Some Christians of Kerala prefer to be called “Syrian Christians”. Others consider it a misnomer, and would rather be called “Thomas Christians”, because their forefathers were converted in apostolic times itself by St Thomas. I am not from Kerala (though most of my good friends are Malayalees) but I too would like to call myself a Thomas Christian!
Because, like Thomas, I too don’t have blind faith. I seek proof and rationality for my beliefs, as evidenced in the post resurrection scenario. Most of us Sunday Christians (Syrian, Latin, Protestant, Evangelical et al) tend to stop at Good Friday. Perhaps because we cannot fathom the Resurrection. This is quite normal. Over 40 years ago I had directed and also played the lead role of Jesus in a passion play in Bareilly. I was able to identify with the suffering Jesus, and could emote accordingly. But when it came to the Resurrection, I was foxed. There was no human emotion that could express this “event”.
Unfortunately, as I have elaborated in my book “Beyond 2000”, God is a failure as an “event manager”. If the Resurrection was indeed the turning point in history, and the basis of our faith, it should have been much better stage managed! Today’s event managers maximize sound and light effects and every minute detail including lip sync, to get the desired effect. Tele-evangelists, our Indian “Godmen”, sportspersons, actors, and politicians have fine tuned this art.
But the Resurrection was a publicity failure. There were no witnesses, no media attention or earth shattering symptoms, as happened at the Crucifixion. Even Mary who “stood by the Cross” was not to be seen at the tomb! This is because the Resurrection was not an event in human terms. It was an experience, as we shall presently see.
John’s description of the unfolding “event” differs from the other three Synoptic writers. Even though the Resurrection is referred to about 50 times in the New Testament, I will, for now, restrict myself to John’s gospel, chapters 20 & 21. I would like to experience, yes EXPERIENCE, the Resurrection the way some of the key players did – Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, Thomas and Mother Mary.
Most superficial commentators emphasise that the first person to meet the Risen Jesus was Mary Magdalene. It is made out as a gender issue. She may have been the first to rush to the tomb, but she was definitely not the first one to experience the Resurrection. It was in fact another woman, another Mary, the mother of Jesus. She had no need to rush to the tomb, because she already knew that Jesus had risen. She did not require empirical or circumstantial evidence. She had already experienced the Resurrection deep within. She was not the one whose womb bore him and breasts suckled him. Rather she was the one who heard the Word of God and kept it (cf Lk 11:28).
She had incarnated the word at the Annunciation, proclaimed it at the Visitation, accomplished it at the Crucifixion, and now experienced it in the Resurrection. My devotion to Mother Mary is not based on pilgrimages to Lourdes or Vellankanni, but on trying to keep the Word the way she did. It is also the most plausible explanation that I can give for Mother Mary’s apparent absence at the tomb.
How did others react or respond to the Resurrection? Firstly, let us not confuse the event of the empty tomb with the experience of the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene experienced Jesus only when he called her by her name (v16). It was more of an emotional than faith experience. That is why he said to her “Do not cling to me” (v 17). The ever impetuous Peter “saw and believed” (v 9). He also received the Holy Spirit in the closed room where Jesus entered (v 22). He was sensing something, but could not fully comprehend it. That is why he quietly reverted to his old profession of fishing at Lake Tiberius. (cf Jn 21). Old habits die hard, even for the chosen ones!
John, who often claimed to be the disciple that Jesus loved (an exclusivist term that I really don’t like) had reached the tomb before Peter (v9), but he waited for Peter to enter first. Why? Was his faith not strong enough, or was it just a warrant of precedence that he showed to Peter? For me, after Mother Mary, the best response to the Resurrection is that of Thomas. Unfortunately, he has been labelled the “doubting” Thomas. I would rather call him the “seeking” Thomas. He was actually seeking an answer for his faith, as Peter would later advise (cf 1 Pet 3:15). In the second encounter where the risen Jesus forces Thomas to touch his physical wounds, he says to the latter “You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (v 29).
