One sometimes difficult aspect of a relationship with Jesus is that, to us today, Jesus is unseen. To non-Christians, Jesus sometimes seems like a Christian’s “imaginary friend”. But this is not so. If Jesus were merely an imaginary friend, he wouldn’t really be present, and thus everything “him” would be generated by ourselves, through our own imagination. But if he is actually present, but unseen, as we Christians believe he is, his actions have real effects in us that don’t originate from us, and real effects in the world, too.
After Jesus’ resurrection, he appeared to all his apostles but one, Thomas, who was not in the room at the time. After hearing that Jesus was alive, Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” [John 20:25b]
Jesus’ response was perhaps a bit unusual. When Jesus appeared to the apostles again, Thomas being present this time, Jesus did not go to Thomas and tell him he had been foolishly wrong. Instead, he merely offered Thomas what he had asked for: to see and touch the marks of the nails, and to touch the wound in his side. Thomas did not need to touch. He saw, believed, and worshiped Jesus, who said to him:
A few weeks later, Jesus ascended to heaven, after which he was no longer bodily visible to his apostles, Thomas included. Yet he was still present. Just before leaving, Jesus told them to “…remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20b] From that time on, this promise, not seeing and touching, is the reason we Christians can assure ourselves of Jesus’ presence.
What was Thomas’ response to not being able to see Jesus for a second time after his death, this period much longer than the period before? Far from being a doubter, Thomas lived the rest of his life proclaiming Jesus in distant lands, and working miracles in his name. In the end, Thomas gave up his life for Jesus through martyrdom in India.
Today, in the words of Jesus to Thomas, we Christians are among “those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” We trust in Jesus’ promise to be with us, and that trust is not unrewarded. A great many Christians, myself included, have experienced the concrete action of Jesus in the world and in our own hearts, especially in response to prayer. Sometimes it is within us, a new understanding, a new insight, a new intuition, the source being not from us but from him. Sometimes it is external, as in the case of Providence, a sort of miracle where Jesus remains unannounced, but his fingerprints are on it for those who care to look. Sometimes the fingerprints are pretty obvious: for example, when one prays intently for something that is desperately needed, and it comes in the exact quantity at the last minute from a completely unexpected source. Less often, it is a definitively miraculous event, such as an unexplainable cure or healing in the context of prayer for exactly that. Consider Lourdes, for instance, a town in France where, in the mid-19th century, the blessed Virgin Mary appeared on several occasions to Bernadette, a local peasant girl. Mary promised to establish Lourdes as a site where, in response to prayer, Jesus would heal people who were sick. Since then, Lourdes has been exactly that. In a 2012 paper, The Lourdes Medical Cures Revisited, in the Oxford Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, authors B. François, E. M. Sternberg and E. Fee, while unwilling for their own reasons to accept the divine origin of the healings, examine various cures of the 19th and 20th centuries associated with Lourdes. At the end of the paper, they conclude that “numerous astounding cures have been attended by hundreds of honorable physicians and thousands of witnesses. These are facts that cannot be ignored.”
What does this mean for us? Jesus, who loves us so much that he died for us, is not merely an abstract, idealized figure. While unseen, he is living, active, and present with us in the world. This is cause for great joy. For this reason, Christians are advised to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” [Phillipians 4:4-7] So let us rejoice in Jesus who is with us, present and active in the world.
Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay