Upon the cross you breathed your last

*  A simple hymn about the apostle Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ.


Upon the cross you breathed your last.midi


This writer grew up thinking that ‘Doubting Thomas’ was a moral liability to Jesus and his elite corps of disciples-soon-to-become-apostles. The proper way for all of Jesus’ followers to behave was always to respond to the message ‘Trust me’ with complete acquiescence. Thomas’ scepticism in the face of his eleven colleagues’ report We have seen the Lord was worthy of being remembered only as an example of how Christians should not behave.

But Thomas insisted that Unless I see the mark of the nails in (Jesus’) hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe. We may question whether it was not so much Thomas’ scepticism as his manner that subsequent generations of Christians found offensive: his presumption of intimacy, his readiness to ignore the physical boundaries between him and Jesus (and, by implication, between him and everyone else). If Thomas were to be regarded as an exemplar of Christian belonging, then Christians might feel bound to behave as if they belonged intimately “in each other’s core” (see verse 3 of my hymn ‘This body, Lord, is mine and yours’). They might find themselves challenging hierarchic sanctifyings of rank and class and the supposed necessary distances between persons. Many would feel uncomfortable at that.

On the other hand, if individuals within corporate bodies insist on casting doubt on every report passed on to them by others in the group, the cohesion and effectiveness of the group could be undermined. So attempts to rehabilitate Thomas must therefore not implicitly impugn the integrity of the disciples as a whole and their witness to the resurrected Christ. The integrity of the Church is not diminished by the integrity of any of its members, even though one of them may charge the rest with failing to satisfy that one’s needs.

But the Gospel writer does not judge either the eleven or Thomas, the absent twelfth member. The issue in the Gospel is not about the behaviour of Thomas or his colleagues, but about the dependability, the enduring stability, of Jesus’ resurrection. The Jesus whom ‘the eleven’ saw was no fleeting apparition; yet neither they nor Thomas could have known otherwise. What has been represented widely as Thomas’ (reprehensible) doubting actually serves in the narrative to give substance to the account of the resurrection. For at Jesus’ next appearance he is recognized as having three dimensions at least, being solidly enfleshed, and able to pass at will through closed doors.

So this short hymn aims to take the Gospel-writer’s perspective. Beginning with a recollection of John’s telling of Jesus’ death (he … gave up his spirit[1]), the worshipper acknowledges Jesus after his death, breathing ‘as at first’, revealing his ‘life, no more to die’. The hymn does not presume to explore how this might be so, no more than does Gospel-writer: it is simply the most momentous ‘given’.

As in the Gospel, so in the hymn: Thomas is not singled out for condemnation or pity. He is the representative of those throughout time who have not experienced the full dimensions of Jesus’ resurrection, yet who long for all that the resurrection promises. As Paul put it: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I might attain the resurrection of the dead[2].

The music EISENACH is put to work to carry the lyric, because its simplicity admirably matches the simplicity of the words’ sense. In essence the hymn is an unaffected prayer, and few if any hymn-tunes are less pretentious than this one.

[1] John 19.30b

[2] Philippians 3.10-11