Why didn’t Jesus appear to His disciples in the early morning rather than wait until the evening of Easter? St. Thomas Aquinas thinks that Jesus wanted to find the disciples together. He also wanted to strengthen and comfort them and He knew that they would become more afraid as the night approached (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2524).
The Gospels tell us that Jesus appeared five times on Easter. St. Thomas comments, “This is the reason why we sing: ‘This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it’ (Ps 118:24) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2525).
The doors to the upper room were shut because it was getting late and the apostles were afraid. Thomas states that we cannot know how Jesus entered through the closed door because it was a miracle. He compares Jesus’ entrance to His virginal birth: “So, just as Christ's leaving the womb of His virgin mother was a miracle of His divine power, so was His entering through closed doors” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2527).
Thomas also offers a symbolic interpretation: “In the mystical interpretation we can understand that Christ appears to us when our doors, that is, our external senses, are closed in prayer: ‘But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door’” (Mt 6:6) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2528).
Thomas reflects upon the disciples being “gathered together”:
This too is not without its mystery: for Christ came when they were united together, and the Holy Spirit descended on them when they were united together, because Christ and the Holy Spirit are present only to those who are united in charity: ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Mt 18:20) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2529).
The Gospel states: “Jesus came and stood among them.” Thomas comments: “Jesus came, personally, as He had promised: ‘I go away, and I will come to you’ (Jn 14:28). And He stood among them, so that each one could recognize Him with certainty… Jesus stood among the disciples to show that He was human like them” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2531).
Thomas also understands Jesus’ standing in their midst as an indication of His having come to serve them: “Again, He stood among them, lowering Himself, for He lived among them as one of them: ‘If they make you master of the feast, do not exalt yourself; be among them as one of them’ (Sir 32:1); ‘I am among you as one who serves’” (Lk 22:27) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2531).
Thomas applies a symbolic meaning related to virtue, which is in the middle not in the extremes: “Also, he wanted to show that we ought to stand among the virtues: ‘This is the way, walk in it; do not turn aside to the right or to the left’ (Is 30:21). One who goes beyond the middle road of virtue goes to the right; one who falls short of the middle road goes to the left” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2531).
Jesus greets His disciples with the word, “Peace.” According to Thomas, the disciples needed this reassuring word because they had broken their peace with God, by running away or by denying Jesus: “To cure this Jesus offers them the peace of reconciliation with God: ‘We were reconciled to God by the death of His Son’ (Rom 5:10), which He accomplished by His suffering” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2532).
They had also lost peace with themselves because they were “depressed and hesitant in their faith.” “He offers His peace to cure this: ‘Great peace have those who love your law’ (Ps 119:165) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2532).
Their peace with others was also disturbed because they were being persecuted. He announces: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you" (Jn 14:27) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2532).
“When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side.” Jesus’ hands and His side are “sure proof that it is really Himself… because in them the marks of His passion remained in a special way: ‘See My hands and My feet, that it is I myself’” (Lk 24:39) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2533).
Thomas affirms that, in glory, Jesus will show His wounds to us: “In glory He will show Himself in the same way: ‘If a man loves Me, he will keep My word’ (Jn 14:23), ‘and I will manifest Myself to him’” (Jn 14:21) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2533).
The disciples rejoiced, as Jesus had promised: “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice” (Jn 16:22). Jesus proclaimed peace, not only because of their worries about what the leaders of the people might do to them but also about the Gentiles to whom He would send them: “In Me you may have peace ... in the world you have tribulation’” (Jn 16:33).
Jesus declares, “As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you.” Thomas points out that Jesus is acting as “the intermediary between us and God: ‘There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’”(1 Tim 2:5) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2537).
Thomas affirms that being sent strengthened the disciples: “This was a source of strength for the disciples: for they recognized the authority of Christ, and knew that He was sending them by divine authority. They were also strengthened because they recognized their own dignity, the dignity of being apostles; for an apostle is one who is sent” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2537).
Just as the Father had sent the Son in love so the Son sends the disciples in love: “As the Father, who loves Me, sent Me into the world to suffer for the salvation of the faithful – ‘For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him’ (3:17) ‑ so I, who love you, send you to undergo suffering for My name – ‘I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves’” (Mt 10:16).
Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon them: “Jesus makes them adequate for their task by giving them the Holy Spirit, ‘God, who has qualified us to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit’ (2 Cor 3:6). In this giving of the Spirit, He first grants them a sign of this gift, which is, that He breathed on them” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2538).
In Genesis 2:7, God breathed the breath of life into the first human, which became corrupted: “Christ repaired this by giving the Holy Spirit.” Thomas assures us that Jesus’ breath is not the Holy Spirit but a sign of the Spirit. Thomas recalls that Augustine said, in The Trinity: “This bodily breath was not the substance of the Holy Spirit, but a fitting sign that the Holy Spirit proceeds not just from the Father but also from the Son” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2538).
Thomas reminds us that the Spirit, in the appearance of a dove, hovered over Christ during His Baptism (Jn 1:32). Now, the grace of Christ, given to us by the Spirit, is transmitted through the sacraments. The Spirit was sent over Christ, at the Transfiguration, in the form of a cloud (Mt 17:5) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2539).
Thomas understands teaching as an avenue of grace: “And since the grace of Christ comes through teaching, the Spirit descended in a luminous cloud, and Christ is seen to be a Teacher, "Listen to him" (Mt 17:5). At that time, Jesus was declared to be our teacher: “Listen to Him” (Mt 17:5) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2539).
Thomas comments: “The Spirit descended over the apostles the first time through a breath to indicate the proliferation of grace through the sacraments, whose ministers they were. Thus Christ said, ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven’: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’” (Mt 28:19) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2539).
In the second pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost, the disciples were given the gift for teaching: “The second time the Spirit descended on them in tongues of fire to indicate the proliferation of grace through teaching; and so we read in Acts (2:4) that right after they were filled with the Holy Spirit they began to speak” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2539).
Thomas questions whether the Spirit was given before the Ascension. Thomas believes that the Spirit was given in a specific way before and after the Ascension. He agrees with Augustine and Gregory the Great that the Spirit was given according to the two great precepts of love of God and love of Neighbor: “Therefore, the Holy Spirit was given the first time on earth to indicate the precept of the love of neighbor; and the Spirit was given the second time from heaven to indicate the precept of the love of God” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2540).
Thomas sees the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the forgiveness of sins:
We see the fruit of the gift, ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.’ This forgiving of sins is a fitting effect of the Holy Spirit. This is so because the Holy Spirit is charity, love, and through the Holy Spirit love is given to us: ‘God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us’ (Rom 5:5). Now it is only through love that sins are forgiven, for ‘Love covers all offenses’ (Prv 10:12); ‘Love covers a multitude of sins’ (1 Pet 4:8) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2541).
Could the apostles actually forgive sins? Thomas explains:
The sacrament of Penance, since it is a sacrament of the New Law, gives grace, as does Baptism. Now in the sacrament of Baptism, the priest baptizes as an instrument, and yet he confers grace. It is similar in the sacrament of Penance, the priest absolves from the sin and the punishment as a minister and sacramentally, insofar as he administers the sacrament in which sins are forgiven. The statement that God alone forgives sins authoritatively is true. So also, only God baptizes, but the priest is the minister, as was said (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2542).
Thomas notices that the power to forgive sins is related to the gift of the Spirit: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” Thomas assures us that if the priest were forgiving sins by his own power then he could not sanctify anyone unless he himself was holy: “But the forgiveness of sins is the personal work of God, who forgives sins by his own power and authority. The priest is only the instrument. Therefore, just as a master, through his servant and minister, whether good or bad, can accomplish what he wills, so our Lord, through His ministers, even if they are evil, can confer the sacraments, in which grace is given” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2543).
Jesus said: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” Thomas reflects, “In the sacraments the priest acts as a minister: ‘This is how one should regard us, as servants [ministers] of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.’”(1 Cor 4:1). Thomas notes: “Now God forgives sins by giving grace, and He is said to retain by not giving grace because of some obstacle in the one who is to receive it. So also the minister forgives sins, insofar as he dispenses a sacrament of the Church, and he retains insofar as he accounts someone unworthy to receive the sacrament” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2544).
