A headstrong and skeptical man encounters his God


People of the Book – St. Thomas

Although infrequently mentioned in the synoptic Gospels, Thomas called ‘Didymus’ (Greek for “the twin”) plays an especially memorable role in John’s narrative of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. We do not know with certainty to which, if any, of the other disciples Thomas was a sibling. But John records his uniquely headstrong and skeptical personality in a number of places. First, when Jesus travels to the tomb of Lazarus, Thomas, sensing the trouble which is about to bubble over with the Temple aristocracy, exclaims to the others “Let us accompany him, that we too may die with him.” Such brash assertions, along with Peter’s profession that “Even if I were to have to die with you, I will never deny you” (Mt 26:35), are obviously not to survive the ultimate test at Golgotha, when both abandon him. Yet, after Pentecost strengthens their hearts, they will eventually accompany the Lord on this bruising path of witness (“martyrum”).

Second, we see Thomas once again asserting his rather practical approach to matters of faith at the Last Supper. When Jesus tells his disciples he is going to prepare a place for them and that they know the way, Thomas, either perceiving an apparent geographic oversight or thinking Jesus didn’t quite remember the finer details of this grand scheme, boldly and somewhat incredulously interjects: “Lord, we do not even know where you are going, how can we possibly know the way?” To which Jesus replies to Thomas, and through him to us, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on you do know him, and have seen him.”

Most famously, Thomas (henceforth forever accused of “doubting”) refuses to accept his friends’ word that they have encountered the Risen Christ after the crucifixion: “Unless I put my hands in the place of the nails and thrust them into his side, I will not believe.” Eight days later, Jesus appears and tells Thomas to do just that. Interestingly the Gospel does not make clear whether Thomas takes him up on this offer. We know only the reverberating words of Thomas’ reply, ones I personally reiterate in my heart every time I participate in the Eucharistic liturgy: “My Lord and my God.”

Such kerygmatic claims as these, along with “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”(Mt 16:16), “Jesus is Lord”(Rom 10:9), and “I believe, help my unbelief”(Mk 9:24) are in essence the concise and distilled profession of the entire creed of our faith, which as the baptism ritual makes clear is the faith of the church which we are proud to profess. They allow a contemporary Christian, one fearlessly willing to take into account the philosophical critiques of Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, and those of the secular world at large, to answer with a committed, informed, and adult faith the question posed to each of us in every moment of our lives: “Who do you say that I am?”

Thomas answered this query with his own apostolic life after the resurrection. Tradition holds that Thomas traveled first to Syria and Persia, and then on to India to proclaim the good news that Jesus was the incarnate Word of God. The modern Indian communities of the Syro-Malabar Catholic and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches (both in full communion with the pope and thus, while exceedingly different in dress, liturgy, and artwork, as catholic as the Roman church) trace their heritage to Thomas in the years immediately following Christ’s ascension.

Pope Benedict reminds us “Thomas’ case is important to us for at least three reasons: first, because it comforts us in our insecurity; second, because it shows us that every doubt can lead to an outcome brighter than any uncertainty; and, lastly, because the words that Jesus addressed to him remind us of the true meaning of mature faith and encourage us to persevere, despite the difficulty, along our journey of adhesion to him.”

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.