Monday, 21 December 2009

There is no Christmas faith without faith in the Resurrection

Saint Thomas the Apostle in a stained-glass window

Patrick Comerford

Today, the singing of O Antiphons was interrupted, and there was no provision for singing an O Aniphon on 21 December, which had once been the feast day of Saint Thomas the Apostle.

Yesterday, the traditional antiphon for 20 December was:

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.

(based on John 8: 12; Hebrews 1: 3; Malachi 4: 2; Luke 1: 79):

O Dayspring, splendour of eternal light,
and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death

And the traditional antiphon for tomorrow (22 December) is:

O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti
.
(based on Romans 15: 12; Ephesians 2: 14, 20; Genesis 2: 7):

O longed-for King of the nations,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save us, whom you formed from the dust.

Between the two days, there was once a major feast day as the Church commemorated Saint Thomas. This commemoration was moved long ago to 3 July in the Western calendars. But I suppose Thomas sat appropriately between an antiphon that looked to the Orient and one that proclaimed Christ as King of the Nations, for tradition says that Thomas may have been the only one among the Twelve to travel beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire to preach the Gospel, travelling through Persia and to India.

Thomas is named “Thomas, also called the Twin (Didymus).” But the name “Thomas” comes from the Aramaic word for twin, T'oma (תאומא), so there is a tautological wordplay going on here.

Syrian tradition says the apostle’s full name was Judas Thomas, or Jude Thomas, but who was his twin brother (or sister)?

The Temple of Apollo in Didyma ... one of the most important shrines and temples in the classical world to Apollo and his twin sister Artemis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I have often visited Didyma on the southern Anatolian coast. There the Didymaion was one of the most important shrines and temples in the classical world to Apollo and his twin sister Artemis. Apollo was the sun-god, the sun of Zeus; he was the patron of shepherds and the guardian of truth, and in Greek and Roman mythology he died and rose again.

Is the story of Thomas’s doubts an invitation to the followers of the cult of Apollo to turn to Christ, the true Son of God the Father, who is the Good Shepherd, who is the way the truth and the light, who has died and who is truly risen?

Thomas appears in a few passages in the Fourth Gospel. In John 11: 16, when Lazarus dies, the disciples resist Christ’s decision to return to Judea, where there had been attempt to stone Jesus. But Jesus is determined, and Thomas says bravely: “Let us also go, that we might die with him.”

Thomas also speaks at the Last Supper (John 14: 5). When Christ assures his disciples that they know where he is going, Thomas protests that they do not know at all. Jesus replies to this and to Philip’s requests with a detailed exposition of his relationship to God the Father.

Thomas is best known for doubting the reports of Christ’s resurrection when he first heard them. Yet he proclaimed “My Lord and my God” when he saw the Risen Christ (John 20: 28).

Although 21 December was the original feast day for Saint Thomas, this was moved in the Roman Calendar to accommodate Saint Peter Canisius, who died on 21 December, and in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican calendars Thomas is now honoured on 3 July, the day on which his relics are said to have been moved from Mylapore, near Madras, on the coast of India, to Edessa in Mesopotamia. After a short stay on the Greek island of Chios, the relics were moved in September 1258 to the West, and are said now rest to be in Ortona in Italy.

In the Orthodox Churches, he is remembered each year on Saint Thomas Sunday, or the Sunday after Easter, and on 6 October.

But recalling that there is no O Antiphon for today is also a reminder of how we should always remember that Christmas points to Easter. It reminds us that the incarnation is not just a nice occasion for a winter festival and giving thanks after the Winter Solstice that the sun is returning and the days lengthening. It reminds us that Christmas Day has no meaning without Good Friday and Easter Day. Christmas faith is only meaningful when it is faith in the Resurrection.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.