Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Feast of St Thomas the Apostle

In the three synoptic Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, St Thomas is mentioned when the list of the Apostles’ names is given, but nothing else is said about him. St John, on the other hand, mentions him in three different places. The first is in chapter 11, 16, when, before Christ goes to Bethania to raise Lazarus from the dead, Thomas says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” The second is during the long discourse at the Last Supper, when Thomas says to Christ, “Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?”, to whom Jesus answers, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me.” (14, 5-6)

The third occurrence is, of course, one of the most famous episodes in all the Gospels, which is read on his feast day in both the old and new rites, and which has been depicted in innumerable artworks.
The Incredulity of St Thomas, represented on a capital in the cloister of the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, near Burgos in northern Spain; last quarter of the 11th century. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by GFreihalter, CC BY-SA 3.0.) The Saint to whom this abbey is dedicated, and for whom the founder of the Dominicans was named, has his feast day one day before St Thomas.
“Thomas, one of the twelve, who is called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them. Jesus cometh, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, ‘Peace be to you.’ Then he saith to Thomas, ‘Put in thy finger hither, and see my hands; and bring hither thy hand, and put it into my side; and be not faithless, but believing.’ Thomas answered, and said to him, ‘My Lord, and my God.’ Jesus saith to him, ‘Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed.’ ” (John 20, 24-29)

The Breviary homily for his feast is by St Gregory the Great, originally preached on Low Sunday (Hom. 26 in Evang.); the passage was clearly chosen because of the feast’s proximity to Christmas. “Thomas’ lack of faith has benefited our faith more than the faith of all the disciples that believed, for while he is brought back to faith by touching, our minds are strengthened in faith, every doubt being laid aside. Indeed, the Lord permitted His disciple to doubt after His resurrection, just as He willed before His birth that Mary have a spouse, who nevertheless did not consummate their marriage. For thus did the disciple doubt, and touch, and so become a witness of the truth of the Resurrection, just as His Mother’s spouse was the keeper of Her untouched virginity.” Thomas is thus a witness to the truth of the Resurrection, and also of the Incarnation. “Therefore, he saw a man, and confessed Him to be God, saying ‘My Lord and my God.’ Therefore, by seeing, he believed, who, on seeing a true man, acclaimed Him to be God, whom he could not see.”

As with the other Apostles, a number of apocryphal writings are associated with St Thomas. In the early sixth century, the Gelasian Decree, a catalog of books approved and rejected for ecclesiastical use by the church of Rome, lists three apocryphal works under his name: an account of his acts, a Gospel written in his name “which the Manicheans use”, and an apocalypse. The term “Manicheans” may here not mean the actual Manicheans, but rather represent a vague memory of the early groups of heretics collectively known as the Gnostics. These latter wrote a large number of fictitious Gospels, many of which have been rediscovered in modern times; one of the earliest of these, a work about which an incalculable amount of nonsense has been written, is named for St Thomas.

However, the Gnostics eclipsed very rapidly after St Irenaeus’ withering attack on them in the later 2nd century, and it is unlikely that the authors of the Gelasian decree really knew much about them. The Manicheans, on the other hand, were known from St Augustine’s writings against them, and were still active in the mid-5th century, when Pope St Leo I (444-61) discovered a group of them within the church in Rome, about 60 years before the Gelasian Decree. In Augustine’s book against the Manichean bishop Faustus (22.79), he reproves the sect for their acceptance of a story in which Thomas behaves in a manner wholly inappropriate for a disciple of the real Jesus Christ, one which clearly came from an apocryphal Acts, and not a Gospel.

Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1, the oldest manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas, now at the Bodleian Library of Oxford University. (Public domain image from Wikimedia.)
Although these Acts of Thomas are not historically authentic, some aspects of them concerning his deeds after the Ascension are attested early on and very consistently: namely, that he preached the Gospel in India, and died there, and that his relics were later translated to the Syrian city of Edessa (now called Homs), which was once a very important center of Christianity in the Middle East. For this reason, even the some of the more skeptical scholars of hagiography, including the revisers of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Fr Herbert Thurston SJ and Donald Attwater, grant their likelihood. The Roman Breviary states that before coming to India, he preached the Gospel to various peoples in the lands east of Mesopotamia, and gives the name of the place where he died as “Calamina”, the location of which is unknown. The Martyrology adds that his relics were further translated from Edessa to Ortona (via Crete), a town on the Adriatic coast of Italy, where they were brought in the mid-13th century, and are still venerated there to this day.

The Byzantine tradition, which keeps his feast on October 6th, also attests to his evangelization of India, which is mentioned several times in the proper texts of his Office. “As a servant of the Word, and of His ineffable Incarnation, you drew from the well of wisdom, o Thomas the Apostle; for with the rod of the Cross you saved souls, searching them out from the depths of deceit. Thus with the net of thy teaching, you enlightened the whole world; and with the light of knowledge, you made splendid the darkened minds of the Indians. Wherefore, delighting in the far-shining glory of Christ, beseech Him to have mercy on our souls.”

The church of Rome always remained very cautious about the more legendary lives of the Saints, and the pre-Tridentine Roman Breviary says little more about Thomas than does that of St Pius V. Many other churches, however, read one version or another of a story contained in Bl. Jacopo de Voragine’s Golden Legend, that St Thomas was an architect, and was sent to India by a revelation of Christ in person, to build a palace “in the Roman style” for a King named Gundifor; this is what accounts for the common representation of him with an architect’s measure in his hands. Apart from this, however, the story has little to differentiate it from the apocryphal Acts of the other Apostles. Thomas performs various miracles, especially healings, along the way, converts a number of people among the Indian royalty, and destroys an idol. This provokes the wrath of a local king, who attempts to kill him in a variety of creative ways, none of which succeed; finally, he is pierced by lances, his body is buried by those whom he has converted, and many miracles take place at the tomb.

St Thomas the Apostle, by Nicholaes Maes, 1656
St Thomas’ feast was adopted in the West in the 9th century, and assigned to December 21st; the reason for this choice of date is unknown, but it is unlikely to be a mere coincidence that nine other months have the feast of an Apostle or Evangelist within their last ten days, thus distributing them more or less evenly through the year. He was also kept on this date in Milan, but in the post-Tridentine editions of the Ambrosian Missal, the following rubric was inserted before his feast. “The Mass of this Apostle… is always transferred to a feria of the preceding week… except in a church titled to him.” This was done to protect the special series of ferias at the end of Advent, called the “feriae de Exceptato” (the precise meaning of which is not clear), the equivalent of the Roman ferias of the O antiphons. The feast day was later moved first to June 27th, and then to July 3rd, the date on which the Syrian church commemorates the translation of his relics to Edessa. The post-Conciliar reform of the Roman Rite followed suit in moving him to July 3rd; the official account of the changes made to the calendar, published by the Vatican Polyglot Press in 1969, states that this was done “so that the series of major ferias of Advent not be interrupted.”

As I have noted before, some churches added one or more antiphons to the O series for the end of Advent, and one of these was composed for St Thomas. “O Thoma Didyme, per Christum quem meruisti tangere, te precibus rogamus altisonis, succurre nobis miseris, ne damnemur cum impiis in adventu judicis. – O Thomas the Twin, through Christ, Whom thou didst merit to touch, with prayers resounding on high we beseech thee, come to help us in our wretchedness, lest we be damned with the wicked at the Coming of the Judge.” Although the Ambrosian Rite does not have the other O antiphons, before the Tridentine reform, it used this text as the antiphon “after the Gospel” at Mass on his feast day.

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