The Reredos at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue
Thoughts for the Low Mass on December 21, 2011, the feast day for St. Thomas the Apostle. The lectionary readings are Habakkuk 2:1-4 , Hebrews 10:35-11-1 , John 20:24-29 , and Psalm 126.
One of my favorite churches in New York City is the famous Episcopal church on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street named for St. Thomas the Apostle. When you go inside, the first thing you see is an enormous reredos over the High Altar. It’s made up of a multitude of saints, and just over the altar is a carving of St. Thomas with Jesus. One architectural description of the carving explains it as St. Thomas “kneeling before Christ, his doubt gone.
I’m not so sure about that.
I wonder if St. Thomas’s doubt ever truly left him. For me, anyway, the great power of St. Thomas’s witness is that he doubts, and the story of his doubt has been handed down through the ages. Thomas sometimes seems more theologically alert than the other disciples, asking the penetrating question, urging Jesus to explain himself.
The early church understood Thomas as the author of another Gospel. There is a collection of sayings called the Acts of Thomas, and there is an apocalypse of Thomas. Tradition has it that Thomas sailed to India and spread the Gospel there. After a long life of preaching and working with the poor, he was martyred in India, but Thomas’s body was taken to Edessa, where his relics were an important source of inspiration to the Syrian Church in the 4th Century. A father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, Thomas continues to inspire. It was not enough for Thomas to hear of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene.
It was not enough for him to hear of it from the two who were on the road to Emmaus. Thomas’s faith came more stubbornly, and had to take into consideration more information. His faith was different from theirs. What appears to others like doubt, indecision, even a lack of faith—for Thomas— simply was his faith. It was his way of faith: A way that was willing to struggle, to look for truth deeply, to weigh the evidence, and only then, to move forward.
St. Thomas not only stands as the father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, he also stands as a patron for those of us whose faith does not always come easily. Thomas stands with those of us whose faith includes a measure of doubt, a bit of suspicion, and maybe even a little cynicism. It’s ok to doubt. It’s ok to wonder. It’s ok even to be a little suspicious—especially since for Thomas (and countless others) suspicion leads to sainthood.
Especially at this time of year, may we be honest with out doubts and honest with our belief, knowing that wherever we may be, God loves us and wants to come to us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.