In the gospel for the Second Week of Easter, Jesus breathes on the disciples. He does this long before the modern methods of cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The risen Christ reinfuses the breath of life into the constricted lungs of the believing community of disciples, releasing them from their fear that was chocking them—kept them from breathing together and living fully for his mission.
In the aftermath of the brutal execution of Jesus, understandably the disciples were wondering if they were next? In John’s Gospel, “the Jews” is code language for anyone who does not believe in and who opposes Jesus. Keep in mind that Jesus himself and all of his first disciples were Jews. In other words, the disciples fear was of those persons whose heritage was Jewish, yet unlike the apostles they did not believe in Jesus as the Christ.
Into this fearful space Jesus enters, inviting his disciples to accept the peace he desires for them. Note that this peace does not ignore the brutality inflicted on Jesus, as he shows them the stigmata. It is a peace that recognizes full well the horror of the crucifixion, yet emerges from the willingness to enter into a process of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation, rather than retaliatory violence.
Jesus wants his friends to see his wounds differently, not as something that needed to be avenged but as something that Christ was already able to heal with his peace and his spirit. Before dying Jesus said: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk.23:34).
Just as the Creator brought to life the first human being by breathing into the nostrils, so the risen Christ brings back to life the frightened community of followers. This is not a painless process. In the last supper discourses, Jesus spoke to his friends about this pain as birth pangs that would give way to joy when new life emerged.
For some, this rebirth takes place on the first day of the week after the resurrection. But not all are present and not all are moving in rhythm. Next Sunday the gospel shows us others who are locked in their fear and who set up what appears as impossible conditions before they will come to believe. Thomas, also known as Didymus, voices their doubts. It is not so much a stubborn resistance to believe what others have experienced as it is the necessity for each one to come to faith through a direct, personal encounter with Christ.
There can be no secondhand faith—no substitute for the tangible experience of Christ needed by each one. The gospel allows that there are different ways people come to faith: some through seeing, some without seeing. No matter how one comes to believe it is people who breathe together through the Spirit who dissolves fear by the use of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Adapted from the writings of Dominican Sister, Barbara Reid.
Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.