At the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham last week, I saw Marco Williams’ new documentary, The Undocumented, which tracks migrants as they hike into the United States across the border between Mexico and Arizona, trying to escape the detection of border patrol agents, and trying to survive the deadly heat of the Sonoran desert.
The documentary follows a young man, Marcos Hernandez, as he tries to find his father, Francisco, who was last seen in the desert walking for days in the 120-degree summer heat. Francisco left their home in Mexico with a coyote — man he paid $2,000 to lead him across the border — to make enough money to pay for his son’s expensive dialysis treatments. But he never called; he never returned. The coyote reported that he left Francisco in the desert because he was sick and couldn’t keep up with the other migrants in the group. 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 filmmaker focuses on the morgue in Tucson, Ariz., where the medical examiner investigates human remains, looking for clues that would help identify the dead in order to return whatever is left to family members and friends, to provide some kind of closure, to honor the dead with a burial.
In the film, Marcos won’t believe 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” (John 20:25). That’s what Thomas says to the other disciples about the resurrected Jesus; and 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 Hernandez, his father’s dead body will confirm his worst fears. But for Thomas, the living body of Jesus will confirm what seems impossible, an unthinkable hope: that Jesus, who everyone saw on the cross — crucified, died, and buried — that Jesus has come back from the world of the dead, back to the land of the living, back to his friends and family.
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” (v. 27). 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.
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, 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. After his resurrection, does Jesus 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 in Jesus?
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 nonetheless, 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. The realities of violence, of death, of sin, are all around us and even inside of us. In many ways, the world feels absent of resurrection.
In our world of death, I want what Thomas gets: Jesus, alive, physical, touchable, undeniably here, present beyond doubt. I want the reassurance that all shall be well, that our state of North Carolina 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 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 nothing less than the resurrected Jesus, in the flesh, to tell me what he told those disciples when he came to them: “Peace be with you.” I want him to stand here and say it to me and to make peace visible — real in my life, real in your life. The word “peace” as a bit of writing on a page leaves me wanting.
“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” (v. 29). Blessed are those of us who believe, after Jesus ascended into heaven. Blessed are the believers who have faith in what we cannot see: that is, 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, that we have to be people who believe without seeing? That’s the question I’m left with after Easter. As I think about how we are supposed to go on in our faith, two thoughts come to mind.
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 (v. 22). 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 thought I’ll offer 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, tempted to think that we are a self-sufficient body. 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. 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.”