21 Dec Saint Thomas, Apostle, Martyr
Today is the feast day of Saint Thomas. Ora pro nobis.
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
Saint Thomas was a fisherman, born in Galilee. The divine Saviour received him among His Apostles, to announce His Gospel to the world, and to convert mankind. From the time that he was chosen to so high an office, Thomas followed his beloved Master everywhere, and feared no danger. One day, when Jesus spoke of going to Judaea, to awaken Lazarus from the dead, some of His disciples opposed Him, saying: “Rabbi, the Jews but now sought to stone Thee, and goest Thou thither again?” They probably feared that they would have to suffer with Him. Thomas, however, more courageous than the others, said: “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” By these words the Apostle manifested that no fear of death would separate him from Christ; and that, rather than leave Him, he would die with Him. It is true that later, with other disciples, he left Him on the Mount of Olives, when He was taken prisoner by the Jews; but he returned soon, and joined the rest of the Apostles.
On the day of His resurrection, Christ appeared to them. Thomas, however, was not with them. When they told him afterwards, that they had seen the Lord, he doubted, and said: “Except I shall see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” By this, Thomas meant that he did not believe the resurrection of the Lord, although he had several times heard from the lips of Jesus, not only a prophecy of His sufferings and death, but also of His resurrection; and although the Apostles and several pious women had repeatedly assured him that they had seen the risen Lord. The Holy Fathers say that Christ permitted this unbelief in Thomas, not only that from it we might learn our own weakness, but also that all who believe in Him might be so much better instructed in the mystery of His resurrection, and strengthened in their belief in it. Hence, St. Gregory writes: “The unbelief of Thomas has been more useful to our belief than the belief of the other disciples of the Lord, who, without hesitation, received the news of His resurrection,” because the unbelief of Thomas gave occasion for new proofs of the resurrection of Christ.
The eighth day after that event, Christ came into the hall where Thomas was with the other Apostles, and greeted them with the words: “Peace be unto you.” Then, turning to Thomas, He said: “Put in thy finger hither, and see my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and put it into my side; and be not faithless, but believing.” What Thomas must have felt at these words, and at seeing his risen Saviour, each one may picture to himself. He saw himself suddenly convinced, not only of the resurrection, but also of the omniscience of his dear Master. With shame and fear at the remembrance of his fault, but also with love and confidence at the thought of the meekness of the Saviour, he touched, with deep veneration, the holy wounds, and exclaimed: “My Lord and my God!” In these few words he repented of his unbelief, and at the same time made a confession of his faith, in presence of those whom he had scandalized by his obstinacy. He remained until his end, constant in his belief; and, after the descent of the Holy Ghost, announced, not only the glorious resurrection of the Lord, but also the other mysteries and articles of the faith.
St. Thomas passed some time in Judaea, preaching the Gospel, and then went into distant countries, inhabited by savage races, as Parthia, Media, Persia, Hyrcania, and came, at last, to India. In all he preached the Gospel of the Lord, notwithstanding the manifold difficulties which the Evil One placed in his way, through the enemies of the faith, and the numerous persecutions which he everywhere endured. How many thousand souls this holy Apostle converted to Christ is known only to Him from whom nothing is hid. The many miracles which he almost daily performed, persuaded the people that the faith which he preached was truly divine: hence his success with the most embittered pagans. He made the largest number of converts in India. This immense territory he traversed in every direction, and established Christianity in it so firmly, that traces of it were found there in the sixteenth century, fifteen hundred years after his death. Even in China, indubitable signs of it were discovered. He erected many churches, and placed Christian teachers in them, that the faith he had personally preached during his life might be preserved after his death.
At the building of the church at Meliapor, one of the chief cities of India, a wonderful event took place. The sea had cast ashore a very large tree, which the king desired to make use of for the palace he was just erecting. But neither men nor many elephants could move the tree. The holy Apostle, full of trust in the Almighty, offered to draw the immense burden all alone, if the king would make him a present of it for the Christian church he was about to build. The king consented, and St. Thomas, loosening his girdle, tied the end of it to one branch of the tree, made the sign of the Cross, and drew the tree away from the place where it was lying. All present were greatly astonished at this miracle, and many were converted, and assisted the Apostle in building the church. In this church the Saint erected a cross of stone, which, it is said, is still to be seen at this day. Upon this cross he engraved the following words: “When the sea will have reached this spot, men will come from Europe to propagate the faith which I began to preach.” The sea was, at that time, far off, but at the time when St. Francis Xavier landed there, it had reached the cross, and the prophecy was fulfilled.
