Like many, I do not always pay much attention to the many saint feast days unless it is a particular saint that has personal meaning for me. July 3rd this month was the feast day for such a saint – St. Thomas the Apostle. While I consider St. Michael the Archangel as my guardian angel and protector, St. Thomas is my patron saint for my day to day life. Besides having the same name, I am, for better and for worse, like him in many respects. I am a doubter and have been all my life. Whether it be religion, politics or science I find it hard to just accept things without being skeptical and asking questions and searching for answers. I want to know the why’s and how’s. I have to wrestle with my doubts. Thomas the Apostle, for want of a better term, “has been there and done that”.
His feast day used to be December 21st, the day of his martyred death according to tradition. An old English saying for that day was “St. Thomas day, St. Thomas Gray. The longest night the shortest day”. At one level this refers to the dark side of doubt in our lives that are reflective of what Thomas the Apostle must have felt after the crucifixion. In turn, by having his feast day on the “darkest day” of the year it could facilitate our personal reflections of our own doubts in our lives.
His feast day was changed from December 21st in 1969 so that it would no longer interfere with major elements of advent. The July 3rd date is what tradition holds to be when his relics were transferred from India to Edessa, Turkey then eventually moved to Ortona, Italy in 1258.
Thomas (Didymus in Greek) was one of the twelve Apostles and his name in Aramaic means “twin” but who was his twin is not known. He is best known from the account in Chapter 20 of John’s Gospel from which he got the nickname “Thomas the doubter”. Being absent when Jesus visited the other disciples and upon hearing of Christ’s appearance to them he was quoted in verse 25 as saying “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side I will not believe”. Because of that one incident, he will forever bear that nickname. Unfortunately, that is all that many know of this Apostle. However, there is much more to the story of Thomas.
Following the Ascension, Scripture is silent on what happened to Thomas but tradition maintains that he founded churches in Mesopotamia, Ethiopia and especially in India. The Christian community in India is known as the St. Thomas Christians. A reflection of the tradition that he founded the Church in India and their tradition is that he died a martyred death there.
In recent years, he got some notoriety as the possible author of an ancient writing discovered in Egypt in 1945 called the Gospel of Thomas. That manuscript is not considered canonical (inspired) or even written by the Apostle Thomas. Many scholars believe it was written in the 2nd or 3rd century by a heretical sect (the Gnostics) and they used his name to lend authenticity to the writing.
Our Times of Doubt
We live in times of doubt. Christians are being killed and persecuted in many areas of the globe. Charges of fake news make us skeptical about the truth across all topics – culture, politics, science and religion. We are still reeling over the priest abuse scandal. Gossip and disagreements appear rampant within the hierarchy of the Church over many areas especially the papal encyclicals of Laudato Si and Amoris Laetitia. We live in a time of skepticism and doubt and what also appears as a time of little faith.
In such an age of pessimism it could be easy to lose hope. However, we are encouraged to trust our faith, to be loyal to our faith and have the courage to continue on in our personal Christian journey. That is the model that Thomas gave us. In the gloom of dashed hope, doubt and skepticism he remained loyal and moved forward to bravely evangelize the faith.
Thomas the Apostle – A Saint For Our Times
Because of his history, Thomas the Apostle provides us some insight on faith while suffering from doubt. Doubt can take many forms. One is skepticism. To be skeptical is to question and seek answers. In that sense it serves a positive purpose. The danger is to allow skepticism to get in the way of trust. That is a trust in what your senses tell you or more importantly what your faith tells you. Thomas’s situation appeared to that his expression of doubt was to be skeptical. I would like to believe that he never wavered in his faith in Jesus but the shock of the crucifixion planted a skepticism to his belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Doubt “gnaws” at hope and I am sure the traumatic scene of the crucifixion must have been a blow to the hope for all the disciples not just Thomas.
The rest of the story is that while Thomas expressed doubt, when confronted with the resurrected Jesus he strongly expressed his faith fully with his statement “My Lord and my God” (John 20: 28) and his doubt disappeared. From what we know of him from Scripture and tradition it could be said he was always a devoted follower and Apostle for Jesus Christ.
He should also be known for his courage as seen in his statement in John 11:16. Jesus was preparing to undertake a dangerous journey near Jerusalem which had many of his enemies. In response to this, Thomas expressed his willingness to put himself in harm’s way when he said to the other Apostles “Let us also go to die with him”. He didn’t have to think about or debate it, he spontaneously “stepped up to the plate”. He expressed no doubt about committing himself to following Jesus whatever the risk. If anything Thomas was a loyal disciple.
It is clear that once his skepticism was allayed he never doubted our Lord again and spent the rest of his life evangelizing and ended up being martyred for his faith. He is the model of perseverance for overcoming the weaknesses that can be associated with doubt and to push forward with renewed faith. That is what we should be celebrating on his feast day. As a result, we should also be asking St. Thomas for his encouragement for us to overcome our doubts.