Feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle

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.

Our King and Savior now draws near;

O come, let us adore him.

“Those preparing weekday liturgies are encouraged to limit the number of commemorations, especially in Advent or Lent, in order that the spirit of the season be maintained” (ACNA Texts for Common Prayer II).

These are the calendar instructions in the Book of Common Prayer.  Translation:  in the season of Advent, do not fill the weekday services with so many saints’ days that you lose the spirit and themes of Advent itself.  Focus on the forest (the season), not on the individual trees (the days).

So, what is this spirit of Advent that the Book of Common Prayer deems so important?  What are the themes of Advent?

Advent heralds the changing of the ages; something old is passing away and something new is coming.  Change of this Advent magnitude isn’t easy.  Cultures clash.  The powerful do not relinquish dominance willingly.  The rich do not open their vaults and distribute their wealth readily.  Humans do not — and cannot — usher in utopia by their own efforts.  Advent heralds the in-breaking of God to accomplish these things, the coming of the Kingdom of God.  That is why Mary sang in the Magnificat:

He has shown the strength of his arm;

     he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has brought down the mighty from their thrones,

     and has exalted the humble and meek.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

     and the rich he has sent empty away.

None of this had yet happened when Mary sang, but she saw it coming, not in full, but in part:  an inauguration of that which would be complete only on the last, great day.  So, she waited with hope.  Advent heralds the action of God in the coming great reversal, in the turning of an upside down world right side up again.  And it calls us, like Mary, to sing and to wait and to hope.  That is the spirit of Advent:  a changing of the ages with coming judgment on the old world order — God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven — and a commitment to wait and watch and hope for this great in-breaking of God.

This is important.  This is our future and our hope.  The Kingdom of God in its fullness is still in our future, and Advent is the primary season in which this orientation toward the future takes theological center stage.  That orientation must not be lost, so the Book of Common Prayer instructs us to limit observance of saints’ days during the weekdays of Advent and to focus, instead, on these great Advent themes.

And yet, today, in the heart of Advent, we observe the feast day of St. Thomas — not as an optional observance, but as one required by the prayer book calendar.  Why St. Thomas?  Why in the middle of Advent?  We remember Thomas because he was one of the Twelve and because his story features in the Gospel story.  Why in the middle of Advent?  The answer to that question is more complicated.  In the Roman Catholic Church the feast of St. Thomas is observed on July 3.  In the Greek Orthodox Church, it is October 6.  Only in the Western churches, like ours in the Anglican Communion, is the feast day observed on December 21, in the midst of Advent.  I am not certain why, and my limited research hasn’t provided any explanation.  I would like to believe that we observe the feast of St. Thomas in the middle of Advent because his story is an incarnation of the themes of Advent.  His feast doesn’t detract from Advent; it puts flesh on the spirit of Advent.  Let me explain.

We rarely call Thomas just Thomas; it is almost always Doubting Thomas — that title coming from one isolated episode in his life.  We don’t typically treat others that harshly.  We don’t call Moses Murderer Moses, though he did kill at least one Egyptian.  We don’t call David Adulterer David, in spite of his sin against Bathsheba.  We don’t call Elijah Sulking Elijah, though he did whine to God about being the only righteous person left in Israel.  We don’t call Peter Traitor Peter, though he did deny the Lord not once, but three times.  We don’t call Paul Persecutor Paul, though he did ravage the church.  The only other person in Scripture named this harshly — at least the only other one I can think of — is Rahab:  never just Rahab, but always Rahab the Harlot.  And that is grossly unfair.  She was really Rahab the Faithful or Rahab the great-grandmother of King David, the ancestor of our Lord.  But no; unfairly, it is always Rahab the Harlot.  And, unfairly, it is always Doubting Thomas.  

Let’s read Thomas’s story again, with a bit more background this time.  Even though the ending of Mark’s Gospel is a bit controversial, I’ve selected it because it is a concise summary of events and Luke corroborates Mark’s summary.

Now when [Jesus] rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons.  She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept.  But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

After these things he appeared in another form to two of them [Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus], as they were walking into the country.  And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them (Mk 16:9-13, ESV throughout).

In each case, “they” signifies the Apostles.  In spite of two separate eyewitness accounts of the resurrection, the Apostles did not believe.

Now let’s pick up the story in John’s Gospel.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 21:19-23, emphasis added).

When did the disciples believe in the resurrection?  When they saw Jesus, specifically, when Jesus showed them his hands and his side:  not until.  And now, Thomas enters the picture.

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”  But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:24-25).

It is this encounter that changes the Apostle’s name from Thomas the Twin to Doubting Thomas.  But what really does Thomas ask for?  Only that same proof which the other disciples have already received:  an appearance of Jesus still bearing the marks of his crucifixion.  Thomas is no more a doubter than the rest of them were; they have simply seen proof that he has not.

Now, what has any of this to do with Advent?  The very next verse — not even all of it, but just the first sentence — makes the connection.

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them (John 20:26a).

Eight days later.  If Thomas really doubts the resurrection, if he firmly disbelieves the others’ story, in short, if he is really Doubting Thomas, then why is he still with them eight days later, risking his life with the other followers of the crucified Messiah, followers who had seen Jesus?  Call him Disappointed Thomas if you will:  fair enough.  Call him Disillusioned Thomas if you must:  a reasonable name.  Call him Discombobulated (Confused) Thomas if you want:  certainly true.  But don’t call him Doubting Thomas; that is unfair to him and to the story.

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them (John 20:26a).

There is the Advent story incarnate.  Thomas is waiting and watching and hoping for the in-breaking of God, for the coming — for the advent — of Jesus wondrously bearing his glorified wounds.  Thomas is waiting and watching and hoping for the turning of the ages, for the Kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven.  Thomas is waiting and watching and hoping that the Magnificat has really come true:  that God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; that he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the humble and meek; that he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away.  This is not Doubting Thomas; this is Advent Thomas.  Thomas should be the patron saint of Advent — the one who, in spite of disappointment and disillusionment and confusion hangs on in hope, waiting and watching for the Lord.

Advent calls us to wait and watch and hope for the coming of the Lord, and to do all this without having seen the risen Jesus, without having put our fingers in the marks of the nails and our hands in his wounded side.  It calls us to be not Doubting Thomas, but Advent Thomas.  And it is not always easy, because sometimes we find ourselves disappointed, disillusioned, and discombobulated.  It has, after all, been two thousands years of waiting.  Can we keep waiting and watching and hoping?  St. Peter recognized this problem in his own day.  What he wrote then, remains true:

This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved.  In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires.  They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming?  For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pe 3:1-4).

These are the true doubters; scoffers, Peter calls them.  And what does Peter tell us — not doubters, but those who are sometimes disappointed, disillusioned, and discombobulated?

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.  The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed (2 Pe 3:8-10).

This is an Advent message.  The coming of the Lord may seem delayed in human terms, but only for the sake of repentance, only so that many might live.  But the day is coming:  a day of sudden appearance, a day of the dissolution and renewal of creation, a day of judgment.  And what are we to do in the meantime?  How do we live in Advent.

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!  But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pe 3:11-13).

Eight days later, the disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them.  Two thousands years later, the disciples are inside again, and we are with them.  Thomas has taught us to wait.  As with Thomas, the end of our waiting will be the appearance of the Lord in power and great glory, the Lord come to judge the living and the dead:  the final Advent.  As we wait and watch and hope, we also live in holiness and godliness, “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.”  And, when we see him, we will, like Thomas, proclaim, “Our Lord and our God.”

Our King and Savior now draws near;

O come, let us adore him.  Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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