Random musings on politics, religion, tropical agriculture, and plant ecology
Sunday, April 18, 2010
"My Lord and My God": Reflections on Thomas Sunday
Last Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter, commemorates the appearance of Christ to Thomas the Apostle; for that reason it’s called Thomas Sunday, or alternatively Low Sunday. It’s always been a particularly meaningful day to me, for reasons I’ll go into below. I was actually at church services on Saturday night and Sunday last weekend so got to hear two different takes on the Gospel reading; here is my own take.
I’m fascinated by Thomas because, first and foremost, he was the Apostle to my people. He was martyred, around 72 A.D., in Mylapore in Southern India, after a career of evangelization that had led him through the Middle East, through Persia, and through India. Mylapore (by interpretation, ‘City of the Peacock’) is the neighborhood of Madras, India where my maternal grandmother grew up, and where a number of my relatives on my mother’s side still live, and where I have visited several times since I was a child; the family home is just a few miles from the Tomb of St. Thomas. I visited there about two and a half years ago, the last time I visited India. St. Thomas is very important to the Christians of Southern India- though we are now divided between Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Nestorian*, and Jacobite** confessions, we all tend to respect his memory, and some Indian churches even take his name (‘Mar Thoma’, or ‘Father Thomas’). The Apostles were bidden by Christ to “go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”; Thomas’ particular calling was to show the love of Christ to my ancestors, to the people of my blood, and so I feel that I have a particular spiritual bond to him. My people were his special concern in life, and I hope, he still watches over us from his throne in the communion of saints today as well.
I’m fascinated by him, too, because he is an example of doubt- doubt that was temporary, answered, and sublimated into a stronger faith than ever, but still doubt nonetheless- for an age which is, quintessentially, an age of doubt. We live in an era in which very little is taken on faith, in which some people feel driven to doubt and question everything. Natural science itself demands a certain faith that the universe is orderly, lawful, reasonable, and that honest and objective inquiry can uncover the truth, but in the late twentieth century with the rise of the toxic ideas of postmodernism, people have begun to doubt even that. We can identify ourselves with Thomas, and see ourselves in him, and hope that as with him, our doubts may be dispelled, our questions answered, and we may experience the kind of revelation that he did. Thomas is the perfect and quintessential apostle for an age in which we wonder if we can have faith.
Lastly, I’m fascinated because of the traditions that attached to him after his death, but are consistent with the scriptural evidence. If we put together the accounts in John’s Gospel with the traditions and noncanonical writings attributed to Thomas- the ‘Acts of Thomas’, the ‘Gospel of Thomas’, and the like- we get a picture of someone who was very attached and drawn to dualistic ideas: the idea that evil is a great power in this world, that it is something independent, real, and strong against which good needs to struggle, that this world is under the domination of evil, and is something that we should strive to escape, not to enjoy. Taken too far, of course, these ideas can slide into dangerous errors- Manichaeanism, most famously, which held that the world itself was created by the evil counter-god, equally powerful to the true God, and was irredeemable. But there’s little reason to believe Thomas ever himself slid into the error of thinking the world was essentially evil and irredeemable. The picture one gets from reading the ‘Acts of Thomas’ seems to have dualistic ideas pretty much as far as one can, while still remaining faithful to Christ and to the basic essence of the Christian faith. I’ve always found the dualistic heresies very interesting, and felt that for all their many errors, they were on to something in their sense that evil was something independent, eternal, and powerful, to be struggled against and taken seriously, not simply a ‘privation of the good’ to be laughed away. I think Thomas was drawn to some of those ideas too, which makes the story of his ‘conversion’ to belief in the Resurrection- a physical and literal Resurrection- all the more powerful. More on that in a minute.
People sometimes talk about Thomas as though he was morally culpable for his inability to have faith- some yahoo preacher was saying this on Family Life Radio last year, which I found too annoying for words. Let’s remember that Thomas was the one who had had the courage and love for Christ to exhort the Apostles to be willing to share in his martyrdom: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” He was no shrinking violet. Let’s remember too, that “Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus was not with them when Jesus came”, and he had to accept the Resurrection of the God whom he had seen die, on the testimony of others. Would you have accepted it? Their belief can’t be compared to his: they had seen the risen Christ firsthand. Thomas hadn’t. Peter had doubted at first, as had the other apostles, and it had taken a miracle to convince them, just as with Thomas.
