has become a much-used phrase in many languages. It recalls the apostle's disbelief on hearing that Jesus was risen from the dead and his combative desire for proof. Well, he got it! Patrick Duffy explores some perspectives on this endearing apostle.
A literary "fall guy"
In John's gospel, Thomas (called the Twin) appears as a mildly combative character with a wry sense of humour. When Jesus explains that Lazarus is dead, and then goes on to say, "Let us go to him", Thomas exclaims, "Let us all go with the Teacher so that we may die with him!" (Jn 11:16).
'The place where I am going'
Again, during the discourse at the Last Supper, when Jesus says, "You know the way that leads to the place where I am going," Thomas objects, "Lord, we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way to get there?" Jesus brings the discourse to a new level when he says: "I am the way, the truth and the light" (Jn 14:4-6). In each of these incidents Thomas is used by the evangelist as a literary "fall guy" who ironically brings about a fuller understanding of who Jesus really is.
But St. Thomas is best known for this role in verifying the resurrection of his Master. His resistence to believing that the other apostles had seen their risen Lord on the first Easter Sunday merited for him the title of "doubting Thomas". Eight days later, on Christ's second apparition, Thomas was gently rebuked for his scepticism and furnished with the evidence he had demanded - seeing in Christ's hands the point of the nails and putting his fingers in the place of the nails and his hand into His side.
'My Lord and My God!'
At this, St. Thomas became convinced of the truth of the Resurrection and exclaimed: 'My Lord and My God,' thus making a public profession of faith in the divinity of Jesus. St. Thomas is also mentioned as being present at another resurrection appearance of Jesus - at Lake Tiberias when a miraculous catch of fish occurred. This is what we know about St. Thomas from the New Testament.
Caravaggio's masterly oil on canvas painting of the drama of the disbelief of St Thomas, painted in 1600, is in the Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome (see image). This depiction of Thomas is physically quite shocking and the scene must have touched Caravaggio deeply. It pushes curiosity to its limits. Four heads unite in the quest for truth before Thomas can say, 'My Lord and my God.' Christ's head is largely in shadow, as He is the person who is the least knowable. He also has a serene beauty that is lacking in the frowning faces of the apostles. The shocking image of the finger exploring the depths of the lance wound is softened slightly by the guiding hand of Christ, which seems to push Thomas’ finger deep into the wound. It is the supreme proof that Jesus is God.
Association with India
Tradition holds that when the apostles scattered after Pentecost, Thomas went to evangelise the Parthians, Medes, and Persians (Eusebius) and that he ultimately reached India, bringing the faith to the Malabar coast, which still boasts a large native population calling themselves "Christians of St. Thomas." Marco Polo reported that both Christians and Saracens went on pilgrimage to his tomb and when the Portuguese first landed in India in 1498 they found established Christian communities there.
Three apocryphal (that is non-canonical) gospels use the name of Thomas. The Acts of Thomas tell stories about his going to India and about his life there. The Gospel of Thomas has some saying of Jesus as well as miracles. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas tells of some miracles worked by Jesus as a child.
Thomas is patron of blind people, probably because of his own spiritual blindness. A story from the Acts of Thomas that he built a palace for a local king in India led to his being named patron of builders, of architects and quantity surveyors.
Was he called "The Twin" because he had two sides to his personality - a bit like you and me? Fr John Murray PP gives us some insights into the personality of the one we also know as "the doubter".
It's hard to believe, sometimes. When the tsunami hit the shores of Asia on 26 December 2004, there were some who said, 'If God does exist, then he's cruel'. A mudslide in the Philippines, a ship sinking off the coast of Egypt, a tragic war in Darfur and endless suicide bombs in Iraq: the list goes on. Why do the good suffer and the bad seem to prosper? Does God care? And if he does care, is he powerless to do anything?
Those big questions are also mirrored in the personal tragedies of many people: the father and mother watching their little daughter die of leukaemia; the parents burying their teenage son who has taken his own life; the girl who went out with friends for the night and can't remember why she ended up in a field with her clothes torn.
Our questions can go on and on. Is there really an 'intelligent design' behind this vast universe? Is Jesus really present in that tiny host? Where is my grandmother who passed away a month ago? Everyone of us in life asks the question 'why?' many times, and sometimes we don't always have ready answers.
