Friday, 3 July 2020

Coming to Christ with doubts
and questions like those of
Saint Thomas the Apostle

Saint Thomas and the Risen Christ depicted in a fresco in a church in Athens … Saint Thomas comes to Christ with doubts and questions while the disciples are locked away in fear (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In many calendars of the Western Church, including the Book of Common Prayer in the Church of Ireland, and Common Worship in the Church of England, today is the feast day of Saint Thomas the Apostle.

He was once commemorated on 21 December, and still is in the Episcopal Church (TEC). But his commemoration was moved many years 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.

I think Saint Thomas is an appropriate apostle to recall today as many of his prepare to reopen our churches on Sunday (5 July 2020) as another stage of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown is lifted, knowing that many people are going to stay locked away for fear, and others are not going to come because they have other doubts.

Perhaps Saint Thomas reminds us too that all our planned celebrations and liturgies 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 south coast of Anatolia. 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 son 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 the disciples that they know where he is going, Thomas protests that they do not know at all. He has been with Christ for three years, and still he does not believe or understand. Seeing and explanations are not enough for him. Christ replies to his remarks 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, Saint Mary Magdalene – who is commemorated later this month on 22 July – 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.

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 Christ: ‘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,’ when 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.

As our churches reopen on Sunday, we need to find ways to assure people in their doubts, in their reluctance to join with us, and to find ways to invite them to see and believe again in their own time, to encounter the living Lord.

Saint Thomas … an icon in the chapel of Saint Columba House retreat centre in Woking, where USPG trustees met late last year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Readings: Habakkuk 2: 1-4; Psalm 31: 1-6; Ephesians 2: 19-22; John 20: 24-29.

Collect:

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.

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.

The font from Saint Thomas Church in Newcastle West, Co Limerick … the font is inscribed ‘One Baptism For Remission of Sins’ … the church was deconsecrated in 1958 and demolished in 1962 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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