Thomas was a pessimist; he had said, “Let us also go [and] die with him”, because he was realistic enough about this fallen world, dominated by evil, that he knew that living a good life is seldom easy, and often leads only to suffering and tribulation. Out of that pessimism flowed an unwillingness to believe what seemed like it was too good to be true. How great would your happiness be if you knew that the One to whom you had pledged your life had miraculously conquered death and hell, and allowed you to conquer it too? But conversely, how much greater would your pain and despair be if you learned later that that hope had been misplaced, and that the Enemy had merely been toying you, showing you the vision of liberty, of beautiful green gardens and blue skies, of children playing in the fields and birds in the air, before slamming your cell door and enclosing you in darkness forever? Villiers de Lisle Adam’s short story ‘The Torture of Hope’ explores this well. It is the story of Aser Abarbanel, an old Spanish Jew proud of tracing his lineage back to the Judges of Israel, who languishes in the prisions of the Inquisition, on the night before his execution at the stake. The Inquisition allows him to escape, by leaving doors open and halls unguarded, and set no barrier in his way as he races to freedom: and then, when he is finally leaping out into the sunlight, into freedom, he feels the Inquisitor’s hand on his shoulder, and “Aser Abarbanel with protruding eyes gasped in agony in the ascetic's embrace, vaguely comprehending that all the phases of this fatal evening were only a prearranged torture, that of HOPE….” St. Thomas knew, at some level, how bitter such a torture could be. He didn’t refuse to believe in Christ, he refused, temporarily, to believe in his friends, precisely because he knew, and feared, how great the torture of hope, of false hope, of hope betrayed, could be.
Oscar Wilde, once said this: “Once in his life may a man send his soul away, but whoever receives back his soul must keep it with him forever, and this is his punishment and his reward.” That could serve as the story of Thomas’ life, as well. He who had, momentarily, wavered in his faith and been unable to rely on the testimony of his friends, returned with a stronger faith then ever. In the Gospel of St. John, it is Thomas who is the first of the Apostles (leaving aside the Prologue itself) who confesses that Jesus Christ is God: “My Lord and My God!” This acclamation, so powerful in its humility, its faith, and its love, is what Christians used to say (beginning in the thirteenth century) at the point in the Eucharist where the priest elevates and displays the Host; it’s no longer said explicitly, either in Catholic or Anglican churches, but we should still say it to ourselves silently. Those words come from Thomas, and they are a reminder to us, not just of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, but of Thomas’ return to a stronger faith then ever. That we honour Thomas in this way is a powerful sign of how doubt can lead us to a stronger faith.
How strong was the faith of Thomas? It was strong enough to lead him to sell himself into slavery to finance his trip to Persia and India. It was strong enough to live for twenty years, a stranger in a strange land, driven by his faith and love to heal the sick, to care for the suffering, to carry out miracles, to war against devils and evil powers, and to spread the gospel of Christ. According to fourth-century traditional accounts of the Assumption of Mary, he was brought back to Ephesus by a miracle shortly after Mary’s death, and was the only one privileged to see her assumed into heaven; and the one who had doubted the word of the apostles was now the one on whom the responsibility fell to convince the others. “And the apostles….all asked pardon of the blessed Thomas, on account of the benediction which the blessed Mary had given him, and because he had seen the holy body going up into heaven.” Regardless of what you believe about this story- and I think the Assumption certainly happened, whether or not we have an accurate account- this is a beautiful example of how God allows us to change ourselves, and how his providence puts us, in our lives, into positions where we can for the first time see things from other people’s points of view, just like in trying to convince the skeptical apostles, Thomas could experience what it was like not just not to believe, but also not to be believed. Thomas’ faith led him, finally, sentenced to death for encouraging the wife of the King of Madras to embrace celibacy, to walk up onto the hill outside Mylapore, in the company of four soldiers, to pray, and then to accept his death with these words: “Fulfil the commands of the one who sent you.” His last prayer, we are told, before he was riddled with spears ended with this beautiful line: “I have become a bondman; therefore to-day do I receive freedom.” Death, for Thomas, represented final freedom because there would now be no separation any longer between him and his beloved Lord.
