Monday, December 21, 2020

Why Ponder the Resurrection around Christmas? The Rationale for the Feast of St Thomas on December 21

Last Advent, a peculiar feature of the traditional Roman calendar leapt out at me and prompted some reflection. Since by the time I had reflected on it, Christmas was already past and gone, I made a note to myself to mention it this year!

Since the 9th century, the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle has been celebrated on December 21st, and that is where it remained in the calendar for the 1962 Missale Romanum. In the liturgical reform, however, St. Thomas’ feast was moved to July 3rd, in order to remove it from the major ferial days of Advent. We understand the motivation: simplify the most solemn times of year in order to allow a better focus on their proper character. The same view led to the dispersion of many longstanding feasts that typically fall during Lent. This thinking was necessitated by the unfortunate rationalist assumption that the faithful are not capable of entertaining more than one focus on a given day of the liturgical year, or perhaps that, even if they were capable, they shouldn’t do it.

Yet we should ask ourselves what is gained by having St. Thomas on December 21st, and what might be lost by giving him a warmer date in July.

The traditional Gospel, as anyone might guess, is the key portion from John (20, 24–29):
At that time: 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.

“How peculiar!,” one might think. “We are only four days away from Christmas, from the Nativity of Jesus, from the baby in the manger, the ox and ass, shepherds and magi, angels singing Gloria, hot chocolate and carols and presents” (etc. — you get the idea) “and we’re talking about the Resurrection? What could possibly be the point?”

Yet this episode with Thomas drives home the fact that it is faith that changes how we see all of reality — and, indeed, how we see the very birth of the Christ-child. Thomas insisted on seeing the risen Christ with His wounds, but He still could not see His invisible divinity; he still professed his faith in Jesus of Nazareth’s identity as the Son of God. Even less could anyone see a little child born in poor straits in Bethlehem and know that He was God — except by faith.

As Fr. Hunwicke observes:

The old Roman Mass-texts for Christmas are full of Light; there is poured upon us the new light of the Incarnate Word; God has made this most sacred Night bright with the shining of the True Light; we know the Mysteries of His Light on Earththe new Light of His brightness has shone upon our minds. This reminds us of the theme of Illumination which the Tradition has always associated with Initiation. So the Baptised might be called the Illuminati; the Johannine pericope of the Healing of the Man Blind from Birth may be part of the Lenten propers preparing for Easter Night. Faith is Enlightenment; Faith is when the penny drops and we see everything rearranged in a new pattern; Faith is not so much the infusion by miraculous means of knowledge inaccessible by natural means as the radical restructuring of what the Carnal Man knows, but knows blindly. S Thomas saw the Risen Lord and thus saw all things differently, saw that the Rabbi of Nazareth was My Lord and My God.

The connection between Thomas and faith is obvious enough, but the traditional Collect underlines it for good measure:

Grant unto us, we beseech Thee, O Lord, to glory in the solemn feast of Thy blessed Apostle Thomas: that we may ever both be helped by his patronage, and with due devotion follow his faith. Through our Lord…

There is a certain gentle irony: “follow his faith” is clearly not referring to the faith of one who hears of the resurrection of Jesus from another (say, Mary Magdalene) and believes without seeing. It must rather be referring to the faith by which Thomas — or any man — confesses the divinity of Christ. “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:17).

Similarly, on the Vigil of the Nativity, the mystery of the resurrection is mentioned in the Epistle of the day (Rom 1, 1–6):

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an Apostle, separated unto the Gospel of God, which He had promised before by His prophets in the holy Scriptures concerning His Son, who was made to Him of the seed of David according to the flesh: who was predestinated the Son of God in power according to the spirit of sanctification by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead

The liturgical reformers typically disliked this kind of mixing together of themes: they wanted each season to be “pure,” without complicated intermingling. But why might the Holy Spirit have moved the Church to place these remembrances of the Resurrection so near to the mystery of the Lord’s Nativity?

The theological reason is twofold. Objectively, it is in virtue of Christ’s Resurrection that every other mystery of Christ’s life continues its efficacy down through the ages and for all eternity. Subjectively, it is our baptism into His Resurrection that enables us to participate in the power of all the mysteries of His earthly life. Think of it this way: we might be emotionally moved by a story told about someone who lived in ages past, we might feel warm fuzzies in our chest, and flip a spare coin to a beggar, Dickens-like; but we cannot and will not receive any grace from a birth that happened 2,000 years ago unless we are united in charity and in the sacrament of charity with the living Christ, so that the grace of His Nativity becomes ours. Nor would His Nativity be efficacious here and now among us if He were not the ever-living glorified Christ who transcends time, who enters it as He will — just as He passed effortlessly through the closed doors of the upper room.

In this way, the old liturgy in every season — indeed in every celebration of the Holy Mass, when the Roman Canon immediately after the consecration recalls the Passion, descent into hell, Resurrection, and Ascension into heaven — continues to remind us in various ways of the “lynchpin” of the sacramental and spiritual life, the Resurrection. Hubert van Zeller expresses this point well:

Whatever it was before the coming of Christ, the religious obligation after Christ’s coming could not be more clear. “Other foundation no man can lay but that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus.” St. Paul comes back to this concept of Christ supporting the whole structure not only of the church but of humanity in general and in particular of the individual soul. Christ the corner stone, Christ the head of the body, Christ whose spirit works through every gift, Christ whose resurrection is the ground of all our faith and the surety of all our hope. Without the dominant theme of Christ running through the whole of our service and spirituality, our faith is vain. At every point, from our baptism in him to our final resurrection in him as our guarantor, as the sole certain promise, as the substance and foundation on which our destiny rests. (Leave Your Life Alone [Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1972], 64–65)

If the resurrection of Jesus presents a challenge to our faith, the birth in time, of a virgin, of the eternal Son of God presents no less a challenge. That the infinite and immortal could be circumscribed by a womb, identified (as it were) with a body and soul, suffer want and necessity and mutability — all this is, and will always be, folly to the Gentiles, a stumbling-block to the Jews, an invitation to Muslim jihad and terrorism. But for us it is the truth, and we are willing, like the once-doubting but now-adoring Thomas, to die for it.

This feast of St. Thomas on December 21st, and with it the paradoxically well-attuned reading from John’s Gospel, were lost in the Novus Ordo calendar revision — or rather, excluded in pursuit of a narrower, historically-focused, sentimental and compartmentalized approach to liturgical seasons. And then the reformers asked us to believe that they were “recovering” lost elements of ancient tradition, such as the centrality of Christ’s Resurrection over against an excessive emphasis on His Passion and death. The stuff the reformers said they were “recovering” was already more present in the old liturgy, but present in a subtle and pervasive way.

There was a deep wisdom after all in celebrating St. Thomas on December 21st, as the apostle who, having fallen before the newly-risen Lord, most closely aligns with the shepherds and the wise men who fell down before the newborn King. As for me and my house, we will follow the Lord — and the old calendar.

[UPDATE: I should have pointed out as well the beauty of having the feasts of two great bearers of the name Thomas equidistant from Christmas, like two orbiting moons: St Thomas the Apostle and St Thomas Becket: 21 | 22 23 24 | 25 | 26 27 28 | 29The former is an apostle who faltered in weakness but rallied to the confession of the divinity and ultimately gave his life for Christ; the latter, a successor to the apostles who made some of the usual compromises of his era earlier in his career but, when push came to shove, rallied to the primacy of the Church over the State, a truth for which he laid down his life for Christ the King. How appropriate both Thomases are for our own age of materialist skepticism and secular Erastianism!]

Photos by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

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