Longer than Lent, Eastertide has its own liturgical progression spanning the 50 days between the resurrection of Jesus and birth of the Church. So, we read Acts instead of the OT, the NT readings are from those attributed to Peter and John, as the presumed Church founders, and the gospel readings progress from Jesus’ appearances at the grave, next always to Thomas, next to the disciples as a group, through the middle Sunday of the Good Shepherd/Vocations, to the last 3 weeks focusing on the “farewell discourse” that occurred over the Last Supper. As such, we do anticipate Jesus’ final departure on Ascension (40 days after Easter), but our stance is joyful. We think about eternal life, heavenly Jerusalem, new creation; hence, the Gloria and Alleluias return!
The week after Easter, we read about Thomas. Another name for this Sunday is “the Assurance of Thomas” – so much better than “the doubting Thomas”, as it focuses on what Christ gave Thomas, rather than on what he lacked. None of the disciples “had it all”: Peter was decisive, but too slow to beat John to the grave. John got there first, but hesitated to enter. Perhaps, each evangelist promoted certain characters. As such, in John, the Beloved Disciple – presumably, John – was the first to the grave. This is also the only gospel to mention Thomas’ assurance, where his nickname the Twin might even refer to his emulation of St John. But, this diversity of perspective does create the richness of biblical portraiture, in which each of us may glimpse our own features.
What was Thomas like? Intellectually honest! He did not say he understood something until he did. When Jesus explained that he was going to prepare a special place for his followers, Thomas said, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Doubt is essential to learning. I notice this as I watch my children and their friends learning the differences between lies and fairy-tales, allegory and history. Over the past week, we discussed the credibility of the Easter story; but, each age group had their own concerns. While the preteens were in disbelief over the extent of the suffering portrayed in the Passion, the five-year-old focused on whether the Easter Bunny was real (none of them questioned the resurrection itself yet!). At each age and stage of development, we are all discerning which facts are truths, and what is the invisible reality vs. pure fantasy.
Thomas’ desire to truly understand things might have been what made Thomas quite brave. In fact, that’s what bravery is: knowing that something is dangerous and still doing it (otherwise, it’s plain immaturity!). It was dangerous for Jesus to go to Judea for the resurrection of Lazarus because the authorities were beginning to notice his activity and resisted it, but Thomas said he was willing to die with Jesus there, while everyone else held him back. At his actual death, however, all but John and Mary had left Jesus.
So, I don’t see Thomas as any less believing in Jesus’ identity and purpose. Other disciples did have the exact same opportunity to believe only after Jesus had shown himself to them – but Thomas had missed that first opportunity. What he was reluctant to believe was simply the disciples’ words. Once Jesus spoke to him, Thomas did not need to touch any wounds to proclaim Jesus as God. And why wasn’t he with the 10 when they saw Jesus afterwards? I believe this comes down to his third trait, implicit to the narrative: as some of us do, he may have simply preferred to grieve alone.
Each disciple had particular strengths and shortcomings, and eventually, everyone who truly cared for Jesus during his life had seen a vision of his resurrected form. This inspired them all to do their part to further the mission of the church, and tragically for many – to die for it. Thomas may have suffered martyrdom in 72 AD, but only after he had traveled as far as present-day India in 52. There, the Mar Thoma communities still treasure his legacy, and the presence of Greek architecture indicates that he might even have been a builder. To celebrate his intellect and bravery, dedication and persistence, an interesting legend reverses his status from the last among the 11 to see the risen Lord, to the only one to see Mary’s Assumption.
Our faith is no different from that of the early believers in that it arises out of our upbringing, personality, life experience, and learning style. We, too, speak with the risen Lord in prayer and visions. When we are sorting through our doubts, we also rely on the testimony of those who share our values, uphold us in our grief, and celebrate our joys. If faith is “evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11), then may it enable us to notice and reflect on all aspects of the new life around and within us – shared and unique. And like those who gave up so much to honour their commitment to faith, may we respond to God with our own sacrifice: “of praise and thanksgiving”, of hope, humility, and care. Amen.
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