OH, MY GOD! – an exclamation that we hear from all kinds of people, including atheists. In ordinary casual speech it doesn’t connote belief, prayer or hope.
Traditionally the apostle Thomas’ words to the risen Christ, “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28) have been understood as a confession of the Lord’s divinity. Muslims have customarily seen these words as simply an exclamation of surprise – like “Oh, my God!” – when Thomas saw that Jesus was alive. Who’s right?
Reverence for God’s Holy Name
We know from the Old Testament that Jews have a particular reverence for the name of God. The Torah enjoined using God’s name respectfully in the Ten Commandments. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11). To this day Orthodox Jews will not even say the Hebrew name of God, Yahweh, when reading the Scriptures, replacing it with the word LORD wherever it occurs. Many Orthodox Jews will not even write the word God in English, as a sign of respect. They will only write “G_d” instead. A God-fearing Jew like Thomas would scarcely have used God’s name as an exclamation.
The Lord Jesus in the Gospel of John
Even more to the point is the style and structure of the Gospel of John. The Gospel begins with an allusion to the first words of the Torah – “In the beginning” – but the evangelist is not talking about the material creation. He is writing about the eternal Word of God and proclaiming that God’s Word took flesh in Jesus (John 1:1-19). And so the Gospel begins with a statement of faith in the incarnation of the divine Word of God.
Throughout the Gospel Jesus’ enemies charge that He “makes himself equal to God” (5:18) and “makes himself God” (10:34). John records Jesus’ own words, “I and My Father are one” and the reaction they prompted, “Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him” (John 10:30-31).
The evangelist concludes the Gospel with the same teaching, expressed in Thomas’ confession of Christ as Lord and God. And if the reader still doesn’t get it, he adds “…these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). From its beginning and throughout to its end the Gospel of John proclaims again and again that Jesus is the Son of God.
And Yet Truly One of Us
In the first centuries after Christ there was a great deal of controversy concerning the nature of Christ. Was He God? Was He Man? How could He be both? One group in that period, the Docetists, stressed the divinity of Christ to such a degree that they minimized His humanity. How could the Son of God really die on the cross, they wondered. Their answer was that it would be improper for Him to actually suffer in this way; and so, they reasoned, He only seemed to die.
St Athanasius the Great examined the question more closely. He saw Christ’s humanity as real but transformed by the presence of the Word of God. “The body of the Word, he wrote, “being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all mankind was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were by the same act utterly abolished.”
Not only did the Lord, being mortal, have to die as mortals do, Athanasius continued; He could only die at the hands of others. “The death of men under ordinary circumstances is the result of their natural weakness. They are essentially impermanent, so after a time they fall ill and, when worn out, they die.
“But the Lord is not like that. He is not weak. He is the Power of God, the Word of God and very Life Itself. If He had died quietly in His bed like other men, it would have looked… as though He was indeed no more than other men.”
“He accepted and bore upon the cross a death inflicted by others – and those others His special enemies – a death which was to them supremely unbearable and terrible to face. He did this in order that, by destroying even this death, He might Himself be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be recognized as finally annulled. A marvelous and mighty paradox has thus occurred, for the death they thought to inflict on Him as dishonor and disgrace has become the glorious monument to death’s defeat” (On the Incarnation 21, 24).
Truly slain as true Man and truly risen as Lord and God – to Jesus the Word of God incarnate be glory forever and ever!
A Reflection for Thomas Sunday
Based on the Homily for April 13th, “On Thomas’ Proof by Experience,” in The Prolog from Ochrid by St. Nikolai Velimirovich and adapted by Anna W. Strelka.
When the apostle Thomas touched the wounds of the Lord Jesus, he cried: My Lord and my God.
When Mary Magdalen heard the voice of the Risen One in the garden she exclaimed in her soul My Lord and my God.
When Saul saw the light and heard the words of the Risen One he acknowledged My Lord and my God.
When the pagans saw how countless martyrs endured terrible sufferings with joy they asked, “Who is this Christ?” and the martyrs acknowledged My Lord and my God.
When people ridiculed the army of monks and asked them, “For whom do you take on these ascetic labors?” the monks had one reply: My Lord and my God.
When people ridiculed maidens vowed to virginity and asked them, “For whom do you give up marriage?” the maidens had one reply: My Lord and my God.
When lovers of money asked those who gave up their wealth, “For whose sake did you give up your riches and become poor?” they answered the same thing: My Lord and my God.
Some saw Him and said My Lord and my God.
Some only heard Him and said My Lord and my God.
Some touched Him and said My Lord and my God.
Some perceived Him in the fabric of events and in the destinies of peoples and said My Lord and my God.
Some came to know Him by some sign and cried out My Lord and my God.
Some felt His presence in their lives and cried out My Lord and my God.
And some heard about Him from others, yet believed and cried out: My Lord and my God.
Truly these last are the most blessed!