The Gospel according to John records several incidents in which the apostle Thomas appears, and from them we are able to gain some impression of the sort of man he was. When Jesus insisted on going to Judea, to visit his friends at Bethany, Thomas boldly declared, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). At the Last Supper, he interrupted our Lord’s discourse with the question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). After Christ’s resurrection, Thomas would not accept the account of the other apostles and the women, until Jesus appeared before him, showing him his wounds. This drew from him the first explicit acknowledgment of Jesus’ deity, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
Thomas appears to have been a thoughtful if rather literal-minded man, inclined to skepticism; but he was a staunch friend when his loyalty was once given. The expression “Doubting Thomas”, which has become established in English usage, is not fair to Thomas. He did not refuse belief. He wanted to believe, but he wanted to be certain that what the others had seen was not simply an apparition or a vision, that the one whom they had seen was actually the same crucified Jesus, that God had actually raised him from the dead. Thomas serves as a witness to the bodily resurrection of the Lord in a Gospel that bears witness to the Word made flesh. For this reason, Jesus gave him a sign, though Jesus had refused a sign to the Pharisees. And yet, the Lord’s rebuke: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29), demonstrates that the sign itself does not create faith, that faith would come by the hearing of the word of those who bore witness to the crucified and risen Jesus as Lord and Messiah.
An early tradition noted by the fourth century bishop and historian Eusebius and others tells of Thomas’ evangelization of the Persians and of his missionary travels in India. The third century Acts of Thomas tell that he entered India as a carpenter (hence his being traditionally depicted with a carpenter’s square and rule), preached the Gospel, performed miracles, and died a martyr at Mylapore near Madras. One of the greatest of the early basilicas (fourth century) was the Church of St Thomas at Edessa, Syria, and his body is said to have been buried there, though the stories of his work in India claim his burial at St Thomas Mount near Madras.
It is possible, though modern scholars think it unlikely, that Thomas reached India. The “Christians of St Thomas”, who live along the Malabar coast of southern India and are gathered into several different Churches of Syriac origin (including the Mar Thoma Church, in communion with the Churches of the Anglican Communion), claim spiritual descent from Thomas the Apostle. What is not disputed is that they were in India at least a thousand years prior to the arrival of European missionaries in the sixteenth century.
The Eastern Churches have commemorated St Thomas since the sixth century, and the Roman observance dates from the ninth century. His feast day in the East is October 6, and the Roman Catholic Church has moved his commemoration out of Advent to July 3, the date of his commemoration in the Syrian Church.
adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
and The New Book of Festivals & Commemorations (Philip Pfatteicher, Fortress Press 2008)
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.
I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.
And the Lord answered me:
“Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so he may run who reads it.
For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.
“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
Then they said among the nations, *
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.
Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For,
“Yet a little while,
and the coming one will come and will not delay;
but my righteous one shall live by faith,
and if he shrinks back,
my soul has no pleasure in him.”
But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
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.”
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
The scripture texts for the Lesson, Epistle, and Gospel are taken from the English Standard Version Bible. The Collect and Psalm are taken from the Book of Common Prayer (1979).
The icon of Saint Thomas is taken from the website of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery.
Because December 21 falls on a Sunday this year, the feast of St Thomas the Apostle is transferred to the nearest open day thereafter.