St. Thomas, the Apostle
“Unless I see I will not believe.” These are words of the Apostle Thomas whom we celebrate today. These words have sadly clung to him in a negative way so that he is often called “Doubting Thomas.”
But calling him “Doubting Thomas” seems not only unfair, but inaccurate. Thomas was no wavering agnostic, sitting on the fence: “Perhaps I believe, I don’t know.” That’s not Thomas at all. He is quite open and downright: “I simply don’t believe it.” “I don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, and that’s that.”
And I think we have to say that many people do find it very difficult to believe. It’s a great mystery why others who hear the Gospel are touched almost immediately and come to faith. They are blessed, says Jesus, who do not need such evidence as the exploring of wounds with a finger. “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.”
Yet Jesus had mercy on Thomas, was glad of his honesty: “Unless I see I will not believe.” See what? Does it mean I want proof? Surely not, because faith does not deal with proof. God longs for us to turn to him in penitence and faith. He is not going to prove anything to make us believe.
Today, we celebrate the feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle, most famously known as “Doubting Thomas,” from the Gospel story we just heard. Thomas misses the initial appearance of the Resurrected Christ, and insists that he will not believe unless he can stick his fingers inside the wounds of Christ himself. Jesus later arrives, and after offering his disciples a greeting of “Peace be with you,” he does again what he has already done to an infinite degree: Jesus offers his body, for the dispelling of the shadows of doubt and the triumph of life through the light of faith. He orders Thomas to stick his fingers in the wounds of his body. Thomas immediately realizes his error, and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”1 Fear, repentance, shock, jubilation, hope, excitement, awe, love…all of these and more, bound up in Thomas’s beautiful cry, and the experience takes Thomas from doubt to a belief deep enough to explicitly affirm that Christ is God Incarnate.
I’ve been remembering lots of Christmas tunes that come out of my childhood, popular songs you can still hear performed on YouTube and on television specials this time of year: the pop star Andy Williams’ singing “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year…” And “It’s a Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” On it goes, so many of the lyrics full of joy and celebration, of wonder and innocence. And all the color and tinsel that fill the shops, and hang on trees, and pop up on Amazon.com are intent on evoking wonderful expectations this time of year.
So it might seem ill-timed for us to remember the martyrdom of Thomas, the Apostle, in such close proximity to the joyful celebration of Christmas. But it’s no accident. It’s all about light and the absence of light. By the fourth century, the western church was celebrating Christmas at the time of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, when we long for light. By the ninth century, the western church had also fixed the date of St. Thomas’ martyrdom around the winter solstice: the date of celebration for Christmas because Christ Jesus is born as “the light of the world,” who comes to us in the darkest night; and Thomas, who was dubbed “the doubter” among the disciples, remembered on the darkest night, (1) symbolizing doubt and despair, because Thomas experiences a revelation from Jesus. The scriptures call Jesus “the bright morning star,” who “dawns upon us from on high.” (2) These tandem dates for the death of St. Thomas and the birth of Christ Jesus are all about our need for light, for hope, and for help when we are in outer or inner darkness.
Habakkuk 2:1-4; Psalm 126; Hebrews 10:35—11:1; John 20:24-29
The days are getting longer. At 11:47 AM yesterday the earth’s axial tilt reached its furthest extremity from the sun: the annual winter solstice. In this brief moment something big happens. The days stop getting shorter and start getting longer—light begins to return to the northern hemisphere after months of increasing darkness.
Christmas is placed just a few days after the astronomical event—long enough that we can say for sure that light has returned! We can see with our own eyes that the days are beginning to get longer; there is light in the world. The day of the solstice, the moment of doubt we give to St. Thomas. Light should be returning now, but we’re not absolutely sure. Calculations show that the solstice should have happened yesterday (Thomas’s actual feast day), but we need concrete evidence. By Christmas Day keen observation will confirm that, yes, beyond a doubt, light has returned. There is light in the world, darkness has not overwhelmed it.
Have you ever had the experience of taking a photograph of someone, and finding the result rather disappointing? Not necessarily because the person you photograph is out of focus; not because the color is funny; not even because the composition is off-balanced… but because the person captured in the moment of photograph is not reflective of the whole personality.