Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Doubting Disciple

The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Caravaggio, circa 1600

St. Thomas, who was probably a Galilean of humble birth, is one of the original twelve chosen by our Lord to be an Apostle. When Jesus told His disciples that He was going on a perilous journey to Judea in order to visit Lazarus, it was Thomas who said, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” (Jn. 11:16) Again desiring to follow his Lord wherever He went, when Jesus mentioned during the Last Supper that He was to leave them, it was Thomas who asked, “Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?” (John 14, 5)

But Thomas is most famous for not believing the other Apostles when they reported seeing the risen Christ; in the most graphic language, Thomas even declared that he would continue to be incredulous until he put his finger into the place of the nails and his (entire?) hand into His side. (John 20, 25). Eight days later, when Jesus appeared again and this time Thomas was present, our Lord invited him to make good on his boast. Although much sacred art portrays Thomas doing so, the Bible itself does not state what exactly Thomas did at that moment other than uttering the words, “My Lord and my God.” (John 20, 28)

Thomas’ confession of faith is of great importance, for it is the first recorded declaration of Christ’s divinity by one of the Apostles. The Apostles believed that Jesus was the “Messiah,” the anointed one who would redeem Israel, but no one was anticipating that the Messiah would be God Himself. And they certainly knew that Jesus was the “Son of God,” (see Matt. 16, 16) but this expression could mean a lot of things in biblical parlance, from angels (see Job 1, 6) to mysterious ravishers of women. (see Gen. 6, 2) To confess the “Son of God” as the Second Person in the Holy Trinity who is consubstantial with the Father was no easy leap.
But to some extent and with God’s grace, this is precisely the conclusion that Saint Thomas drew. By calling Jesus not only his Lord but his God, Thomas was acknowledging that his human master was also truly divine. The Apostle popularly known as the “doubting Thomas” pivots dramatically to become the “believing Thomas,” a model to us all on how to affirm the great mystery of the Incarnation.
The Apostle of India
The New Testament is silent about what happens to Saint Thomas after the first Pentecost. According to one tradition, he preached the Gospel outside the Roman Empire in places such as Persia, where he met the Magi, instructed them, and baptized them. It is claimed that they were later consecrated bishops.
But Saint Thomas’ greatest mission territory was India, to which he sailed in A.D. 52 and landed at the port of Muziris on the southwest coast, in the modern state of Kerala. The Christian community he founded still thrives today, albeit dividedly thanks to a long and convoluted history. Known as the Nasrani (Nazarenes) or “St. Thomas Christians,” they include various Oriental Orthodox churches (which can be Nestorian or monophysite), independent and autocephalous churches, and two churches in union with Rome, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
As for Saint Thomas, it is said that he was commissioned to build a palace for a local king but spent the money instead on the poor so that the monarch would have an eternal abode in Heaven. The king was not pleased with this allegorical application of his funds and threw Thomas into jail, who later escaped. (Thomas subsequently became the patron saint of architects.)
Later, Thomas drew the ire of another king by baptizing members of either his court or his family. The king’s soldiers apprehended the saint and killed him with lances in Mylapore, near Chennai, in A.D. 72. “St. Thomas’ Mount” is a little hill in the suburbs of Chennai that is believed to be near the place where he was martyred. And the San Thome Basilica in Mylapore contains some of his relics, although the majority of his remains were transferred to the city of Edessa (in Turkey) on July 3, A.D. 232. [1]
St. Thomas Mount Church, Chennai, India
Some historians have been doubtful of the Thomas Christians’ claim that they were founded by the Apostle, since their liturgy, sacred language, and theology are heavily influenced by the East Syrian Church. My Indian colleague and friend Dr. Basil Davis, however, has researched the matter and finds the claim historically reliable. [2] Thomas most likely traveled to India with merchants from Syria who traded in Laodicean wine, which was prized at the time by India’s upper class. And when he landed at Muziris, he could have stayed with a Jewish community that existed there. There is also convincing evidence in the dimensions of the bricks from the saint’s original tomb and in the peculiarly slashed Roman coins that have been found in southern India.
All of which has led Dr. Davis to conclude that “when Paul wrote to the Romans (around A.D. 58) that the Apostles had taken the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Rom. 10, 18), he certainly had in mind Thomas who had departed for India in A.D. 52.”
Thomas’ Name
The Gospel mentions that Thomas was called Didymus because the Aramaic form of his name (Thama) and the Greek word didumos both mean “twin.” (John 20, 24) Just as immigrants today often Anglicize their names to make them easier for others to use, so too was it common in the time of Christ to have Semitic names translated into Greek. Hence in the New Testament we learn that Tabitha was called by the Greek name Dorcas (since both names signify a doe; Acts 9, 36) and Cephas was called Peter (since both mean a rock; John 1, 42)
