December 21: Saint Thomas the Apostle

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About this commemoration

The Gospel according to John records several incidents in which Thomas appears, and from them we are able to gain some impression of the sort of man he was. When Jesus insisted on going to Judea, to visit his friends at Bethany, Thomas boldly declared, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). At the Last Supper, he interrupted our Lord’s discourse with the question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (John 14:5).

And after Christ’s resurrection, Thomas would not accept the account of the other apostles and the women, until Jesus appeared before him, showing him his wounds. This drew from him the first explicit acknowledgment of Christ’s Godhead, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

Thomas appears to have been a thoughtful if rather literal-minded man, inclined to scepticism; but he was a staunch friend when his loyalty was once given. The expression “Doubting Thomas,” which has become established in English usage, is not entirely fair to Thomas. He did not refuse belief: he wanted to believe, but did not dare, without further evidence. Because of his goodwill, Jesus gave him a sign, though Jesus had refused a sign to the Pharisees. His Lord’s rebuke was well deserved: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29). The sign did not create faith; it merely released the faith which was in Thomas already.

According to an early tradition mentioned by Eusebius and others, Thomas evangelized the Parthians. Syrian Christians of Malabar, India, who call themselves the Mar Thoma Church, cherish a tradition that Thomas brought the Gospel to India. Several apocryphal writings have been attributed to him, the most prominent and interesting being the “Gospel of Thomas.” Thomas’ honest questioning and doubt, and Jesus’ assuring response to him, have given many modern Christians courage to persist in faith, even when they are still doubting and questioning.

Collects

I Everliving God, who didst strengthen thine apostle Thomas with sure and certain faith in thy Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in thy sight; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

II Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection:
Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be
found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for
ever. Amen.

Lessons

Habakkuk 2:1–4

Hebrews 10:35–11:1

John 20:24–29

Psalm

126

Preface of Apostles

Text from Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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15 Responses to December 21: Saint Thomas the Apostle

  1. Derek Michaud says:

    “Rebuke” seems a bit harsh in light of the qualification offered to the old “Doubting Thomas” line. Isn’t the passage in question addressed (given the larger context) to the readers of John’s Gospel who do not have the benefit of first hand encounter and must rely on the witness of the text and the Christian community?

    The collects too seem to fall back into the old “Doubting Thomas” idea by apparently setting “sure faith” at odds with honest doubt. Isn’t doubt an aspect of a vibrant, serious, faith? Like the final sentence says, “Thomas’ honest questioning and doubt, and Jesus’ assuring response to him, have given many modern Christians courage to persist in faith, even when they are still doubting and questioning.” [But I’d suggest dropping “modern” here – it’s not like doubts about the resurrection etc. were invented recently!]

    • Michael Hartney says:

      Except that changing the collect requires a revision of the BCP 79. Red Letter days are in the Prayer Book and they are different than the others in HWHM. I bet we can tinker with the bio, but the lections and the collect I think are what they are.

    • John LaVoe says:

      Sadly ironic, too, that a statement in the form of a blessing (and, I expect, fully intended as a blessing) is interpreted as a rebuke. (” His Lord’s rebuke was well deserved: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe’ (John 20:29).”)

      In addition to the positive role of honest questioning as part of a living faith, it strikes me that trust between Jesus and Thomas is another a sub-text. Thomas trusted Jesus sufficiently to voice what he (Thomas) wondered about, and Jesus trusted Thomas sufficiently to respond in a respectful way.

    • Sarah V. Lewis says:

      For Thomas to be included as “one of the Twelve” who were with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, etc., he would need to be able to witness all that the other eleven had seen. His statement is not one of a doubter, rather of one eager to be fully included as an Apostle of the Risen Christ. Did contemporaries of Thomas cast doubt on his apostolic credentials & so necessitate the inclusion of this episode in the Gospel?

  2. As someone who was born on this feast day and named after this apostle…I also have always felt that Thomas got a bump rap with the ‘Doubting Thomas’ appellation. To me Thomas exemplifies the educated modern man, who seeks evidence, asks questions, pulls together facts, and acts boldly and decisively once they’re gathered. As a Business instructor in a College, I can identify with much of Thomas’ approach…and I have to smile, as yesterday a student came into my office with what he thought was a great business idea…and the first words out of my mouth were, “prove it to me!’

