to see by rising from the dead. He invites us to see more and to believe more and ironically reminds us when we believe more we actually end up seeing more.