That is why I like Thomas, the saint who doubted and yet found Jesus at the end of his doubt. The gospels tell us that Thomas was called 'The Twin' and, since there is no record of a brother or sister, I like to think that this was a nickname given him by the other apostles when perhaps they were joking with each other.
Two sides to him
Just as James and John were nicknamed Boanerges
or 'the Sons of Thunder' - probably after they had asked the Lord if they could call down fire on a village which had refused them entry and just as, later, Barnabas would be called 'The Encourager' (Acts 4:36), so Thomas was Didymus
or 'The Twin', the one who, perhaps, had two sides to his personality a bit like you and me at times!
Thomas could be wild and extravagant and full of faith, as he was when he wanted to go and die with Jesus, as Jesus was setting off to help his friend, Lazarus. He was also the one who wondered where on earth they were going when Jesus spoke about his journey: 'Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?' His question evoked from the Lord this wonderful reply: 'I am the Way, the Truth and the Life' (Jn.14:5-6).
Most of all, however, Thomas is associated with a certain episode after the resurrection, when Jesus returned to the Upper Room and Thomas was not there. One wonders at his absence. Why was he not there? Had he got cold feet? Was he out getting food for the others? Who knows?
[caption id="attachment_47907" align="alignright" width="277"]
Jesus showing St Thomas his wounds ...Rembrandt[/caption]
My Lord and My God
The impetuous disciple could not believe the others when they told him that Jesus had been with them: 'Unless I see the holes that the nails made... and can put my finger into the holes, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe' (In.20.25). Ever the pragmatic one, he demanded proof.
These things did Thomas hold for real: the warmth of blood, the chill of steel, the grain of wood, the heft of stone, the last frail twitch of blood and bone. When Jesus returned, he invited Thomas to experience for himself both passion and resurrection: 'Put your hands here... doubt no longer, but believe'. His fellow apostle wrote that Thomas could only gasp, 'My Lord and my God!' (Jn.20:27-28).
His brittle certainties denied,
That one could live when one had died,
Until his fingers read like Braille
The markings of the spear and nail.
A writer once penned these words: 'I looked for God, and could not find him; I looked for my soul, and could not find it; I looked for my brother, and found all three'. Mother Teresa would find Christ in the 'distressing disguise of the poor'. 'During the day, we continue to see him hidden beneath the torn bodies of the poor,' she would say. Father Damien would find him in the lepers of Molokai, and they knew the Lord better the morning Damien began Mass by saying, 'We lepers'. It is in and with the suffering Christ that we often meet his risen presence.
Learning by doing
When Dominique Lapierre, the novelist and writer of the The City of God
- made into a film later visited Calcutta, he entered the house where Mother Teresa was working. He approached her as she was feeding a man who was scarcely alive. He greeted her, but instead of stopping what she was doing, she gave him the bowl, and told him to continue feeding the poor man, as she moved to another person. Later, she returned to allow him to interview her. Lapierre later claimed that that one moment taught him to recognize the suffering and the risen Christ together.
Fishers of Men
There is one last reference to Thomas in the gospel of John. It is in one of the post-resurrection accounts. Jesus appears at the shore, and Thomas is with them. Now there is no doubt. He tells them to cast out into the lake: it is reminiscent of the earlier occasion when Peter is given his original mandate to become a 'fisher of men'. The result is the same in this case, too: a miraculous catch of fish. And the message is also the same: to become fishers of men. Thomas was to take up this challenge after the Lord had returned to the Father.
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The Christians in south west India called Thomas Christians due to the missionary efforts of Saint Thomas. St. Thomas the Apostles Tomb Chennai Madras[/caption]
Association with India
Tradition says that, following the dispersal of the apostles after Pentecost, Thomas went to evangelize the Parthians and Persians. Ultimately, the story goes, he reached India, and carried the faith to the Malabar coast. There are still Christians there who trace their faith back to Thomas, one of the oldest Christian traditions in the history of the Church, four hundred years before Patrick came to Irish shores.
Thomas would end his life speared to death for the Lord. Once, he had denied him and was full of doubts, but in his martyrdom he witnessed in the most glorious way a disciple could.
May we, O God, by grace believe
And, in believing, still receive
The Christ who held his raw palms out,
And beckoned Thomas from his doubt.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (July 2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.