  3. Celinda Scott says:

    I very much appreciated Andrea Bardelmeier’s bio of St. Thomas–lots of helpful detail, including the tradition that St. Thomas “brought the gospel to India.” A priest in the Thomas church co-taught an excellent course i took on the New Testament when we lived in Kentucky–until then, I had not heard of the tradition that the saint brought the gospel to India. I also had not heard of Kerala, the west coast of India where there are many Christians (and I see from Wikipedia that Malabar is in the northern part of Kerala). My professor came from there. –We have a neighbor here in Indiana, PA, also from Kerala and brought up as an Anglican. However, he does not believe in the tradition that St. Thomas brought the gospel there–I think the tradition is refuted by a number of scholars, and some (especially Muslims) say the story was an invention by Christians to make people from India think that the Christian tradition there was older than it was; they say Christianity didn’t come to India until the Portuguese explorers and missionaries did. –I think Andrea handled this very well in the hagiography; she called the story a “tradition,” and that is true and I think important.

    • Michael Hartney says:

      Andrea did not write this bio. This is the bio that has appeared in every edition of Lesser Feasts and Fasts since bios were added to the volume many triennials ago..

    • Andrea Bardelmeier says:

      Indeed, I am not the author of this commemoration Celinda. A group of us are posting these commemorations each month.

  4. The St. Thomas tradition in India goes back at least to the 4th Century, possibly the third, and is attested to in many Syriac and other eastern writings. While we may never know the veracity of the tradition until we get to the other side…the idea that it was a story invented by the Portuguese is most certainly a myth, as ancient writings attest to Thomas in India over a thousand years before the Portuguese arrived.

  5. Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    This discussion of Thomas in India suggests that some traditions, along with facts, about those we honor here, have a place in HWHM. I suggest, for example, the traditions linking Nicholas to gift-giving. Yes, when we can, we should be historically accurate, even if that, in the case of the Crusades, does not redound to our credit. But that does not preclude tradition. Let’s not put HWHM through Mr. Gradgrind’s school!

  6. Celinda Scott says:

    Michael–thanks for the correction about the bio author. I didn’t check my LFF copies, just assumed since it says “by Andrea Bardelmeier” after the feast date that that’s what the “by” meant. I see that the collects were in the 1980, 1997 , and 2006 LFFs, so she would not have written them either. I imagine we were told what the byline refers to at the start of the SCLM blog, but I don’t remember what it was. –Thanks to Thuathal Thomas Fitzsimmons for the scholarly support for the Thomas tradition!

    • Michael Hartney says:

      Actually the collects for the Red Letter days are the same as they are in the Book of Common Prayer 1979. We have had several SCLM persons in charge of posting the commemorations. It seems to me that they change every month.

  7. Leonel L. Mitchell says:

    Since Thomas is a red letter day ferom the BCP, we’re stuck with him, but when (and if) we get around to revising the Prayer book, perhaps we should follow the lead of t C of E and thwe RCs who have moved him to July 7.

  8. Steve Lusk says:

    A reference to the Acts of Thomas would be in order, too. It’s been known for far longer than the Gospel. The tradition reflected in that work (that Jesus sold Thomas into slavery when all other means had failed to persuade the apostle to go to India) seems to have inspired Absalom Jones (Feb 13) and his congregation to adopt Thomas as the patron of their new church in 1794.

  9. Philip Wainwright says:

    ‘Several apocryphal writings have been attributed to him, the most prominent and interesting being the “Gospel of Thomas.” ‘—I think this sentence should be omitted, as being beside the point. The Gospel of Thomas is indeed interesting, but mostly because it might just possibly be a witness to one or two sayings of Jesus that haven’t survived in other documents. I don’t remember anyone arguing that it gives us new information about Thomas, apart from further associating his name with gnostic texts, and this is not the context in which to explore that.

    The role of the Acts of Thomas in the work of Absalom Jones could be considered when we get to his bio.

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