July 3 - Feast of St. Thomas

The apostle Thomas is best known for his stubborn refusal, without further empirical evidence, to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps because he is my patron saint, I have always been dismayed--and admittedly, defensive--about the moniker "Doubting Thomas." What follows is a playful midrash, a digging deeper into the text, in order to suggest another way of appreciating the story told in John 20:24-29. This story is so familiar that we can easily gloss over some interesting details. Notice that it begins (in verse 19) with the notice that the apostles were taking refuge behind locked doors. They feared the consequences of having been so closely associated with Jesus. Of course, the risen Lord then appeared--bestowing the gift of peace and commissioning them, empowered by the Spirit, to the work of reconciliation. Nevertheless, seven days later, these self-same apostles are still behind locked doors! What’s going on here? Other features rarely alluded to are these: What was it like for the ten apostles who witnessed Jesus’ first appearance to cohabit the same quarters as Thomas while he steadfastly refused, for a whole week (!), to believe their good news? And why wasn’t Thomas present that first night of the week? Where was he? The gospel of John offers a couple of clues about Thomas’s personality and character. When Jesus declared his intention to return to Judea after hearing news of Lazarus’s death, the apostles objected that it was dangerous to do so. Thomas, however, declared with great chutzpah, "Let us also go to die with him" (11:16). And when Jesus spoke in mysterious ways about returning to his Father and preparing a place for his followers, Thomas raised the question the others feared to ask: "Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?" (14:5). In sum, Thomas was a man who took initiative and showed courage, but who also needed things clearly spelled out. Returning to the room with the locked doors: Was Thomas gone that first night because he was looking for a way to move forward, to get on with their lives? Or, perhaps more practically, was he taking care of nitty gritty details such as gathering food? I’ve always imagined Thomas feeling indignant at the ten apostles cowering in fear, and that his resentment rose as he heard what to his ears was nonsense. Hadn’t the beloved disciple already borne witness to the excruciating final hours of Jesus’ life on the cross (19:35)? Thus, when Jesus appears a week later, he certainly wants Thomas to experience the power of the resurrection. Moreover, the risen Lord desires that Thomas understand that one of the principal ways that God brings new life to us is through the ministrations and words of others--even (and especially!) from those who might appear to us as weak and unworthy. Am I humble enough to receive good news from such emissaries? From those whom I tend to judge as weak? From my colleagues whose deficiencies I know so well? Thomas D. Stegman, S.J.
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