The Nail Mark of Mystical Hope

This gospel (Jn 20:19-31) is often used to encourage the doubters. Even an apostle doubted so there is hope for you (or me). That’s a nice comfy reading of this story but I think it misses the deeper theological point the evangelist is making. Actually it doesn’t miss the point it just scratches the surface because it really is all about HOPE.

Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, this is quite a beautiful, touching story. Thomas, like the other apostles, has just seen his teacher, the one whom he has placed all his hope in, die. Not only that, they are all in hiding for fear that the Roman authorities will come for them too. “It sounds too incredible to be true”, Thomas must have thought. Which we can easily find ourselves saying the same thing. “I’ll believe it when I see it!”

Which is exactly what happens. Jesus invites Thomas to come and touch his hands. Thomas touches the nail marks of mystical hope. I call it mystical hope because I just read a book this week called “Mystical Hope” by Cynthia Bourgeault. She so wonderfully explains this different type of hope that we Christians live in. We often say our hope is in the Lord and similar sayings. We are speaking of a different kind of hope than what we normally think about.

Ordinary hope is tied to an outcome, an optimistic feeling. We have a sense that things will eventually get better. Cynthia writes:

“…  there is another kind of hope also represented in the Bible that is a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at things. Beneath the “upbeat” kind of hope that parts the sea and pulls rabbits out of hats, this other hope weaves its way as a quiet, even ironic counterpoint.”

Mystical Hope is not tied to a good outcome, it has a life of its own; it has something to do with a presence; and a sensations of strength, joy, and satisfaction: an “unbearable lightness of being” that is produced from within, is how she describes it.

This Mystical Hope is not an infusion that comes and goes but is an abiding state of being. It is a wellspring of life. So when Thomas touches the nail marks he is touching mystical hope. He understands and proclaims my Lord and my God! The imagery here is important. Thomas needs to touch the wounds and the wounds are present in the risen Jesus.

Resurrection is not about doing away with pain and suffering. So many christians get lost on that errant path. They think that being a christian, means we no longer should suffer. They preach a prosperity gospel that God will bless you with a rich and pain free life if you are worthy. That is so contrary to the gospel! They are stuck in ordinary hope. If a positive outcome isn’t possible we even call it hopeless.

No, the wounds are necessary, we can’t avoid them. Resurrection doesn’t mean there isn’t pain and suffering, it means pain and suffering is transformed! The paschal mystery is New life through suffering and death. Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion is transformed, a new- resurrected life is the result. His body has the nail marks but they are no longer a source of pain and death.

Thomas’ eyes are now open and he sees and believes. Life is forever different. Ordinary hope is fleeting, Mystical Hope transforms, it’s everlasting. Mystical Hope is what enabled the martyrs and saints to live and die the way they did. It is what strengthens a dying patient on their deathbed.

This Covid pandemic has brought more pain and suffering to our world. As the lockdown is prolonged ordinary hope can diminish. We want a transformed life without suffering but transformation always entails death. Jesus taught us that. This pandemic is teaching us now. There are things we need to let go off, things that need to die for transformation to take place. This can happen individually and in a community, and in society. There are things for us to learn at this time – what it means to be human, to be community, to be church, how to live together. We are one human family.

After Jesus’ resurrection the apostles learned a new way of living, a new way of being. They shared things, held things in common. We have forgotten how to live together in our world today. To survive, not just healthwise but economically, we are going to have to learn this too. 

Our hope is not the ordinary hope, a wish that better days are to come. We drink from the wellspring of Hope that is at our very core of our human personhood. That Mystical Hope is the body of Christ. It transforms our pain & suffering into an instrument of new life. The grace of the risen Christ can transform the effects of this pandemic but we have to let things die. Like I said on Holy Thursday, the container is broken. So we, like Thomas, need to touch the nail mark of Mystical Hope.

Fr Matthew Pyrc SJ

Fr Matthew Pyrc SJ (born Flint, Michigan 1964; entered the Jesuits 2006; ordained 2014) is a Jesuit currently completing his Jesuit formation in South Africa. He originally comes from the United States and has previously worked in University Ministry and has taught and been chaplain to students at a high school in California. He is interested in Ignatian Spirituality and world religions. He is currently interning at the Jesuit Institute and
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