On the Gospel of John 20:19-31
Divine Mercy Sunday
“You have listened to fears, Child… Come, let me breathe on you. Forget them. Are you brave again?”
So says the lion Aslan to Susan in the children’s book by CS Lewis, Prince Caspian. We know, of course, that CS Lewis was a convinced Christian when he wrote this book, and that Aslan is very much a figure of Christ. So when we hear of Aslan breathing on Susan, we can be confident that today’s Gospel is what Lewis had in mind.
After all the trauma of the suffering and death of Christ, and the shock of the resurrection, the Gospel today is welcome for its restfulness. Christ’s first words to the disciples, gathered in fear, are reassuring: “Peace be with you”. How moving these words are when we consider that they were spoken by the spotless victim who was ‘harshly dealt with… like a lamb that is lead to the slaughter house’ (Isaiah 52). Out of the violence of the crucifixion comes God’s final word: Peace.
After this earth-shatteringly simple greeting, the risen Christ carries out another simple gesture: he breathes on the disciples. It was by ‘blowing the breath of life into his nostrils’ that God made Adam a ‘living being’ (Gen 2:7). Breath, then, is inseparable from life, and ‘breathing one’s last breath’ is a sign of death and the absence it brings. Christ’s breath, then, has a twofold purpose. Firstly it serves to show the living presence of the risen Christ. He is not a phantom, or a ghost, or an illusion. Secondly, this assurance of presence gives new life to the disciples. CS Lewis’ interpolation is not unwarranted: “Are you brave again?”
But the risen Christ is not just a celestial Superman who shows off his power by walking through closed doors! In fact, he pays close attention to the reality of human doubts and fears. Thomas is the apostle who needed to see the reality of Christ’s resurrection before he believed it for himself. Tradition gave him the name ‘Doubting Thomas’, but perhaps his doubt was sensible. In any case, Christ did not rebuke Thomas for his doubts, but gave him the assurance he needed: “Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe”.
This Sunday is Divine Mercy Sunday, but it is also the occasion of the beatification of Pope John Paul II. His constant refrain, from the moment of his election was ‘Be not afraid!’ and he encouraged enthusiastically the devotion to the Divine Mercy, with its emphasis on trust in Christ. In today’s Gospel, Christ brings peace, he breathes life, and he reassures the uncertain. John Paul knew that we Christians of the twenty-first century need the reassuring presence of Christ as much as the fearful disciples did, as much as doubting Thomas did. Let us turn to the risen Christ then, let us hear his greeting – Peace – and let us feel his breath, giving us life.
“Are you brave again?”
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
– John 20:19-31