Monday, December 22, 2014

We are included in these words: On St. Thomas’ Day

Below are extracts from a sermon by St. Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome (c. 540-604, commemorated March 12) having to do with St. Thomas, whose feast day today.

St. Thomas is found in the Calendar near both Easter and Christmas. The Sunday after Easter Day always includes the account of Christ’s appearing to the disciples following his resurrection, focusing on St. Thomas’ doubt-turned-to-belief. St. Thomas’ Feast Day just precedes Christmas. It is an interesting placement.

The Apostle Thomas is known to many today because of his supposed lack of faith. This is deeply unfair, as what is remarkable and significant in his witness is not so much a lack of faith as a tenacity of faithfulness in the face of opposition. The fact that Thomas returns to be with the disciples in the Upper Room even after hearing their amazing (and credulity-straining) account of the Risen Christ suggests that even if his rational self was not able to accept their testimony, his desire to be with them and his hope for further explanation and experience of Christ following the Crucifixion was more powerful. These are important elements of a living faith.

St. Gregory goes on to note that Thomas did not have faith because of what he saw in that Upper Room: he had knowledge. That knowledge, combined with his own desire and love made for openness to God’s power in his life, and this brought about faith.

It is this two-way nature of faith that is often difficult for people today to understand, fed as we are on ideological one-way freeways. Surprisingly, ancient people were just as skeptical as moderns—in their own way—but they were deeply concerned with levels of relationship and experience that have largely faded from our culture’s screen for the time being.

Pope St. Gregory ends up by drawing attention to the fact that Our Lord promises even greater blessing to those who have come to believe and yet not seen, not had this king of personal knowledge based on physical experience. As St. Gregory points out, that blessing includes all of us who follow after the Apostles.

Christ knew that his work of salvation and redemption would require his physical Ascension into heaven, and that his personal physical presence would no longer by available in the same form. He knew that what would require a different kind of relationship. And it is that kind of living participation in the living Christ—through the power of the Holy Spirit—that would come with the Pentecost.

Yet, because our faith is constantly being renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit placed in us by Baptism in Christ, we are not operating alone. We are living members of Christ’s Living Body: The Church. And this brings us to St. Gregory’s concluding observation.

Just as St. Thomas’ desire for communion with God and the other Apostles brought him back into their company so that he could receive the great blessing of Christ’s presence, so the Holy Spirit implanted in us gives us a desire and need to do the works of the Kingdom of God. The way we are called to live this out may vary, but the need to do so does not. A true faith is not only made of words—even such daring and powerful words as “My Lord and my God!”—but of deeds.

Tradition holds that St. Thomas eventually made his way to India in his ministry. His life was irrevocably changed, and he could never go back to “the way it was before.” His missionary work was his response to his experience. When we are given the experience of Christ in the Church, in the life of another person, in the world around us, what is our response, our way of joining St. Thomas in saying those glorious words: “My Lord and My God!”

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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 cannot 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.
(St. Gregory the Great; from Homily 26)

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The Collect of 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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