Grieving Thomas

By Jim Vitale

At first, I didn’t understand what I heard. That fact: he had disappeared; the rumor: he was dead. On a cold Sunday morning in late February, I sat on my living room floor frantically phoning anyone I thought might know something. Finally, the wife of one of my professors answered.

“Is it true?” I asked quietly.

“Yes,” she said.

In the following hours my inability to understand turned to an inability to believe. How could my friend be dead? We had dinner together three days ago. He was planning to grow out his hair again, he was planning to study at Princeton, I was planning for him to become one of the most brilliant theologians of the 21st century. He can’t possibly be dead.

But despite my logical protests, he is dead. They found his drivers license and cell phone on the banks of the icy Niagara River above the falls. He texted a note to some of his friends, left a voicemail for two others… It was obvious what had happened.

In the days and months after his death, I started seeing my friend in all sorts of places he couldn’t be: in the faces of other drivers, in strangers walking across campus, in crowds at the mall. I would see some tall, dirty-blond stranger in my periphery and mistake him for my late friend. All in an instant, I felt a jab of excitement and happy disbelief, only to be immediately let down, reminded that this stranger can’t possibly be him. He’s dead.

And I didn’t just see my friend; I heard him, too: in a Between the Buried and Me song, in off-color remarks dripping with sarcasm, or in ostentatiously recrementitious elocution. And I thought of him: every time someone mentions the name Paul Tillich, every time someone talks about Princeton Seminary, every time someone mentions Niagara Falls. At any given moment, I could be sucker-punched by the remembrance of his death. And I quickly grew to hate it.

I wonder if Thomas felt this way in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion. Thomas was one of Jesus’ most loyal followers, but he was also…complicated. One theologian calls Thomas “Jesus’ pessimist…ready to die with [Jesus] if need be, but slow to comprehend and ready to say so.” Thomas stands by Jesus, but Thomas doesn’t understand Jesus.

Thomas goes with Jesus to visit the dead Lazarus, but instead of trusting that Jesus could resurrect Lazarus, Thomas says, “Let us go, that we may die with Lazarus.” In his zeal to embrace the raw realities of life, Thomas cannot see that Jesus is the giver of life.

On another occasion Jesus is offering comforting words to his disciples, saying, “some day you will go away from this place to be with the Father and with me.” But ever the loyal pessimist, Thomas asks, “how will we know how to get there?” Jesus’ memorably responds: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Once again, Thomas fails to trust that Jesus can lead Thomas into life.

But eventually Jesus gets crucified, and in that moment it seems that Thomas’ pessimism was right all along. We read that, for some reason, Thomas wasn’t among the disciples in the days after the crucifixion. Maybe he was out wandering the places he had been with Jesus in Jerusalem. And maybe as he walked, Thomas saw Jesus in the face of people on the street, in the market, or in the Temple. And maybe every time he mistook someone to be his beloved friend, or heard something that reminded him of Jesus, maybe he felt that excitement and inevitable depression in remembering that his Jesus is dead and gone.

I can well imagine Thomas’ anger as he returns to his terrified counterparts in the upper room. “We’ve seen him!” they proclaim. “We’ve seen Jesus!” Confused by their excitement, Thomas replies, “So have I. I see Jesus everywhere. I hear his voice in the Rabbis at the Temple. I smell his miracles on the bread and fish at the market. I see him everywhere, and I just want these constant reminders to end.”

“No!” the disciples protest, “No we mean he was actually here, in this very room. He came to see us!” But Thomas has had enough. Sick of the let downs, sick of being forced to remember the death of his Jesus every moment of every day, Thomas responds, “unless I can put my fingers in the holes in his hands, I won’t believe it.” He’s not doubting Thomas—no. He’s grieving Thomas.

Thomas get’s his wish. A week later Jesus stands among the disciples and shows himself to Thomas. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus repeatedly promises life for all who trust in him, but Thomas remains pessimistic that anyone in this death-soaked world could ever be promised life. And yet now here stands Jesus, bearing the marks of his death in his resurrected body, and encouraging Thomas to trust that Thomas, too, will have new life after death. And Thomas trusts.

We don’t ever find out if Thomas actually sticks his fingers in Jesus’ death wounds, but instead we hear him blurt out, “my Lord and my God.” In that moment, as the once-dead Jesus stands living before Thomas, Thomas understands that Jesus is the giver of life. And Thomas trusts.

Unlike Thomas, Jesus did not physically stand in my presence in the days after my friend’s death. I wasn’t even sure Jesus was “spiritually” there with me either, whatever that means. But now I trust that he was there, because I know that he was there for Thomas. As I wept with my friend’s friends and family during his memorial service, I saw the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands, and put my finger in the mark of those nails, and my hand in Jesus side, and I slowly, ever so slowly, began to trust in the promise of a resurrected life.

I don’t see my friend as much as I did those first weeks and months after his death, but it still happens occasionally. I still feel the pangs of longing that he be alive and the inevitable acceptance of knowing that he is dead. But now, when I see my friend in the faces of strangers, I feel just the slightest tinge of joy. I am thankful for the chance to remember my friend; but more importantly, I am reminded that one day, he will rise out of the water and we will walk together on the land. Death will no longer swirl under the god-forsaken, crushing force of Niagara Falls. And my friend, and his dear mother, and his many friends will truly live, together with the Jesus that we rarely understand, but trust anyway.