Still, the meaning of Thomas’ name, like that of Saint Peter, invites further reflection. Why is Thomas named “twin,” and whose twin is he? Perhaps the name is linked to his famous doubting: in languages like Greek, Latin, and German, the verb “to doubt” comes from “to have or hold as two.” [3] Thomas, it can be said, is of “two minds.”
And perhaps it is Thomas’s double-mindedness that reveals the identity of his twin. One apocryphal work, the Acts of the Holy Apostle Thomas, states that Thomas was the twin brother of Jesus, but this bizarre and heretical claim fails to note the irony in John 11, 16, when the meaning of “Thomas” is first mentioned. After Jesus announces His resolve to return to Judea despite the danger involved, Thomas/Didymus “seconds” the decision by declaring to the disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." Thomas wants to be Christ’s “twin” in death, but of course he and the others fail to do so when they later flee in cowardice from the Cross.
No, the more intriguing possibility is that Saint Thomas is the double not of the Gospel’s protagonist but of its reader. We are Thomas’ twin, first in our doubt and then, God willing, in our assent. Clearly, Christ’s gentle rebuke “Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed” (John 20, 29) holds out a special promise to the reader to follow Thomas in his confession of Jesus’ divinity even without the benefit of having seen what he saw.
St. Thomas, in other words, is a reflection of our natural incredulity and our supernatural calling to believe in the God-man. How fitting that Thomas’ name in English, in addition to being synonymous with doubt, has been “ also used as a representative proper name for one of the populace taken at random” [4] such as in the phrase “every Tom, Dick, and Harry.” When we look at Saint Thomas, we are looking in a mirror.
Thomas Objects
St. Thomas has also left his mark in other ways. In the world of botany, the Yellow Bauhinia (Bauhinia tomentosa) of the East Indies is called a Saint Thomas’ Tree because the crimson spots on its delicate yellow petals are reputed to be the blood of the martyred apostle. (The legend of this shrub thus calls to mind the similar tale about the dogwood tree and Our Lord’s Passion.) And in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, a certain Indian gold coin was called a Saint Thomas’ coin.
Bauhinia tomentosa (Camel Foot Tree)
But the Mar Thoma Sleeba or Saint Thomas Cross is the most religiously significant. The cross, which has been used by Saint Thomas Christians since at least the sixth century, has four flowery arms of equal length, a descending dove on top, and a lotus flower below. The flowery arms symbolize the joy of the Resurrection, the dove the Holy Spirit, and the lotus Indian culture, out of which now grows the Christian faith.
St. Thomas Cross
The customs surrounding Saint Thomas’ Day (December 21 in the traditional Roman rite) are equally memorable. “Thomasing” was an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English custom in which impoverished widows went from house to house begging for milk, wheat, oatmeal, or flour in order to make treats for Christmas. [6] In some parts of central Europe, Saint Thomas’ feast began the period of the “Rough Nights,” when country folk would use grotesque masks or loud noises such as the cracking of whips and the ringing of bells to drive away demons in preparation for Christmas. More pious strategies included farmers and their sons walking around their land with incense and holy water while the rest of the family recited the rosary. [7] 
In Norway, all Yuletide preparations—such as chopping firewood, baking, and slaughtering—had to be completed by Saint Thomas’ Day so that one could spend the last few days before Christmas getting into a more spiritual frame of mind. The Apostle even took on the nickname “St. Thomas the Brewer” because all holiday beer had to be brewed by December 21 (and no more brewing could be done until after Epiphany). Norwegians once visited each other on Saint Thomas’ Day to sample each other’s Christmas ale. [8]
December 21 in Norway also marked the beginning of the “Peace of Christmas,” which endeavored to maintain Christian concord during this sacred season. The Peace was taken seriously: penalties for violations were doubled, and some people even went so far as to avoid mentioning the names of harmful animals.
St. Thomas’ feast was also known in some parts as “Spinning Night” because women stayed up late into the night spinning thread to pay for Christmas expenses, their labors lightened by dancing and singing. “St. Thomas’ Dole,” a kind of Christmas bonus, also helped employees and the needy make ends meet during the holiday season.
And possibly because December 21 is the winter solstice, the feast attracted some rather comical divination practices. In Germany, if girls slept on this day with their feet on the pillow and their head near the foot of the bed, they would be given a glimpse of their future husband in a dream. In England, the same goal was reached by wrapping an onion in a handkerchief and placing it under one’s pillow. Meanwhile, if a German baker stopped kneading the dough for Kletzenbrot or Hutzelbrot to run out and hug the trees in the orchard, they were guaranteed to bear much fruit in the coming year.
Instead of these superstitions, traditional Catholics might want to take advantage of our pluralistic society and have some Indian food as they drink an IPA (India Pale Ale) in honor of Saint Thomas the Brewer and Apostle of India.
The Martyrdom of St Thomas, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1639
Moving Feast Dates
