Do yourself a favor and don’t try to get someone’s attention at one of our family parties by calling out “John”. Your efforts, if directed towards my mother’s side of the family, will be fruitless unless clarified by one of the following: “Uncle John”, “Johnny Baby”, “Sean” or “Johnny”. Like a lot of families, we have recycled names to the point of confusion, leaving every John, James, and Michael, in need of a patronymic to distinguish themselves. (Once there were a million Margarets. They’re all dead now, because Margaret is an old lady name, except…)
My brother Tom is usually referred to as “Big Tom” to distinguish him from the younger Tom, my cousin Ed’s oldest boy, who is now probably bigger than Big Tom but will, thank heavens, always be younger. Ed managed to be our only Ed, although his brothers James and John did not fare so well. The other Tom, on my father’s side, was our grandfather Tom, who died years before either my brother or I were born.
What’s the point of this longwinded explanation of our lack of nominative creativity? That nobody gets away with badmouthing a Tom on my watch.
This weekend we hear the Gospel about “doubting Thomas”. All throughout childhood I can remember our heads whipping toward my brother on Divine Mercy Sunday. In our moderately subtle older years the Thomascentrism of the readings might be indicated by a hand squeeze, or a snort, or shoulder punch in the car after mass. Whatever history has done to Thomas, we still hear about him every year on the Sunday after Easter. We call him Doubting, but Christ called him Friend.
In John’s gospel (that’s the Evangelist John, not Uncle John, or Johnny Baby, or…) Thomas is the one who exclaims “Let us go to die with him!” when Jesus wants to return to a hostile Jerusalem. I have to admit, if I were Thomas, being told a tall tale by the rest of my buddies, that I would have responded with some variation of “you’re so full of crap your eyes are brown”, the same way Thomas did. There’s some tension there, but when Thomas finally is convinced he utters one of the clearest, most powerful statements of faith in the Gospel “My Lord and my God!”
So many of us are convinced we should be afraid of the path that has led us to where we are. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I think the best lesson that we can take from today’s Gospel is that it doesn’t matter how we get there. Thomas was away from the rest of the Apostles, for whatever reason. Thomas was skeptical when he heard tales of the resurrection. But when he got to faith, he made no bones about it. He was faithful, and he was not ashamed of how he had gotten there.
It juts so happens that this year “Thomas weekend” falls on my parents’ 35th wedding anniversary. My reflections on them and how they have shaped me could – and probably someday will – fill a book. But one thing I have always known and admired about my parents is that they are who they are. I cannot remember a single time in my life that I thought my parents were trying to imitate someone else or be fake in any way.
To be who you are is a gift, and if that gift is what led Thomas to be saddled with the “Doubting” moniker, so be it. I am Margaret, my brother is Thomas, and both of us are struggling, sinful people just like everyone else – including Thomas the Apostle. It is not easy for anyone, no matter how saint-like, to live a good life, so we all do the best with what we have, and don’t look back with shame.
There are many legends about Thomas the Apostle, including that he went to India and founded a Christian community there. If all of that is true, I would imagine that Thomas had to put his past behind him, forget – or even embrace – his moments of doubt, and continue forward in the light of the faith with which he had been blessed. May we all be so proud of our pasts.