Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Feast of St. Thomas: Belief, Doubt, Knowledge, Love and Power

As we do the Sunday after celebrating Christ’s Resurrection at Easter, so a few days prior to our celebration of his nativity at Christmas the Church remembers St. Thomas the Apostle on December 21. This is significant in more than one way…and far more than coincidental. It is a recurring message about what it means to be a Christian disciple.

St. Thomas is presented to us in the Gospel according to John as both an impetuous man of zeal (“Let us go with him, that we may die with him!”), and a man of limited faith and understanding when in the Upper Room he doubts the reports of Jesus’ resurrection. In this, he very much reflects the character of our own hot-and-cold belief.

However, Thomas is uniquely give na direct and physical encounter with the Risen Christ. There, his doubts are confronted with knowledge based on experience. At that moment, he could have continued to doubt—laying the experience up to some kind of delusion or ghost or hysteria. But instead, he confesses Christ as Savior, in the famous words “My Lord and my God!” From that moment on, Thomas becomes an Apostle in the fullest sense. He is sent by God’s power—and in that power—to proclaim a message and reality greater than himself or his limitations. This is the story of Christian mission and witness, all in one person.

The obvious question for many today is: Why do we find it so hard to do this? Some will say it is because we no longer live in an age of belief or faith; rather, we live in a scientific era, a time of facts and data. But, do world events truly support this? Does the experience of day-to-day life and interaction actually demonstrate we live in some sort of logical, rational world of more highly-evolved beings? I would say this is essentially ridiculous and self-deluding.

I find we are no different from Thomas. We are people on the one hand of tremendous credulity—who hasn’t thrown him or herself in the service of an idea, a movement, a cause, a personality, or an identity at one time or another?—and yet also of doubt, skepticism, and careful avoidance of commitment to anything outside of our own limited experience and opinions. We, too, run hot-and-cold. Times may have changed, and the tools and fashions and the manner of access to knowledge may have changed, but the essence of the human person has remained completely the same.

What separates us from Thomas—far more than years—is the problem of what T.S. Eliot referred to as the “dissociation of sensibility.” This means a break on the deepest level of our being between our intellect and experience. In our day, it simply is much harder to have a unified experience of reality than it was in ages past. We are fragmented, shattered beings, in ways unimaginable to that Apostle. An artificial wall between ourselves and others, between ourselves and our senses, between our selves and the Creation exists—leading to a wall between our improvised “self” and the self-in-communion where we meet God. This wall has served to isolate us from everyone and everything. Consumerism is an outward manifestation of this wall, but its foundations go much deeper into our souls and higher into or intellect, restricting our already limited view of life and reality even further.

This condition convinces us that we are each uniquely able to abstract ourselves from our body and era and see things “as they really are,” while at the same time isolating us utterly in our own narrowness. When we do seek others, we typically do so today in order to have mere confirmation of our own views, surrounding ourselves with like-minded practitioners rather than immersing ourselves in a world of difference united by a common humanity and an experience of God’s presence. This is one of the ways, St. Paul might observe, that the principle of Death operates in us, fueling our increasing need to seek false communion in drugs, money, sex, and all the myriad paths of our passions. Like Thomas, we are absent precisely when we should be present…and miss the blessing of God present to us in community and trial.

This isolation, so well portrayed in Thomas’s absence from the other disciples when Christ manifested himself to them in the Upper Room on the day of Resurrection, impoverishes us deeply, robbing us of the fellowship of faith that allows us to experience the power of God when we ourselves have no power in us.

This is one of the main reasons certain church communities languish in our day: they have absented themselves (for whatever reason) from the fellowship of faith, and rely on their own energy to get them through a dark time. It cannot work, and is being judged by a loving and always truthful God even now.

What Thomas shows is more than human failing, however. He shows that when we decide to “come in from the cold” and rejoin the fellowship of faith, our God is able to reach through the barriers we have erected and open the prison-doors of our hearts. God, who is Love, has placed the desire for love within us, and when we finally open our hearts to this love, we find that we were bathing in a sea of Divine Love all along. We had simply learned to ignore it.

St. Thomas exemplifies both the risks and the possibilities of Christian discipleship. That discipleship cannot exist without the active presence of God in it, and that presence is sustained by Love—God’s love for us, and our love for God, neighbor, and Creation. The goal is not doctrinal smugness or intellectual mastery, but a love so total that it opens the doors of our hearts to the Mystery around us, resulting in works of mercy and compassion that are the sign of a living faith. The measure of this will then be found by the stories of humans who meet the Risen Lord and find ourselves joining Thomas by saying “My Lord and my God!”

Here is a passage from a sermon by St. Gregory the Great on the subject of St. Thomas. I pray that you may find it as helpful and meaningful as I have.

      Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. He was the only disciple absent; on his return he heard what had happened but refused to believe it. The Lord came a second time; he offered his side for the disbelieving disciple to touch, held out his hands, and showing the scars of his wounds, healed the wound of his disbelief. 
     Dearly beloved, what do you see in these events? Do you really believe that it was by chance that this chosen disciple was absent, then came and heard, heard and doubted, doubted and touched, touched and believed? It was not by chance but in God’s providence. In a marvelous way God’s mercy arranged that the disbelieving disciple, in touching the wounds of his master’s body, should heal our wounds of disbelief. The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples. As he touches Christ and is won over to belief, every doubt is cast aside and our faith is strengthened. So the disciple who doubted, then felt Christ’s wounds, becomes a witness to the reality of the resurrection.  
     Touching Christ, he cried out: My Lord and my God. Jesus said to him: Because you have seen me, Thomas, you have believed. Paul said: Faith is the guarantee of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. It is clear, then, that faith is the proof of what can not be seen. What is seen gives knowledge, not faith. When Thomas saw and touched, why was he told: You have believed because you have seen me? Because what he saw and what he believed were different things. God cannot be seen by mortal man. Thomas saw a human being, whom he acknowledged to be God, and said: My Lord and my God. Seeing, he believed; looking at one who was true man, he cried out that this was God, the God he could not see. 
            What follows is reason for great joy: Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed. There is here a particular reference to ourselves; we hold in our hearts one we have not seen in the flesh. We are included in these words, but only if we follow up our faith with good works. The true believer practices what he believes. But of those who pay only lip service to faith, Paul has this to say: They profess to know God, but they deny him in their works. Therefore James says: Faith without works is dead.

Collect for the Feast of St. Thomas

Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son's resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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