When Yosef saw that his seventeen-year-old granddaughter, Eli, had gotten a tattoo on her arm, Yosef began to cry. It was not so much that Eli had gotten a tattoo. It was the nature of the tattoo she got. Eli’s tattoo was this sequence of numbers: 1-5-7-6-2-2
When grandpa saw it, with tears in his eyes, he bent his head and kissed the new tattoo on Eli’s left forearm. You see, Yosef has the same tattoo: the number 157622. The number was permanently inked on his own arm by the Nazis at the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Nearly 70 years later, his granddaughter, Eli, got hers after a high school trip to Auschwitz. Eli wanted her grandpa to know that she stood in solidarity with him in his suffering, and that she would not forget the oppression that he – and millions of others – experienced at the hands of the Nazis.
There is something profoundly bonding when we know that someone else is with us in our suffering. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the best people to work with alcoholics in recovery are recovering alcoholics. Or why there are so many support groups for grieving parents led by parents who themselves have lost a child. When we know that the other has suffered as we have suffered, somehow we can trust their love, their outreach, their compassion for us.
Today’s gospel tells us plainly: “Then he showed them his hands and his side.” It was important for the resurrected Jesus to do that for his disciples. In part, he does that because it is a proof that he was who they thought he was – that there is continuity from his earthly life to his resurrected life. Jesus is still marked by the scars of his love for us and our rejection of that love. That is the first part of the showing of his hands and side.
But as Eli knew in getting that tattoo, there is another side to showing the wounds. It is all about solidarity in suffering, all about standing with the disciples in their fear and loss and pain. “Peace be with you” can be trusted when they see the wounds. From that experience of having suffered – Jesus can offer peace. And he can promise them that their suffering, their guilt for having abandoned him will not triumph.
That is why Thomas had to see for himself. He, like the others, was trapped in his own guilt, his own abandonment of the Lord. He had heard the stories of his appearance to the others. But he had to see for himself that there was a power stronger than the suffering, a force able to push through the guilt and offer redemption. He asks to see Jesus’ wounds, but in some ways, he is speaking also of his own wounds. [looking at ‘my hands’, speaking with Thomas’ voice] “Show me that there is life beyond these wounds, past this brokenness in my heart. Show me that there is recovery from my addiction, life even when cancer is killing my body, hope even when Alzheimer’s is clouding my mind.
2,000 years later, Jesus still shows his hands and his side. He does it when WE symbolically share the tattoo on our arms – the addiction we are working through, the anger we are letting go of, the suffering we are willing to enter into, the helplessness in the face of ALS that has gripped a friend. When we make clear to others that they are not alone, that we suffer with them in their pain, our solidarity will help them to rise up. That is the incredible power – and responsibility – we have each been given from the One who showed us his hands and side. We can stand with all those who struggle, all those who suffer, and, united with the wounds of our savior and our own suffering, help them to rise… This week – pick someone you know, and ‘tattoo them across your heart’ – write a letter, drop by, share a cup of coffee – let them know that they are not alone.
157622 – a powerful tattoo, etched permanently into the skin of a loving granddaughter. Nail marks in the hands, spear thrust in the side – an even more profound tattoo – the wounds of a savior that set us free and invite us to stand with all who suffer…