Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

A tender God

December 18, 2023

As Advent beckons me, and the beginning of our Christian story, I find myself drawn to a moment at its climax.

Shortly after the Resurrection, a wounded, untrusting child had a crisis of faith.

“Unless I put my fingers where the nails were, I will not believe,” he said.

A week later, there Christ stood. He stretched out his arms to Thomas, took Thomas’s hands in his own, and invited Thomas to explore the wounds with his fingers.

His invitation was gentle, but visceral: put your finger into my side.

Not “on” my side. “Into” my side.

Thomas did, and Thomas believed.

I’ve heard Christians speak on this passage many times, and am increasingly convinced that our reflections on it fail to grasp its full importance. We rush to questions of trust and doubt; we speak of miracles, of seeing and believing. We understand it as admonition to latter-day believers to not demand proof of God before following Christ. But ultimately, our focus betrays who we are considering most in the passage: ourselves. We focus on Thomas because Thomas is an easy stand-in for us. He reflects our passions, our fears, our doubts, our shame, our curiosity.

In our rush to understand the person in the story we identify with most, we neglect to notice the price of Christ’s care for us. His invitation comes at a cost to himself: his invitation is to not only witness his wounds, but perhaps even to make those tender parts hurt again.

Do you remember the first time you scraped your knee? Do you remember the first time you broke a bone? The first serious injury? The first surgery? Do you remember what it was like, a week later, when you removed the bandage to dress the wound? Applying new ointment stung. Exposing the flesh to the air was painful. And under no circumstances would you want someone else to put their fingers into the wound. Doing so invites pain, and worse: infection. New sickness. A slower recovery.

And even wounds that have fully healed can cause pain. Scars are sensitive. Phantom pain can shoot up a lost limb; a broken bone can ache with the rain, or an unrepaired nerve can create numbness that the brain interprets in a confused, hurtful way, like fire against the skin. Even a healed wound is not always one we want another person to touch.

And yet that offering is precisely what Christ offers Thomas. To take his finger and thrust it into the wound, to explore it. His invitation is not only to believe in him, but to see and feel what that pain must feel like. He invites Thomas to wound him again.

And Thomas believed. Did he do so because he saw a resurrected Lord? Or did he do so because he saw, as he plunged his finger into that scar, the flash of pain on Jesus’s face, the flinch as his nail scraped the new scar, the blood well up beneath the skin where he had pushed too hard, too fast?

Did he realize then, with a sudden, devastating epiphany, that not only was his God before him, but that his God had suffered pain a second time for him, invited that pain once more that Thomas himself might become more alive?

Dwelling on this moment of tenderness, for me, encourages me to remember something that is as true of God during Advent as it is at Christmas, just as it is true on Good Friday and in the Easter narratives of Thomas and the resurrection.

That truth is this: I serve a tender God.

May we remember something that is as true of God during Advent as it is at Christmas, just as it is true on Good Friday and in the Easter narratives of Thomas and the resurrection. That truth is this: we serve a tender God.

And God’s tenderness works in precisely both meanings of that word: tender, pained, wounded. But also tender, gentle, loving. God’s ability to love us in all our despair and disobedience and rebellion grows precisely out of God’s understanding of what it means to be one of us. God’s response to the wounds of the cross is not fear, but compassion. We are cared for tenderly because we serve a God who knows what it means to be tender.

Becoming more like Christ, then, means becoming tender: both by acknowledging the wounds we have suffered individually and separately, and treating ourselves and our communities with gentleness and care.

There are parts of me that hurt, parts of my trauma that I do not want to touch: parts of my despair and hopelessness. Some are born of marginalized identity: trans, queer, woman. Some are born of guilt over my privileges: white, sheltered, educated. Some are born from the histories of fear we casually inflict on one another, either intentionally or unintentionally.

For me to train myself to be like Christ—for any of us to become like Christ—we have to learn how to say to those who doubt our testimony: come, here, doubtful beloved. Come and touch me where it hurts. Come and see my scars. Come and place your fingers into my wounds. I may flinch, but I want you to know that these things I say to you are true.

And I want you to know this: that I care for you. That I show you these wounds so that we may stop giving them to one another. Let me bind up your broken heart, and invite you to join me in putting an end to the powers in this world that continue breaking them.

This is the work of love: extending ourselves, risking ourselves, exposing ourselves, precisely so that the communities of God we call the Body of Christ can grow to understand and accept our pain, and care for one another with renewed commitment.

To serve the Tender God is to believe, with a little more fervent hope, that the resurrection is already here.

We are embarking on Advent. We hope to welcome into this world a miracle not only of divinity, but of flesh, of blood, of bone. A beacon and a light of hope that will shine with strength and imbue humanity with glory. But that blessing will come as the most tender vulnerability: a child who will know fear, and pain, and loss. That child will show us what it means to be human, for we are human, and divine, for we are divine.

But most of all, that child will be tender. Let us strive to build a world where that tenderness becomes something we experience with courage. Let that tenderness, a tenderness that runs through the whole creation, become something we care for together.

Madison McClendon obtained their M.Div. from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2012. They are the Vice Moderator of North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois, and serve on the boards of BJC and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America/Bautistas por la Paz, in addition to previous service on the board of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. They live in Chicago with their fiance, Todd, and a sweet Staffordshire terrier, Moira.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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