“Jesus came and stood in their midst.” It is such a simple sentence. It is such a stunning sentence.
The same Jesus who had been arrested, beaten, stripped, nailed to the cross and crucified now stood among his disciples. Having risen from the dead, he truly was with them. St. John describes the men as first gathered in fear and then, after Jesus appears, gasping with joy.
What is described is conversion, the transformation that takes place when Jesus comes and abides with us in the deepest recesses of our soul. It is also formation, for once Jesus joined the disciples, the mystery of the Church was moving quickly toward its public birth at Pentecost. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this striking statement: “Christians of the first centuries said, ‘The world was created for the sake of the Church.’ God created the world for the sake of communion with his divine life, a communion brought about by the ‘convocation’ of men in Christ, and this ‘convocation’ is the Church. The Church is the goal of all things … ” (No. 760).
A convocation is a gathering, and any such gathering must have a reason for gathering — a center for the whole. That center is Jesus Christ, and that gathering of men in a locked room was pierced by his presence. Just as the piercing of the side of Christ revealed the true nature of God — complete gift and sacrificial love — the piercing of the interior of that room revealed the nature of the Church. The Church is Christo-centric; it is gifted with peace, it is filled with the Holy Spirit, it is guided by the Holy Spirit, it is granted power to forgive sins. And it is a body built on apostolic witness and faith. “We have seen the Lord,” the disciples tell Thomas, who demands to see and touch the saving wounds of the Lord.
In the response of Jesus, we see how the Church is showered with mercy, for the Master knows the weaknesses of the Church’s sons and daughters. We are sinners; we are frail. “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed,” Jesus tells Thomas. And yet we know that those who believe do see! Those who cry out, “My Lord and my God!” are able to see and worship and receive the Lord in the Eucharist.
St. John was also in a small room, imprisoned and exiled on Patmos, decades after the Resurrection and Pentecost. Caught up “in the spirit” on the day of Resurrection, he heard a voice and, turning, saw “one like a son of man” standing “in the midst of the lampstands.” The lampstands represent the particular churches in Asia Minor mentioned by John (Rv 2-3) and, all together, the Church. This imagery is drawn from the prophet Zechariah, who depicted Israel as a seven-branched candelabra (Zech 4:2-11). As Stephen S. Smalley explains in his commentary, “The Revelation to John” (InterVarsity, $40), “whereas in the Old Testament the picture of the people of God (God among his people) is that of one lampstand, with seven lamps on it, the congregations in this passage are symbolized as seven individual lampstands, gathered round the voice. … together they make up the new Israel of God.”
The Church gathers around the person of the Incarnate Word of God; it listens to what he says, for who else has the words of eternal life? The risen Christ offers words of peace, joy and encouragement: “Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.