Today we look at the first Glorious Mystery of the Rosary.
I’m a big believer in unforeseen catastrophes that crush the best-laid plans of mice and men. The Titanic sinks and people ask, “How could this happen?” I say, “It figures.” I’m the guy who listens for the other shoe to drop, who looks for the downside of paradise, who keeps his guard up lest I be disappointed. That posture can have its advantages (say, when you are a Seattle Mariners fan or you come down with a fever a couple of hours before you are supposed to go on a dream vacation), but it’s also got its problems.
I recognize that life is not a bed of roses and that many of our hopes never come to anything. But I also know that St. Thomas the Apostle was a sensible stoic like me. He knew the score. He was well acquainted with Murphy’s Law. He firmly believed that just because somebody was a great teacher and even a miracle worker didn’t mean some tragedy couldn’t blindside him and bring everything crashing down in ruins.
So when word reached Jesus of the death of Lazarus, Thomas’ response was perfectly in character: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). This is stoic, make-the-best-of-a-tough-life loyalty to Jesus, a good man whose luck has run out (as sensible realists like Thomas knew it must, sooner or later). It’s not cynicism or despair (Thomas had too much solidity of character for that). Rather, it’s a sort of dogged Minnesota Norwegian Lutheran resolution to soldier on through a tragedy because it’s just what you do. St. Peter was the disciple of exalted heights and abysmal depths. He calls Jesus “Son of the living God” and a few minutes later gets called “Satan” by Jesus (Matt. 16:16–18). He makes the heroic Errol Flynn gestures—“Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matt. 26:33)—and then disgraces himself by falling to pieces before the cock crows three times. Thomas is made of heavier and duller metal than Peter. He doesn’t wimp out, but he doesn’t hope for much either.
Not hoping for much serves you well if you figure you’re going to be a peasant all your life, privileged with the modest joys of sunrise and birdsong and spending most of your time trying to figure out how to keep the wolf from the door. But because of that modesty in hope, Thomas is left unprepared for what Jesus does in the face of total defeat: Thomas never expects Lazarus to walk out of the tomb and share a dinner table with him that evening. Even seeing that miracle couldn’t erase in one blow a lifetime as an Eeyore. When, a few weeks later, Jesus himself faced death (partly because of the popularity he evoked by raising Lazarus), it may well have struck Thomas as the final bitter irony, the last cruel stroke of fate, that the universe should use that miracle as the hammer for nailing Jesus to his fate: He had saved others. Could he not save himself?
So it was still in character when Thomas didn’t buy the story of the Resurrection. He’d spent a lifetime braced for disaster. He was strong enough for tragedy, but not strong enough for hope.
That, I suppose, is why hope is a theological virtue—a virtue we can only have by the power of the Holy Spirit—and not a natural one. Hope—ultimate hope—doesn’t come naturally to us. We need the miraculous gift of the Risen Christ. But with such a gift, even the most unpromising base metals can be transmuted into gold, as Thomas came to discover. For it was dull, unhopeful, Eeyorish Thomas who made the first full-throated profession of faith in Christ’s deathless deity and human supremacy: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
I’ve always had a soft spot for poor Thomas. And I like to recall that when Catholic missionaries got to India, they found a Christian Community, founded by Saint Thomas long before. He came through.
“He was strong enough for tragedy but not strong enough for hope.”
Going to the chewing on that one for a while thank you
Very much enjoyed this, partially because of seeing Norwegians get a mention (my relatives were from Brooklyn, but just as stoic). The testimony of those unlikely to believe helps lead to my belief.