Certain calls that come into my cellphone automatically get clicked into voicemail. The dentist's office would be one of those. I pretty much expect a call from the dentist every six months. After a few weeks of repeat calls, the courteous thing to do seems to be to pick up the call and actually bother to schedule an appointment. So I do.
Nowadays, a patient no longer just sits in the dental chair. You lie down. It's a strangely vulnerable position. With mouth wide open, you are suddenly at the mercy of someone holding very sharp metal instruments in her hand. A bright light details every imperfection of your complexion.
I stare up at the dental hygienist, hoping for some gentleness on her part. She, in that blue paper mask, stares down my throat while asking pleasant questions, questions which are always impossible to answer. How do you speak when someone is poking around inside your mouth with an instrument that resembles an ice pick.
It is a peculiar 25-minute relationship. The hygienist asks questions, and the patient grunts in varied tones.
I used to think the blue mask was to protect the hygienist from germs--a facial shield for the bacteria-filled spray that would splash back up at her. But now I've come to believe that the real purpose of that mask is to protect the hygienist from the blunt force of a patient's breath. Bleu cheese dressing breath. Coffee-on-an-empty-stomach breath. Garlic rigatoni breath.
Our breath reveals a lot more about us than we may realize. Just ask your dental hygienist if she can identify what you had for dinner last night; and she would know, I bet, exactly what you ate, regardless of whether or not you furiously brushed your teeth before you jumped into your car for that appointment...when you actually pay someone to poke something sharp at your gums.
Breath reveals a lot about a person.
According to St. John in the Holy Scriptures, the first thing Jesus did when out of the tomb, once he picked the dirt clods from his eyebrows, was to breathe on his disciples. That's right, he breathed on them. He opened his mouth and let them have it--three days' worth of empty stomach breath.
Before they had any chance to pull away in revulsion, Jesus said to all of those disciples, "Peace be with you"--words that evidently felt to them like a breath of fresh air. So when you are tired of living a de-centered life or a conflicted life or a fear-filled life, what could possibly offer more hope to your sagging spirits than the peace of Jesus Christ? Jesus breathed on those disciples, and they inhaled.
"Okay, men (and they probably were all men) inhale again. And with this next breath, I am going to infuse you with the power and the will to forgive other people. It's quite the gift, especially if you will put it to work. But first you must inhale, and then that breath will become a true part of you."
All of this took place in a locked room. These Jews were in a frightened state, which may not be all that different from where many believers around the world find themselves today--persecuted and fearing for their lives. The air in that room with the disciples was thick with anxiety.
A couple of weeks ago, I stepped into a hospital room where a different kind of tension was in the air. The door was not locked, but it could not have been opened recently for the air was stuffy and tight. It seemed oppressively hot. I thought this must be what an airless tomb feels like. There were five family members and four friends of Jim jammed into that small space, keeping a weepy vigil over his weak and labored breathing. The end zone was near for Jim. It was fourth and goal.
The nurse was the next one to enter. I felt sorry for her trying to push her way through this crowd of sad people. Their shoulders were stooped; their faces were bent. They were hunkered down like a team trying to keep the ball from crossing the goal line. This time I kept the door open. The room seemed to need some climate control.
The nurse wasn't Jesus, though she did use the word "peaceful" a number of times to describe Jim. Her words helped calm the room. She spoke beautifully about what a good patient he was and how confident she was that he was not suffering. The family seemed to inhale her every word.
Grief has its healthy dimension, but for weeks and weeks I had watched this family fall in love with grief. They nursed their grief and protected it, refusing to let any of it go. One by one they shut down, emptying box after box of tissue.
The disciples of Jesus huddled together in a tight room on Easter evening. The shades were drawn. The tissues were spent. Thomas, one of their own, happened to be absent. He showed up later, though Jesus had left, which did nothing for his own urge to see Jesus in real time. "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of those nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe." The eyewitness reports of the other disciples were not enough. Thomas needed to SEE for himself that the dead Jesus was now the alive Jesus.
You can relate to this urge of Thomas...how we also insist on seeing something with our own eyes before we decide it's real.
Remember seventh grade biology class? Nobody at my lab table ever saw anything move through the haze of that microscope lens, no matter how we adjusted it. But when Mr. Erickson saw paramecium swimming all over his slide at the front of the room, suddenly the whole class converged around HIS microscope. We wanted to see something actually move.
A brand new grandmother gets the phone call from her daughter who just birthed a baby girl 30 minutes earlier. It doesn't matter how detailed the daughter's description is--"Mom, she has thick hair, big dark eyes, and the most incredible fingers." Grandma remains incredulous until she can get to Pittsburgh and actually SEE and HOLD this newborn herself. Only then will she believe this is real.
Or put yourself on a dealer's lot looking for a new pre-owned car. I don't know many people who would buy a used car sight unseen. No, they go and they check it out. They drive the thing. This is the doctrine we live by: "Seeing is believing."
But here is a truth with which we must come to terms today. The church of the resurrected Jesus Christ is founded on a complete reversal of this doctrine. Now, it is "believing is seeing," and not the other way around.
Jesus tells Thomas that those who find a way to trust in him without the privilege of seeing him--these ones are blessed. Let's think about this promise of Jesus. He is suggesting that believing in another person actually creates a form of sight. We know that newlyweds experience this all the time. A couple would never take the plunge and get married if they elected to wait around to see everything about their mate before they were willing to believe in this other. No, they trust all kinds of tomorrows for which they cannot begin to see the details, much less the shape.
Believing in another actually creates a form of sight or perception. Have you ever noticed the disproportionate interest that Jesus showed in blind people? The condition of being blind requires one trust or believe in someone or something without one's physical eyes working. All the time this happens! Every next step of a blind person demands an element of trust. No wonder Jesus had affection for the blind. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe," he says to Thomas.
This is extremely valuable news for us to hear and absorb in our own lives. What it says is that we are at no disadvantage from those first-century disciples who got to walk dusty roads with Jesus. Believing in this Jesus in our own day and time is its own path for "seeing" him.
This is the joy Peter speaks of in his first letter, deep in the New Testament, where he writes to a Christian community living long after the time of Jesus walking in Palestine. "Although you have not seen Christ Jesus," Peter tells these followers, "you [nevertheless] love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy."
If you are looking for empirical claims on which to ground your Christian life, you will always come up short. Always. Thomas is your twin brother, if visible proof is your requirement for a trusting faith. Faith is guaranteed to collapse and become a shaky venture if it demands proof for every doubt. How much more lively, though, and real, to recall all those things that we end up believing and trusting throughout life, but which dwell entirely in the realm of the unseen.
Imagine mailing a letter or depositing a check and feeling the requirement to visibly track every movement of that letter or check before you can rest confidently that it will arrive where it needs to arrive. You would not have much of a life with that kind of behavior!
I think of the Shroud of Turin when I hear this little exchange between Jesus and Thomas. This 14-foot piece of linen cloth that millions of people want to believe wrapped the body of the crucified Jesus may be the most studied artifact in human history. Today it sits in a covered glass box in a chapel in Turin, Italy, a box filled with argon gas to prevent oxidation and light damage.
What is so enthralling about this piece of fabric? Well, it's the image of a crucified man embedded in its fibers that has countless Christians wanting to believe that it is, in fact, the actual burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth. Never mind that carbon dating puts the fabric's image somewhere around the 13th century. People still want to believe that this image might be proof of the real Jesus.
Now think about this. Rationally speaking, we don't have any Jesus DNA lying around in a cupboard somewhere. So there is no way one could ever scientifically prove this shroud is connected with Jesus. But more to the point, spiritually speaking, what difference would it make if one could prove a connection? Would we suddenly say to ourselves, "Now I must live differently. Now that there is piece of fabric linked to Jesus, I can really open up with my life and love my neighbor as I am supposed to...and practice forgiveness like I've heard about...and withhold all that judgment that I formerly let loose on the world."
That would be bizarre. I don't know what you'd call it, but it wouldn't be faith, for faith is trusting in someone worth trusting. And as Jesus reminds us today, it is a more blessed condition to trust him than to actually have the opportunity to see him. Or as we said earlier, believing IS a privileged form of seeing.
There's one other gift that Thomas leaves us with beside this complete reversal of one of the world's primary doctrines, namely, "Seeing is believing." That one. Thomas also teaches us that the living Christ is forever the wounded Christ, scarred for eternity. Our twin may have wanted proof that Jesus after the grave was the same guy as Jesus before the grave. But what Thomas ends up with instead of proof is PRESENCE. He gets the presence of a Lord who shows up in life with wounds--obvious traces of suffering.
Jesus could presumably have selected anybody for his resurrected figure. But he appears not only in Thomas' life, but in yours and mine as well, with the wounds of humanity. Maybe he carries these wounds as a reminder that he has not abandoned the mess of suffering...or to show his deep understanding of human anguish...or to offer strength when we're not sure where to turn with our hurts.
Whatever the plan, it's clear that our Lord would like to be known through his wounds.
I spoke of blind people earlier. Let me close with a note about those who are deaf. Hearing impaired people who know sign language have a particular sign for Jesus. The creators of sign language would never have come up with this sign, were it not for the Thomas story in the Bible.
The left middle finger touches the right palm, and the right middle finger, in sequence, touches the left palm. No words are necessary. Jesus is the one with wounded hands. Through his wounds and in his vulnerability, we have life. True life.