By Michelle Francl-Donnay
Then Thomas – known as the twin – said to the other disciples, “Let us go too, and die with him.” – Jn. 11:16
I was waiting for a meeting to start when the quote on one of those inspirational paperweights in a colleague’s office caught my eye: “What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?” I have to admit that in spite of myself, I was inspired, though perhaps not quite along the lines that the corporate purveyors of motivation might have wished.
In this scene from John’s Gospel, Jesus is leaving for Bethany, where He will raise Lazarus from the dead. For a long time, the sheer power of that miracle, the joy that I imagined Lazarus’ friends and family experienced, obscured for me the darker threads woven through that story. The disciples are worried. Bethany is not far from Jerusalem – and the last time they were there, Jesus was threatened with stoning. Should He go? Should they go?
The quote on the paperweight brought Thomas’ bold statement to mind. I wondered not what I would try if I were certain of success, but what I would attempt knowing that in all probability I would fail. Would I go with Jesus to Jerusalem – and die? Here I see a Thomas who, while he has no doubt that catastrophe will ensue if they do go to Jerusalem, likewise has no doubt of his call to follow Christ there.
Though some of the early Church fathers thought this comment a foreshadowing of Thomas’ lack of faith in Jesus’ eventual victory, and so branded him a coward, Origen suggested instead that Thomas grasped the inherent contradictions that St. Paul would later preach explicitly: if you wish to live in Christ, you must die with Christ.
The Paschal mystery shrouds us in such tensions – suffering and redemption, death and new life. The ways we are called to walk ask us to consider failure as success – something that seems as scandalous to our modern eyes as the cross was to the Greeks and Jews of Jesus’ time.
Nicholas of Cusa, a 15th century cardinal and mathematician, reminds us that is we are looking for God, look for the contradictions: “I have learnt that the place wherein Thou art found unveiled is girt round with contradictories.” Would we dare to fail?
Edith Stein, a philosopher, Catholic convert, Carmelite nun and eventually martyr and saint, puts this sacred daring at the center of our faith. Writing as Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, her name in religion, she echoes the disciples’ dilemma in her reflection on the words the our Father. Sooner or later, she says, we realize that thy will be done is what we are called to do, and all we are called to do. St. Teresa asks, “Will you remain faithful to the Crucified? Consider carefully! …If you decide for Christ, it could cost you your life…What will you answer him?” She chose to walk that road with Christ, standing publicly against the Nazi regime and its atrocities and in 1942 died at Auschwitz.
As Palm Sunday approaches, with its triumphal entrance into Jerusalem and its harrowing Gospel of the Passion, I find myself lingering with Thomas and the other disciples on the road to Bethany. Should I go? Thy will be done, I must pray.
You believe that by his dying Christ destroyed death for ever. May he give you everlasting life. He humbled himself for you sakes. May you follow his example and share in his resurrection. Amen. – From the solemn blessing for Passion Sunday.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: email@example.com.