Updated: May 3
If Pascha is the climax of the entire ecclesiastical year, then the first Sunday after Pascha, which the Church appropriately calls “New Sunday”, should rightly be considered as “the first after the one”, namely higher then all other Sundays of the year.
Consequently, it was only natural that on this prominent and great, day the Church should have appointed the celebration of the memory of a Saint with appropriate spiritual splendour. Thus, we see that on this Sunday, we celebrate the memory of the Apostle Thomas and it is for this reason that our people know it as “Sunday of Saint Thomas”. Yet, this Apostle seems to be the most defamed man of God in popular piety. Faithlessness was, more than any other sin, the accusation that was dreaded even by the Fathers of the Desert. St Peter, who at a moment of human weakness denied Christ, was not characterised ~ faithless or traitor. On the contrary, St Thomas without having been really faithless, was called “the disbelieving Thomas” and became for all Christian time the symbol of disbelief and of doubt par excellence. It is obvious that such characterisations are incompatible with the Apostle and Saint. What happens, then? Surely, something must be wrong with the whole question. Something must be missing in the story that does not allow us to see the sequence in this curious subject.
To be able to see the matter in its perspective and to understand this contradictory impression in the Christian world, we must examine more carefully, using as our basis the appropriate text of the Gospel (John 20:19-29), which was precisely the behaviour of St Thomas towards the Risen Lord, and how Christ Himself characterised such behaviour.
We are reminded, therefore, that while the disciples “were gathered for the fear of the Jews”, Jesus came and stood in their midst. Before showing “His hands and His side” so that they might be persuaded that He is precisely Himself who was crucified and not some ghost, He said to them “peace be unto you”. It is in these two words that the key lies for the solution of the problem that concerns us. Peace was the indispensable presupposition and the only power that would remove the panic and confusion from the scenes of the passion, and that would enable the Disciples to accept without any doubt the miracle of the Resurrection. It is for this reason that Christ projects His peace before extending His hands and His side as proof.
Thus, it was a natural consequence that “the disciple rejoiced having seen the Lord”. However, Thomas was absent from this first meeting. By hearing from the other Disciples “we had seen the Lord” he could not remove fear and confusion from his soul. In addition, since he wanted to be honest both with himself and with his Teacher, in order to confess Him not simply with his lips, he made direct experience of his meeting with the Risen Lord a condition of his belief. Thus, “after eight days” when the Disciples were again assembled, “and Thomas was with them”, Jesus appeared again in their midst and followed precisely the same order or gestures and words. He begins again by saying “peace be unto you”, so that He may also free Thomas’ hard heart. And immediately afterwards He tells him “bring here your finger and see my hands and bring your hand and place it in my side and do not become disbelieving but believing”.
Now, we must here take note of a series off substantial details:
1. Although St Thomas is invited to touch Christ, he does not dare to do so. Perhaps it would be correct to say that it is no longer necessary to do so. He has received peace and now free from his fears he is able to see and to believe.
2. In calling St Thomas to touch Him, Christ does not tell him “do not be disbelieving” but “do not become disbelieving”, which means that He only safeguards him from a possible not an already existing disbelief.
3. When Christ concludes the dialogue with the stirring statement “you have believed -because you have seen me – blessed are they that have not seen me and yet believed”, we must admit that He neither accuses nor reprimands Thomas that he believed only after seeing. In any case, even the other Disciples rejoiced only after having seen the Lord, as was already mentioned. Yet, with this beatitude the Lord wants to remind His Disciples that man has received from God a multitude of other faculties and feelings, not only the eyes! If already the Ancients knew how deceiving and unreliable witnesses “the eyes and the ears” are for mortal people, then the God-man had all the more right to remind the priority of these deeper roots man has in order to perceive truth. It is for this reason that he considers those who trust these deeper roots to be blessed, without condemning in any way those who use the five senses, which again God gave to man.
4. It is characteristic that St Thomas did not satisfy himself simply by rejoicing when he saw the Risen Lord, as did the other disciples. His passion and sincerity made him seek to plunge himself with hands and fingers into the open wounds of Christ so that he might in some way feel Him again “flesh to flesh”. And, it is his exuberant nature that leads him to exclaim the incomparable confession “My Lord and My God” – a confession that none other of the eye witnesses of the resurrection was able to make, not even the most tender and expressive women who first saw the Lord.
5. We must also note that the confession of St Thomas was not merely a general and irresponsible recognition of the Divinity of Christ, but the personal affirmation and unconditional dedication of the entire existence of the Disciple to the Teacher who vanquished death. Such total surrender to the ocean of divine lordship is surely expressed by the pronoun “My” to the Risen Christ.
After all the above, it becomes clear that St Thomas (who during the three official years of the earthly life of the God-Man did not stand out at all among other Disciples, such as St Peter, St James and St John) is now particularly projected in the eyes of all faithful and of history, because of the Resurrection of Christ and his behaviour towards it. Yet, he is not projected negatively, as one would believe from a superficial appreciation of the events, but positively. He now stands out to a degree that is not merely and absolutely equal with the other Disciples (since he did not need anything more than the others needed in order to believe), but to the degree that he became, with his fiery and unique confession, in a way “the highest bidder” of the miracle of the Resurrection. The Church, therefore, rightfully honours him as Apostle and Saint, and rightfully has appointed the celebration of his memory on such a prominent Sunday of the entire year.
It remains now to answer a final question. How, in view of all these positive and even doxological points, popular piety has dared to call an Apostle of such importance and fiery confession “disbelieving Thomas”? In the first instance, it is necessary to state that popular piety (which expresses spontaneously and unpretentiously the deeper collective memory and conscience of the one people of God), could not possibly result in such a blatant error and injustice. We must rather suppose that this unwavering faith and devotion of popular piety to the person of the God-Man could not endure a trace of reservation, even for a moment, in all that concerns the divinity and uniqueness of the fife of the God-Man (both in its entirety or in its particular details). It is precisely for this reason that popular piety hastens to express such sensitivity with an adjective which, no matter how it “exposes” the Apostle phenomenally, does not prevent in the least rendering him throughout the ages the due official honour in the worship of the Church.
Archbishop Stylianos of Australia | Source
From Voice of Orthodoxy, v. 11(5), May 1990