I don’t think that Thomas’ absence at the first appearance was accidental. I believe that it was a deliberate act on the part of Jesus. He wanted to show us all the three paths to experiencing the Resurrection. Firstly, that of Mother Mary who was totally in sync with her son; secondly that of Peter, John, Mary Magdalene etc to whom he revealed himself, and thirdly to the likes of Thomas, who wanted proof – empirical evidence, not just subjective feelings.
In today’s rationalist and cynical world, where faith is shattered when Godmen are found to be rapists, and some celibate Catholic priests are paedophilic, it is not enough to demand blind faith. In the course of my Thomasian seeking I have found the best scientific evidence of the Resurrection in the Shroud of Turin. It is believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus. It has blood stains with capillary action that corresponds to the physical torture of Jesus. What science has failed to explain is the perfect negative photographic image (not stains) on the Shroud.
I find the answer to that in a nun who was very active in the healing ministry in the Charismatic Renewal. After intense healing sessions she found strange marks on her inner garment, notably the underarms that sweat the most. These stains could only be removed by a chemical normally used for developing photographic negatives into black and white positives. It made me think. Jesus’ public life was full of taking the burdens of others upon himself. His body was embalmed with chemicals. At the Resurrection intense heat and light would have been generated, as matter was converted to non-matter (the reverse of the Big Bang theory of creation). This would have caused photo synthesis that left the negative imprint on the burial cloth. We know that some chemical reactions are latent, so it is possible that this image may have appeared later. Those who saw the cloth then (v 6,7) may have only noticed the blood stains, and not given it much importance. It was then a dirty discard, not a holy relic as perceived today.
Cynics could ask me how the Shroud did not get burnt in such intense heat and light? To them I would give the example of the microwave oven – where the food gets heated but the receptacle remains unaffected. I am a college drop out, who could not complete his B.Sc. But someday I hope that scientists will use the forensic sciences to prove my hypothesis right, so that Thomases like me may also see and believe.
The title of this piece is “An Enigmatic Forty Days”. It is the period between the Resurrection and the Ascension. I call it enigmatic because this interim period has more questions than answers. In biblical tradition 40 days is considered a time of sufficient preparation, as experienced by Moses (cf Ex 24:18, 34:28), Elijah (cf I Kings 19:8), Jonah (cf Jon 3:4) and even Mother Mary’s own “purification” (cf Lk 2:22).
The Jerome Biblical Commentary says that the 40 days after the Resurrection are merely symbolic (JBC 44:15). The Dictionary of the Bible edited by John McKenzie SJ states that passages in the Old Testament that imply the Resurrection lack clarity (DOB 731). In the New Testament the three instances of restoration of life – daughter of Jarius (cf Mat 9;18-26), the son of the widow of Nain (cf Lk 7:11-17) and Lazarus (cf Jn 11:1-44) are not proof of the Resurrection (DOB 732). It further says that “the apparitions of the risen Jesus is a supernatural reality which does not belong to the world, and cannot be the object of historical investigation” (DOB Ibid).
With Thomas, I cannot fully agree with the above statement. Yet in the words of Paul I would say “If Christ has not been raised then our preaching is without substance and so is your faith” (1 Cor 15:14). “If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most pitiable” (v 19). “If the dead are not going to be raised then let us eat and drink for tomorrow we shall be dead” (v 33). He refutes these arguments by saying “With the Resurrection of the dead what is sown is perishable, but what is raised is imperishable” (v 42). And finally, “Death is swallowed up in victory. Death where is your sting?” (v 55). “Thank God then for giving us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v 57).
This year the enigmatic 40 days will end on Ascension Thursday 10th May. Will we have an answer by then for our faith – be it that of Mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, Thomas or Paul?
* The author examines these issues in greater depth in his book “Beyond 2000 – The Other Side”, published by Gujarat Sahitya Prakash.