It’s the nature of God to bring good out of evil, and to turn the Enemy’s designs to good ends. That is why Goethe’s devil says, “I am a part of that power/ That always willeth evil, and always worketh good.” In the same way, Our Lord took the doubts of Thomas and turned them towards good, making them serve purposes that Thomas could never have foreseen. In the story of Thomas’ conversion we see some of the major challenges that would convulse the Christian faith for the next two thousand years, set forth in advance and refuted in advance as well. Consider again the Lord’s challenge to Thomas: “Reach hither thy finger and behold my hands; reach hither thy hand and thrust it into my side….”. Within eighty years after the Crucifixion, schools of thought would arise that held that Christ had merely appeared to be human, and had been a purely divine being that never actually took on human flesh. These groups, persisting for several centuries, often claimed inspiration from Thomas, and their beliefs that Christ was not truly a human person tended to grow out of an exaggerated dualism (which Thomas appears to have held to a lesser degree). Through asking Thomas to touch his hands and side, Christ refuted the Docetists*** in advance, and used Thomas himself as the vehicle by which those who claimed to be intellectual disciples of Thomas were refuted. And this, incidentally, is one hint that the Gospels were faithful recordings of the truth and not works of propaganda composed to fit an agenda: the teachings in them were often unclear to people at the time, and their full meaning would only become evident centuries later. One gets the sense reading them that the writers did not fully understand what they were writing, but wrote nonetheless as the facts compelled them to do.
The Docetists of the succeeding centuries would claim over and over again that Christ was _only_ divine and not human as well, and that he lacked a human body; but though they would appeal to Thomas, the testimony of Christ through Thomas himself refuted them. Thomas, who had leanings towards Docetism, was made the vehicle and agent of the refutation of Docetism, by which the Faith was spared from a particularly dangerous and ever-present intellectual threat. This is another sign that what we have to deal with here is the mysterious and the miraculous, and not merely the mundane: no human wisdom, but only the divine wisdom of Christ the Incarnate Word could have chosen the most Docetic of the apostles to refute Docetism, just as he picked the despised tax collector Matthew to preach Christ to the very people from whom he had collected the hated Roman taxes, and the student of the Law, Paul, to refute the idea that the Law saves us. There can be no better symbol, for our time and for all times, of the way Christ brings good out of evil, and how he turns even our weaknesses and faults to good ends: “For my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Doubt is not evil, nor is it a sickness: it is an inextricable part of the human condition. The ability to have faith also presupposes the ability to doubt. Christ himself was racked by doubt in the Garden, when we are told that “in an agony he prayed more fervently, and his sweat became as it were great drops of blood falling upon the ground”, and then again when he hung on the cross and said, “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?” The doubt that Thomas experienced came about for good reason, and was an expression of a natural, and healthy, pessimism that is a necessary bulwark against following every rumour or fad that comes down the pike. But it’s important to remember, too, especially in our skeptical age, that Thomas did not remain in his state of doubt, and that when his doubts were resolved, his faith was deepened and strengthened to a greater degree than ever, such that for the first time he confessed Christ’s true divinity. As the great book ‘Life of Pi’ said, while doubt is a natural part of the human condition, “choosing doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation”.
There’s a lot more to say about Thomas, and I could talk for many more essays about him: delving into the stories about his journey to India, his experiences there, and his struggle against a great devil in the form of a serpent. I’d encourage you all to look at the ‘Acts of Thomas’: though it’s neither history nor canonical scripture, there’s lots of powerful and compelling testimony there, much of which makes reference to historical figures that only someone well acquainted with first century India would know, and I believe there’s much truth there. But that’s another story, for another time. The story for us today is the story of that night a week after Our Lord rose from the dead, when Thomas became the vehicle by which Our Lord proved he had a real body and human nature, when his doubts were conquered and his faith turned into something stronger than ever and unwavering even unto death, and in which his power was made perfect in Thomas’ momentary weakness.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. Look kindly on those who struggle to believe, on those who have lost their faith, on those who have never had faith, and on those who are waiting for a sign of your presence. Have mercy on all those who seek the truth with a sincere heart, and lead them, as you led Thomas, to know you, who alone are the Truth. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
*The Nestorians (a small group of Christians in Iraq, Iran and India) hold that Christ comprised two separate persons, the divine Word and the human Jesus **The Jacobites (or Syrian) Church holds (along with the churches of Armenia, Egypt and Ethiopia) that Christ had a single nature that comprised divine and human aspects ***Docetism is the belief that Christ was fully God, but lacked a human body and only appeared to be a man