Early on a gray and dreary morning I made my usual long walk to the elementary school where I was in the sixth grade. The entrance to the school was odd, below ground level by a few stairs, with open sides where kids would sit at street level but could then jump down to the front doors. That morning I was lost in my thoughts as I walked from the stairs to the doors, and so I was startled when a couple of boys jumped off of the side walls and on to me, attempting to tackle me to the ground. I was completely taken off guard, but somehow I managed to untangle myself from these boys and hurry into the school. The episode left my heart racing as I walked down the hall and into class. Perhaps having three younger brothers who were prone to roughhousing inoculated me a bit to the surprise of the boys jumping me. Still, when I think of that moment, I remember feeling surprised, violated, humiliated at being jumped on, and even some shame because I did not seeing it coming.
Shame, humiliation, violence, are common experiences in our lives, although the degree of these varies from person to person. Sometimes these are physical, sometimes they are verbal, psychological or even spiritual attacks to our person. Sometimes they are just perceived attacks, vulnerable as we are we can perceive something relatively meaningless as something greater than it is. The perception of humiliation and shame is enough to shut one down, or as is often the case, it might make one angry. Transferring my feelings of shame and humiliation into anger is what happens to me. Anger is a trigger emotion for me, telling me that I need to step back and evaluate a situation. I know it takes time for the feelings to settle down, for the emotional reactivity to cool off, before I can begin to see a situation with more perspective. But when I do this well I am like an investigator on a television crime show, I want to know more and I begin by asking questions of myself. Why am I reacting so strongly? Is this really about me? What is underneath the anger? Shame? Fear? What has been triggered from my past, igniting old feelings that are more about a past experience than they are about this one? I work to move into a position of inquiry and out of a position of judgement and self righteous indignation.
So imagine how the disciples are feeling on this Sunday, a week after Jesus has been crucified and then resurrected. On that first day they were huddled in the upper room, still mourning Jesus’ death and feeling angry with themselves for betraying him. Failing is painful. No one likes to be a failure, even if Jesus predicted they’d abandon him. They were also probably feeling a little self-righteous, because at least they were still alive and had avoided crucifixion themselves. Which, of course, made it worse. Who knows? We don’t have a record of their thoughts and feelings that early morning. All we know is that the women went to the tomb and learned that Jesus had risen and they ran off to tell the disciples, who did not believe them. The disciples lived in a state of disbelief until Jesus appeared to them. However, Thomas wasn’t in the room when Jesus first appeared. So, of course Thomas was incredulous, and unbelieving, who wouldn’t be?
But here’s the thing I keep thinking about. Despite what he’d heard, and regardless of how terrible he must have felt, Thomas showed up. He heard the others talking about Jesus reappearing, he knew their fear and concern, he too felt the guilt and the despair for all that had happened. He could have just gone on his way, avoided the whole thing, been angry and withdrawn, he could have left the group in self-righteousness. He could have left because that is one of our human response to feeling vulnerable and hurt, we check out, we leave, or at least we want too. But Thomas didn’t do any of that. He had to have had all these emotions but he showed up anyway. He came to the upper room and joined the rest of them. And Jesus shows up again, too. I mean if anyone was entitled to anger and self-righteous indignation, it was Jesus. But Jesus is not angry, he is gentle and patient, and speaks with compassion. Jesus understands because he is able to see a bigger picture than just what happened to him and how he is feeling. He is able to see and understand that this is what happens when people get afraid, feel vulnerable, and act defensively. In response Jesus models compassion and kindness. He’s not naive, he still has his wounds - he even shows them to the disciples. He’s clear about what happened to him, he’s just not acting out in anger.
What can be learned from this is that the only way to become whole again is to integrate the pain and suffering and vulnerability by staying with the feelings until a bigger, fuller picture can be imagined. This bigger picture isn’t about anger or judgement or projecting one’s own feelings onto others. Instead, one sees both one’s self and others from a place of inquiry, questioning, and ultimately compassion. Here, Jesus says, touch my hands and my side, touch my wounds, touch my pain and vulnerability, its mine, and its yours.
Like Jesus’ body in the resurrection, the wounds are never gone. But neither our wounds nor our scars need to define us by making us bitter and angry. Instead, they can be part of what shapes us into richer, fuller human beings who are capable of integrating hurt with love.
In that moment of integration a transformation occurs. Easter, the resurrection, is an embodied experience of love and grace that transforms life. God is here with us, breathing in and through us, our pain, our suffering, our sorrows, our brokenness, our heartache, our anger, our cruelty, and all the ways we hurt ourselves and one another, God is with us, breathing peace in and through us. Breathing so that we can catch our breath, gain perspective, forgive ourselves and forgive others. Breathing opens us up and enables us the space to find peace and thus the potential to love the broken pieces of our lives in such a way that we are made whole again.
a reflection on John 20:19-31