Thomas the Apostle was not in the upper room when Jesus appeared. Thomas Aquinas proposes a lesser known meaning of the name, “Thomas,” is “depth” or “darkness.” He elaborates on the significance of the name:
Thomas was an abyss on account of the darkness of his disbelief, of which he was the cause. Again, there is an abyss ‑ the depths of Christ's compassion - which He had for Thomas. We read: ‘Deep calls to deep’ (Ps 42:7). That is, the depths of Christ's compassion calls to the depths of darkness [of disbelief] in Thomas, and Thomas' abyss of unwillingness [to believe] calls out, when he professes the faith, to the depths of Christ (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2546).
Thomas Aquinas comments that Thomas the Apostle had missed seeing Jesus, as well as receiving peace and the Holy Spirit. Thomas concludes: “This teaches us not to become separated from one's companions, ‘not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some’ (Heb 10:25) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2547).
Thomas agrees with Gregory the Great that Thomas’ absence was really caused by God’s will: “It was in the plans of the divine pity that by feeling the wounds in the flesh of his Teacher, the doubting disciple should heal in us the wounds of disbelief” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2547).
Thomas explains: “Here we have the strongest signs of God's profound pity. First, in this: that He loves the human race so much that He sometimes allows tribulations to afflict His elect, so that from these some good can accrue to the human race. This was the reason He allowed the apostles, the prophets and the holy martyrs to be afflicted” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2547).
The Apostle Paul declares: “"If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted it is for your comfort which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer" (2 Cor 1:6).
Thomas asserts: “Even more remarkable is that God allows some saint to fall into sin in order to teach us. Why did God allow some saints and holy men to sin gravely (as David did by adultery and murder) if not to teach us to be more careful and humble? It is so that one who thinks he is standing firm will take care not to fall, and so that one who has fallen will make the effort to rise” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2547).
Thomas recalls the words of Gregory the Great that Thomas’ doubt has been more beneficial to us than the faith of the other disciples.
The other disciples tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas Aquinas affirms: “This was by the divine plan, which is that what one receives from God should be shared with others: ‘As each has received a gift, employ it for one another’” (1 Pet 4:10) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2548).
Thomas insisted on seeing Jesus’ wounds. Thomas Aquinas tells us: “It is certain that Christ, who arose as a complete person, could have healed the marks of his wounds; but he kept them for our benefit” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2550).
Why did Jesus wait a week before appearing to Thomas? Thomas Aquinas responds: “A reason for the delay was so that Thomas, hearing about our Lord's first appearance from the disciples, would develop a stronger desire and become more disposed to believe” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2552).
Although Thomas was the only one who needed the appearance, Jesus came when the disciples were all together. According to Thomas, “This shows that it is not very pleasing to God to exist in isolation, but it is to live in a unity of charity with others: ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Mt 18:20) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2553).
Thomas considers Jesus’ actions towards Thomas an indication of God’s compassion: “Here we see a second sign of God's pity, which is that he quickly comes to help His elect even though they fall. Indeed, the elect fall at times, just like the reprobate. But there is a difference: the reprobate are crushed, but the Lord quickly puts His hand under the elect so they can rise up: ‘When a just person falls he will not be crushed, for the Lord will put His hand under him’” (Ps 37:27) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2555).
Thomas Aquinas refers to Augustine who wrote that the wounds of the martyrs will remain but they will have a great beauty, just as Jesus’ wounds are beautiful. When Jesus told Thomas to see His hands and to put his own hand into Jesus’ side, He was assuring him “realize that I am the same person who had hung upon the cross” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2558).
Thomas Aquinas asserts that Thomas the Apostle became a theologian when he spoke:
Thomas quickly became a good theologian by professing a true faith. He professed the humanity of Christ when he said, My Lord, for he had called Christ this before the Passion: ‘You call me Teacher and Lord’ (Jn 13:13). And he professed the divinity of Christ when he said, and my God. Before this, the only one who had called Christ God was Peter: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Mt 16:16) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2562).
Thomas Aquinas asks how the apostle could have had faith if he saw: “There is a problem here: for since ‘faith is the substance of the things we hope for, the conviction about things that are not seen’ (Heb 11:1), why does our Lord say, because you have seen me you have believed? We should say in answer that Thomas saw one thing and believed another. He saw the man and the wounds, and from these he believed in the divinity of the one who had arisen” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2564).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to Thomas Commentary on the Gospel of John may be found on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/