Thomas knew what to look for. Sure, he shouldn’t have doubted. He should have believed the other Apostles. But for all his skepticism, he knew what to look for. He knew that the risen Lord of Easter Sunday must have the wounds of Good Friday. Anything less than that would be a counterfeit mercy.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”(Jn 20:25) This near obsession with our Lord’s wounds indicates their importance for today’s Feast of Divine Mercy. Those wounds guard and express the truth about mercy. Especially in a culture so inclined to counterfeit mercies and false compassion, we need to focus with Thomas on the wounds of Christ.
The wounds defend the integrity of mercy by proclaiming the reality of sin. For mercy to be authentic, for it to have any power or meaning whatsoever, it must take sin seriously. “[H]e was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. . .the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all.”(Is 53:5-6) Our Lord’s wounds show that He knows our sins full well, even better than we do. He has suffered their full effect.
It is no mercy to shrug off guilt or trivialize sin. Man has always tended to do so (e.g., “The woman gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it. . . .Am I my brother’s keeper?”). But today we have an entire philosophical system that seeks to justify that tendency. Moral relativism attracts people precisely because it promises to remove the sting of guilt by banishing all judgment. While it presents itself as mercy, moral relativism is, in fact, the greatest cruelty: it robs man of the ability to repent.
Mercy depends on the truth about man and his moral choosing. Only when we know that there is evil to reject and good to choose can we turn from one to the other – which is the very meaning of repentance. And only by turning from evil to good can we receive the mercy constantly extended to us. Moral relativism forbids any objective norm by which we can know that we have failed and need to repent. Where there is no standard of morality, neither can there be repentance or mercy.
Of course, the moral sense is not so easily eradicated from society. Man will give expression to that sense so deep within him. Without any objective reference, however, morality is determined by the powerful. So we become enslaved to the tyrannical mood swings of the majority, which command us to repent of this one day and of that the next. We will still be made to feel guilty, but with no way out except to please a fickle crowd.
The wounds of Christ rebuke moral relativism and confirm man’s dignity as a moral agent. They reveal in the extreme that there is a good – indeed, an ultimate good – that man has the power to choose or reject by his own free will. Thankfully, by that same will man can find mercy by turning from evil to good.
Even as they reveal the reality of sin, Christ’s wounds also proclaim the eternal good available to man. “Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.”(Jn 20:19-20) He extends peace here not just as a greeting but as shorthand for all the good that reconciliation with God brings to the soul. His wounds are the sacrament, the outward sign, of “the peace of God that surpasses human understanding.”(Php 4:7)
Finally, His wounds remind us that our being merciful requires the willingness to be wounded. To forgive means to cancel a debt. The relevant petition from the Lord’s prayer is sometimes translated, Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Just as canceling a debt in finances means suffering a monetary loss, so in the moral order the forgiveness of sins means some degree of suffering. Again, our culture’s counterfeit mercy is so enticing. It costs us nothing. But if we would truly forgive we must be willing to suffer a degree of sadness and pain.
“Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”(Jn 20:22-23) These words refer particularly to the priest’s sacred power to absolve in Confession. But the principle they express applies to all: we need the grace of the Holy Spirit to forgive.
It is precisely to bestow that Spirit of forgiveness that Jesus Christ has suffered the wounds of the Cross and rose with them, triumphant.
*Image: Icon of Divine Mercy by Oleh Skoropadsky, 2008 [Divine Mercy Catholic Parish of Paulding County, Ohio]. Mr. Skoropadsky, a Ukrainian painter, has depicted St. Faustina’s vision of Christ with Ohio scenes in the background, including the parish’s three churches and the Maumee River.