The Feast of Saint Thomas was celebrated on December 21 in the Roman rite from the time it was introduced into the calendar in the ninth century until 1969, when it was moved to July 3, the date that is mentioned in the Martyrology of Saint Jerome and the anniversary of the translation of Saint Thomas’ relics to Edessa.
No official reason was given for this change. It was probably not ecumenically motivated. Although some Saint Thomas Christians, such as the Syro-Malabar Church, celebrate Saint Thomas’ feast on July 3, others such as the Malankara Orthodox Church celebrate three such feasts: July 3 (the translation of his relics), December 18 (the day he was lanced), and December 21 (the day he died). And the Byzantine rite’s Feast of Saint Thomas is October 6.
More likely, it was thought that moving the feast would be good for the cult of Saint Thomas and good for the season of Advent. It would be allegedly good for the cult of Saint Thomas because the close proximity of his feast to Christmas prevents the faithful from celebrating it fully: the holy day is dwarfed, so to speak, by the impending feast of the Nativity and drowned out by the expectancy of Advent. Similarly, removing Saint Thomas’ Day from December 21 would be good for Advent, which should not be “interrupted” by such a festive occasion as the cult of an Apostle. [10]
Such concerns are understandable, but it seems to me that they overlook two other considerations. First, if the architects of the new calendar wished to give Saint Thomas his due by rescuing his bright cult from the purple of Advent, they could have turned to a valuable resource already operative in the Roman calendar. Liturgical recapitulation, as we have discussed elsewhere, is the ostensible repetition of a feast within the same annual cycle but under a slightly different aspect in order to return to a sacred mystery and thereby renew the faithful’s encounter with it.
In the pre-1960 Roman calendar, recapitulation enhanced the cults of several saints whose feasts occur around Christmas. Saint Stephen’s Day is celebrated on December 26, but his cult is recapitulated with the feast of the discovery of his relics on August 3. Saint John the Apostle’s Day is celebrated on December 27, but the Church also celebrated the Feast of Saint John Before the Latin Gate on May 6. The date of Saint Thomas Becket’s martyrdom was celebrated by the entire Church on December 29, but the translation of his relics was celebrated in England on July 7.
The designers of the new calendar could have followed these precedents and added a second feast on July 3 honoring the translation of Thomas’s relics rather than suppress the traditional date of his martyrdom. Unfortunately, though, a disdain for recapitulation was already under foot before the Second Vatican Council, as the aforementioned examples had already been removed from the calendar in 1960.
And as for the Feast of Saint Thomas “interfering with” the greater ferial days of Advent, does the cult of the doubting disciple distract the faithful from their Christmas preparations or does it facilitate them? As we have just seen, Saint Thomas’ Day was the occasion of a wide array of customs that aided the people of God, both practically and spiritually, in readying themselves for the birthday of the Lord.
And on a more theological level, consider the curious and providential sequence that occurs during the month of December in the traditional Sanctoral Cycle, when the Church celebrates the memory of saints like Nicholas (December 6), Ambrose (December 7), and Eusebius (December 16). These bishops from the early Church were noteworthy for their opposition to Arianism, the heresy that denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. Seen against this backdrop, Saint Thomas’ feast on December 21 acts as a capstone to a Patristic testimony. Moving forward in December, we move backwards through history, first to the great leaders of the early Church who defended Christ’s divinity and then to the first Apostolic affirmation of that divinity. [11]
And then, moving forward again we move further back to the birth of the Divine Child Himself. As Saint Thomas Aquinas points out in his explanation of the three Christmas Masses in the Roman rite, the Feast of the Nativity celebrates not only the temporal birth of the God-Man but His eternal begetting from the Father and his spiritual birth in our hearts, all of which point us to the fact that the newborn babe in Bethlehem we worship is truly God. [12]
Through the ordering of these feast days, a reverse history lesson becomes a pilgrimage preparing us for the proper celebration of the Christ event. Hence the words of Dom Guéranger:
To none of the Apostles could this day have been so fittingly assigned as to Saint Thomas. It was Saint Thomas whom we needed; Saint Thomas, whose festal patronage would aid us to believe and hope in that God whom we see not, and who comes to us in silence and humility in order to try our Faith. Saint Thomas… comes then most appropriately to defend us, by the power of his example and prayers, against the temptations which proud human reason might excite within us. [13]
Let us end with a touching poem by my friend Luke Mitchell, who did not know that Saint Thomas’ feast fell on December 21 in the traditional calendar when he composed it. The poem is thus a remarkable and unintentional witness to their fitting association between Thomas and our Lord’s Nativity.
Thomas at Christmas
By Luke Mitchell
I wonder, would his doubt have been equal—
Or even more—thirty-four years before,
At the light’s first emergence from darkness?
Would word of the womb on Elizabeth’s lips
Rival Magdalene’s vision at the tomb?