The idolatrous priests who could not contradict the faith which St. Thomas preached, and which he verified by so many miracles, were enraged at his success, as they lost considerably in temporal goods by the conversions that took place. They therefore endeavored to arouse the king’s wrath against him, or to make away with him in some other manner. Some write that they persuaded the king to pronounce his death-sentence, and that he was shot dead with arrows. Others relate that the Brahmins themselves took the life of the holy Apostle. They had ascertained that the Saint went every day, towards evening, to a cross which he himself had erected, and that he remained there a long time in prayer. This gave them a favorable opportunity to vent their wrath upon him. They came together silently to the place where, on bended knees, the Saint was saying his prayers. One of them thrust a lance into him so violently that he sank upon the ground; after which, the others continued to beat him and to trample on him until all signs of life ceased.
When St. Francis Xavier came to India, the signs of blood were still to be seen on the cross where this murderous deed was committed; and more than once drops of blood appeared on this cross during the celebration of Mass, when crowds of people were present. St. Xavier, shortly after his arrival in India, went to the tomb of St. Thomas, and passed many days and nights there in prayer. He begged God fervently to bestow upon him the Spirit and zeal of this holy Apostle, that he might be able to restore the Christian faith which St. Thomas had preached there, but which had gradually been entirely exterminated. Before undertaking any important work, he went, if possible, to the tomb of St. Thomas; and when this was impossible, he invoked the holy Apostle’s intercession, and endeavored to follow his example in all things. (1)
from the Liturgical Year, 1870
This is the last Feast the Church keeps before the great one of the Nativity of her Lord and Spouse. She interrupts the Greater Ferias in order to pay her tribute of honour to Thomas, the Apostle of Christ, whose glorious martyrdom has consecrated this twenty-first day of December, and has procured for the Christian people a powerful patron, that will introduce them to the divine Babe of Bethlehem. To none of the Apostles could this day have been so fittingly assigned as to St. Thomas. It was St. Thomas whom we needed; St. Thomas, whose festal patronage would aid us to believe and hope in that God whom we see not, and who comes to us in silence and humility in order to try our Faith. St. Thomas was once guilty of doubting, when he ought to have believed; and only learnt the necessity of Faith by the sad experience of incredulity: he comes then most appropriately to defend us, by the power of his example and prayers, against the temptations which proud human reason might excite within us. Let us pray to him with confidence. In that heaven of Light and Vision, where his repentance and love have placed him, he will intercede for us, and gain for us that docility of mind and heart, which will enable us to see and recognise Him, who is the Expected of Nations, and who, though the King of the world, will give no other signs of His majesty, than the swaddling-clothes and tears of a Babe. (1)
This exhausts all our certain knowledge regarding the Apostle but his name is the starting point of a considerable apocryphal literature, and there are also certain historical data which suggest that some of this apocryphal material may contains germs of truth. The principal document concerning him is the “Acta Thomae”, preserved to us with some variations both in Greek and in Syriac, and bearing unmistakeable signs of its Gnostic origin. It may indeed be the work of Bardesanes himself. The story in many of its particulars is utterly extravagant, but it is the early date, being assigned by Harnack (Chronologie, ii, 172) to the beginning of the third century, before A. D. 220. If the place of its origin is really Edessa, as Harnack and others for sound reasons supposed (ibid., p. 176), this would lend considerable probability to the statement, explicitly made in “Acta” (Bonnet, cap. 170, p.286), that the relics of Apostle Thomas, which we know to have been venerated at Edessa, had really come from the East.
The extravagance of the legend may be judged from the fact that in more than one place (cap. 31, p. 148) it represents Thomas (Judas Thomas, as he is called here and elsewhere in Syriac tradition) as the twin brother of Jesus. The Thomas in Syriac is equivalant to didymos in Greek, and means twin. Rendel Harris who exaggerates very much the cult of the Dioscuri, wishes to regards this as a transformation of a pagan worship of Edessa but the point is at best problematical. The story itself runs briefly as follows: At the division of the Apostles, India fell to the lot of Thomas, but he declared his inability to go, whereupon his Master Jesus appeared in a supernatural way to Abban, the envoy of Gundafor, an Indian king, and sold Thomas to him to be his slave and serve Gundafor as a carpender. Then Abban and Thomas sailed away until they came to Andrapolis, where they landed and attended the marriage feast of the ruler’s daughter. Strange occurences followed and Christ under the appearence of Thomas exhorted the bride to remain a Virgin. Coming to India Thomas undertook to build a palace for Gundafor, but spend the money entrusted to him on the poor. Gundafor imprisoned him; but the Apostle escaped miraculously and Gundafor was converted. Going about the country to preach, Thomas met with strange adventures from dragons and wild asses. Then he came to the city of King Misdai (Syriac Mazdai), where he converted Tertia the wife of Misdai and Vazan his son. After this he was condemed to death, led out of city to a hill, and pierced through with spears by four soldiers. He was buried in the tomb of the ancient kings but his remains were afterwards removed to the West. (4)
Image: Martyrdom of St Thomas, artist: Sir Peter Paul Rubens, circa: between 1636 and 1638 (5)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff