Carravagio: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas
This day in Advent [21 December] was once marked in the calendars of the Western Church, including the Book of Common Prayer, as the feast day of Saint Thomas the Apostle and was once a major feast day in the Church. This commemoration was moved long ago to 3 July, the date given in the Martyrology of Saint Jerome and 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 to be in Ortona in Italy.
In the Orthodox Churches, Saint Thomas is remembered each year on Saint Thomas Sunday, or the Sunday after Easter, and on 6 October. He is now celebrated on 3 July in the Book of Common Prayer (2004) in the Church of Ireland and Common Worship in the Church of England, although he is still commemorated on 21 December in the Episcopal Church (TEC).
I think of Saint Thomas as an appropriate apostle to recall in Advent, for he reminds us that all our Christmas celebrations are meaningless without faith in the Resurrection.
In the Gospels, Saint 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 Saint 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?
We can never be quite sure about Saint Thomas in Saint John’s Gospel. After the death of Lazarus, the disciples resist Christ’s decision to return to Judea, where there had been an attempt to stone Jesus. But Thomas shows he has no idea of the real meaning of death and resurrection when he suggests that the disciples should go to Bethany with Jesus: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11: 16).
And while Thomas saw the raising of Lazarus, what did he believe in?
Could seeing ever be enough for a doubting Thomas to believe?
The Apostle 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. He has been with Christ now for three years, and still he does not believe or understand. Seeing and explanations are not enough for him. Christ replies to this and to Philip’s requests with a detailed exposition of his relationship to God the Father.
In the Resurrection story in Saint John’s Gospel, Mary does not recognise the Risen Christ at first. For her, appearances could be deceiving, and she thinks he is the gardener. But when he speaks to her, she recognises his voice, and then wants to hold on to him. From that moment of seeing and believing, she rushes off to tell the Disciples: “I have seen the Lord.”
Two of the disciples, John the Beloved and Simon Peter, have already seen the empty tomb, but they fail to make the vital connection between seeing and believing. When they hear Mary’s testimony, they still fail to believe fully. They only believe when they see the Risen Lord standing among them, when he greets them, “Peace be with you,” and when he shows them his pierced hands and side.
They had to see and to hear, they had to have the Master stand over them in their presence, before they could believe.
On the first Easter Day, the Disciples locked themselves away out of fear. But where is Thomas? Is he fearless? Or is he foolish?
For a full week, Thomas is absent and does not join in the Easter experience of the remaining disciples. He has not seen and so he refuses to believe. When they tell him what has happened, Thomas refuses to accept their stories of the Resurrection. For him hearing, even seeing, are not enough.
Thomas wants to see, hear and touch. He wants to use all his learning faculties before he can believe this story. He has heard, but he wants to see. When he sees, he wants to touch … he demands not only to touch the Risen Christ, but to touch his wounds too before being convinced.
And so for a second time within eight days, Christ comes and stands among his disciples, and says: “Peace be with you.”
Mary was asked in the garden on Easter morning not to cling on to Christ. But Thomas is invited to touch him in the most intimate way. He is told to place his finger in Christ’s wounded hands and his hand in Christ’s pierced side.
Caravaggio has depicted this scene in his painting, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. Yet we are never told whether Thomas actually touched those wounds with his fingers. All we are told is that once he has seen the Risen Christ, Thomas simply professes his faith in Jesus: “My Lord and my God!”
In that moment, we hear the first expression of faith in the two natures of Christ, that he is both divine and human. For all his doubts, Saint Thomas provides us with an exquisite summary of the apostolic faith.
Too often, perhaps, we talk about “Doubting Thomas.” Instead, we might better call him “Believing Thomas.” His doubting leads him to question. But his questioning leads to listening. And when he hears, he sees, perhaps he even touches. Whatever he does, he learns in his own way, and he comes not only to faith but to faith that for this first time is expressed in that eloquent yet succinct acknowledgment of Christ as both “My Lord and My God.”
In our society today, are we easily deceived by appearances?
Do we confuse what pleases me with beauty and with truth?
Do we allow those who have power to define the boundaries of trust and integrity merely to serve their own interests?
Too often, in this world, we are deceived easily by the words of others and deceived by what they want us to see. Seeing is not always believing today. Hearing does not always mean we have heard the truth, as we know in Irish life and politics today. It is easy to deceive and to be deceived by a good presentation and by clever words.
Too often, we accept or judge people by their appearances, and we are easily deceived by the words of others because of their office or their privilege. But there are times when our faith, however simple or sophisticated, must lead us to ask appropriate questions, not to take everything for granted, and not to confuse what looks like being in our own interests with real beauty and truth.
Saint Thomas is a reminder that Christmas points to Easter. His story 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.
Saint Thomas’s Church, Dugort, Achill Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Almighty and eternal God,
who, for the firmer foundation of our faith,
allowed your holy apostle Thomas
to doubt the resurrection of your Son
till word and sight convinced him:
Grant to us, who have not seen, that we also may believe
and so confess Christ as our Lord and our God;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Habakkuk 2: 1-4; Psalm 31: 1-6; Ephesians 2: 19-22; John 20: 24-29.
Post Communion Prayer:
God of hope,
in this Eucharist we have tasted
the promise of your heavenly banquet
and the richness of eternal life.
May we who bear witness to the death of your Son,
also proclaim the glory of his resurrection,
for he is Lord for ever and ever.
Tomorrow (22 December): Henry Budd.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.