by David Romanik
Far from merely organizing the Church’s common life (i.e., telling us what to read on a given day of the year), the liturgical calendar frequently creates opportunities for meaningful theological reflection. In particular, the calendar can function as a vehicle for unexpected connections. One such connection occurs in the person of St. Thomas the Apostle, whose story is told every second Sunday of Easter, and whose feast day is just a few days before Christmas, on December 21. Apart from Jesus (and, one could argue, the Blessed Virgin Mary), Thomas is the only person who is recognized so prominently so close to the great feasts of the Church. This leads us to wonder what the reason for this connection might be. To put it more clearly: what is it about Thomas that helps us better understand the connection between the incarnation and the resurrection?
I’ve mentioned before that I think Thomas’s reputation throughout church history is not especially well-deserved. He is remembered as “the doubter,” the one who refuses to believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead unless he sees “the mark of the nails in Jesus’s hands.” While this is certainly a dimension of Thomas’s character, I do not think it is ultimately his primary motivation. Back in John 11, as Jesus is preparing to visit the grave of his friend Lazarus in Bethany, most of the disciples warn their master not to go, reminding him that the people had tried to kill him the last time he was in Judea. Thomas, by contrast, courageously pledges to face the danger with Jesus, announcing, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas, like Peter two chapters later, claims that his faithfulness and loyalty to Jesus will endure whatever threat he might face. Despite this assurance, however, Thomas abandons Jesus when the going gets tough. Moreover, apart from Peter, Thomas is the only disciple who abandoned Jesus in spite of explicitly promising he would not. One can only imagine the guilt he must have felt as he reflected on his faithlessness.
It is this guilt that would have shaped Thomas’s reaction when the other disciples announce that they had seen the Lord after Jesus was raised from the dead. Jesus has been raised, they tell their friend, and he came to share words of peace, reconciliation, hope, renewal, and love. Thomas refuses to believe it because he can’t comprehend the idea that Jesus would return to those who rejected him with anything other than words of retribution. Peace? There can be no peace for those who are so plagued by regret and shame. Thomas claims he won’t believe unless he sees the wounds that he and his companions had allowed to be inflicted; like most of us, he believes that there are some things that simply can’t be forgiven.
It is here that I believe that Thomas helps us understand the essential link between our celebrations of Easter and Christmas. Central to the doctrines of both the incarnation and the resurrection is the same fundamental assumption: that God is at peace with us. The risen Christ’s first words to his disciples are words of peace. Christ’s birth is announced to the shepherds with words of peace. Like Thomas, however, we struggle to believe that this promise of peace has any basis in reality. We are too aware of the state of the world, too aware of the pain experienced by the innocent, too aware of our own faithlessness to truly apprehend the peace that is offered in the person of Jesus Christ. Like Thomas, we struggle to believe that we can be redeemed. And yet, Thomas also reveals that God doesn’t wait for us to accept the peace God offers. As Paul writes, Christ died for us “while we were yet sinners,” long before we were ready to experience or even perceive the peace that Christ would bring.
Thomas helps us recognize that God’s gift of peace transcends all the uncertainty and evil the world has to offer. Our call is to embrace this gift and share it on Christmas, Easter, and throughout our lives of faith.