It may be grief makes us incredulous.
Maybe the pregnancy of a promise
That has not yet passed through the pangs of loss,
Like the moment before plosive
Articulation, holds in the hearer
A prepared silence given to assent.
And the silence of the one who laments
Is two shut eyes demanding solid touch.

Or would Thomas’ doubt filled disposition
Supply a prophetic intuition,
Predict the fate Botticelli depicts?
No room in the inn of this-worldly rule.
The Madonna posed as a Pieta.

Or, simply, he may have been quite busy.
After all, "so many hours in a day…”

I like to think of Thomas at Christmas,
His hand rummaging the guts of our Lord.
Now see that hand held over the manger.
His dim head swims. Slowly, he touches God.
The cold forehead, the plumpness of it all.

There was no room in the inn for this child
So that room would be made for Thomas, here.

An earlier version of this article appeared as “The Doubting Disciple” in The Latin Mass magazine 24:4 (Christmas 2015), pp. 46-50. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here.

[1] Those relics were transferred again to Ortona, Italy in 1258, where they remain today.
[2] Dr. Davis wrote the entry on Saint Thomas in the Oxford Encyclopedia of South Asian Christianity (Oxford, 2011).
[3] For instance, the Latin dubitare is believed to be derived from duo habere. See “Dubito, avi, atum, 1,” in Lewis and Short Latin Dictionary (Clarendon Press, 1879), 613.
[4] “Thomas, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, 1.
[5] The Saint Thomas’ Tree is also native to Africa and can be grown in Hawaii, coastal California, southern Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and other areas that do not experience temperatures below 30-32° F (Zones 10a, 10b, and 11).
[6] “Thomasing, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary.
[7] Francis X. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1958), 58.
[8] The information from this paragraph and the following three are taken from the Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year’s Celebrations, 2nd ed. (Omnigraphics, 2003).
[9] Providentially, Saint Ephrem the Syrian had described Saint Thomas as a “dawn dispelling India’s darkness.” Though no one is certain, it is possible that Thomas died on the winter solstice and that this fact inspired Ephrem’s verse. Another possibility is the reverse: that the verse inspired placing the feast on the winter solstice.
[10] This twofold rationale as I have described it explains other decisions made about the new calendar, such as the transference of several saints’ days that typically fall in the season of Lent. Pope Paul VI’s 1969 Mysterii Paschalis, which announces the new calendar, cites the worry expressed in Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium 111 that “feasts of the saints [might] take precedence over the feasts which commemorate the very mysteries of salvation” (2).
[11] Roughly, that is, for the calendar does not proceed strictly in reverse chronological order. Still, the anti-Arian saints that are celebrated in December do seem well poised to help us to appreciate the mystery of the Incarnation.
[12] Summa Theologiae 2.
[13] The Liturgical Year, vol. 1 (St. Bonaventure Publications, 2000), 494-495.

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