by Isaac S. Villegas
April 7, 2013
In a documentary called The Undocumented, Marcos Hernandez tries to track down his father, or at least the body of his father, who was last seen in the Arizonan desert, with other migrants, a group of them, walking for days in the 120-degree summer heat. His father left their home in Mexico with a Coyote, a man who he paid $2,500 to lead him across the border so Marcos’s dad could get a job and make enough money to send home to pay for his son’s expensive dialysis treatments, to keep him alive. But the father never called. The Coyote reported that he left him in the desert, because he was sick and couldn’t keep up with the others.
Marcos fears the worst — that his father died of dehydration, of heat exhaustion. But to confirm the death, he has to find the body. The documentary is about Marcos and many others, their hopes and fears, as they try to find out what has happened to loved-ones, family members who tried to make the trek across the border into Arizona, into the United States.
The filmmaker focuses on the morgue in Tucson, where the medical examiner, with a team of pathologists and forensic anthropologists investigate human remains, looking for clues that would help them identify the person, so they can return whatever is left to communities, to provide some kind of closure for family members and friends, so the dead can be honored with a burial.
In the film, Marcos won’t believe that his dad is dead until he can see his dead body, or whatever is left of his body — a skull, teeth, his rib cage. He will not believe, unless he can see.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” That’s what Thomas says to the other disciples about the resurrected Jesus, and what he says, what Thomas says about needing to see the body, reminds me of the story of Marcos, about the need to see in order to believe. For Marcos, his father’s dead body will confirm his worst fears. But for Thomas, the living body of Jesus will confirm what seems impossible, this outrageous news, an unthinkable hope: that Jesus, who everyone saw on the cross — crucified, died, and buried — that he has come back from the world of the dead, back to the land of the living, back to his friends and family.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas wants to play the role of the medical examiner, investigating the marks of death, the puncture wounds in Jesus’ hands and torso. When Jesus enters the room, he gives Thomas what he wants: “Put your finger here and see my hands,” he says. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Jesus invites Thomas into his body, to poke and prod, to reach into his crucifixion, into his wounds, and in them to discover the resurrection, to believe in the power of God, to have faith in the God of life — as the writer of the Gospel says at the end of our passage, “these things are written so that through believing you may have life.”
What I find so odd in this scene is that the resurrected Jesus still bears the marks of his death, that Jesus still has open wounds, cuts and gashes, holes in his body, as if he is still being healed of his death, as if he is still being restored to health, as if a full resurrection takes time, as if Jesus needs time to be healed completely from his death.
What does this mean as we think about Jesus now, today, as a resurrected body? Does Jesus continue to suffer reoccurring pain, an ache in his legs, throbbing in his side, stinging in his ribs. Do his muscles, his tissue, his flesh, does his body remember the torture of the cross? Does the trauma of crucifixion linger with Jesus, just like my car accident over a year ago lingers with me, as my knee aches when I run, as my neck and back muscles tense up with stress?
There’s a mysterious passage in Colossians, a mystical verse, where the apostle Paul seems to think that Jesus is still suffering from his crucifixion, that the resurrected Jesus bears the agony of the cross, and that human suffering, human pain, our afflictions, are bound together with Christ’s. “In my flesh,” Paul says, “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”— Christ’s tribulations and oppressions, Christ’s distress and anguish, the wounds of Jesus, Paul says, are opened up in his flesh.
“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”
The wounds are a kind of absence, a hollow, a puncture, marking Jesus with the unfinished business of resurrection. The wounds in Jesus’ resurrected body are signs to us that more healing is to come, that all has not yet been restored, but that God is at work, healing us from our evil, curing creation from sin. Jesus is alive as a protest against our violence, as a challenge to the power of death.
The problem, for me, is that the powers of death seem to be alive and well. Just listen to our prayers here at church, the way we name the realities of violence, of death, of sin, all around us and even inside of us. It’s not hard to see the absence of resurrection. It’s not hard to pray our way into a world in need of new life, of new creation.
What I want is what Thomas gets: Jesus, alive, physical, touchable, undeniably here, present beyond doubt. I want the reassurance that all shall be well, that our state won’t start executing people on death row again, that Marcos Hernandez will be reunited with his father, alive, that our homeless and imprisoned friends will be restored to life, to a full life, that you and I will get all that we need for a good life, a life full of joy and fulfillment, of grace and affirmation, full of God’s abundant life.
I want the resurrected Jesus, in the flesh, to tell me what he told those disciples when he came to them: “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with you.” Jesus says it three times in our passage, I guess because the disciples needed convincing, but I need convincing too, and it’s hard for it to be enough for me to read the words and to believe them. It would be much easier to have Jesus here, in the flesh, to say those words, to me, to Marcos, to all of us.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hand… I will not believe.”
But Jesus says to Thomas, to the disciples, and to us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Blessed are those of us who believe, after Jesus ascended into heaven. Blessed are the believers who have faith in what we cannot see, in the absent, resurrected Jesus. As the ancient creed of the apostles says, “I believe in Jesus Christ, who ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead” — a Jesus who is, for now, absent.
What does it mean that we have to go on without the resurrected body of Jesus? — to be people who believe without seeing? That’s the question I’m left with after Easter. And two things come to mind, two thoughts about this gnawing absence.
First, the absence of Jesus in the flesh turns us to one another, as we experience the body of Christ at church, in the gathering of believers who become Christ’s presence, in the world, through the Holy Spirit. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus says to the disciples as he breathed on them, as he breathes on us, and through us. In the church we experience the Spirit of Jesus made flesh in us, as we forgive, as we extend God’s grace, as we speak the truth.
That’s the first thing I want to say about what the absence of Jesus does to us — the absence draws us into the identity of Jesus, as we become the body of Christ. The second thing needs to be held in tension with the first, because if all that we say is that Jesus is here, at church, then we are tempted to detach ourselves from the rest of the world, we are tempted to think that we are self-sufficient. But the absence of Jesus should set us in motion, because we should be looking for him, waiting for a return, open to surprise even while expecting him to show up.
The absence of Jesus invites us on a pilgrimage, a search for Christ’s presence, outside of us, beyond our congregation, in the world. And when we look for him, we have to remember how he appeared to Thomas, with holes in his hands and his side, bearing the marks of our violent world, holding in his hands the wounds of creation.
After Easter, we are like Marcos Hernandez, who never stops searching for his father, even after all these years, years of looking among the anonymous dead — los desconocidos, as they are called, the unknown, the strangers — the corpses and bones in the Tucson morgue.
Our search for the resurrected one, the one who has come to give us life, has everything to do with the dead, with the wounded. To be people of the resurrection means that we believe that the wounds will be healed — and not just to believe in this healing, but to give our lives to the healing power of God, to believe with our lives.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”