Thomas the Apostle: A Devoted Follower of Jesus
BY John Lilly
October 8-14, 2006 Issue | Posted 10/4/06 at 11:00 AM
Pope Benedict XVI resumed his series of teachings on the Twelve Apostles during his general audience on Sept. 27. More than 30,000 pilgrims attended the audience, which was held in St. Peter’s Square. The Holy Father devoted his catechesis to the Apostle Thomas.
Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that
the Gospel of John is the richest source of information on Thomas, where four
significant episodes involving Thomas are recorded. The first involves an
especially dangerous time in Jesus’ life, when he decided to go to
When Jesus told the apostles at the Last Supper that he would be going away to prepare a place for them, Thomas asked Jesus to tell them the way so that they would know where to find him. His question, though somewhat naïve, opened the way to Jesus’ famous response, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” “His question also gives us the right, so to speak, to ask Jesus for explanations,” the Pope Benedict noted. “We often do not understand him. We must have the courage to say to him: ‘I do not understand you, Lord. Listen to me and help me to understand.’”
The episode of the doubting Thomas is especially well known, the Pope pointed out. When the apostles tell Thomas that they have seen the risen Lord, Thomas does not believe them and insists he will not believe them until he touches Jesus’ wounds. Yet, once Jesus appears to him, Benedict pointed out, “Thomas reacts with the most splendid profession of faith found in the entire New Testament: ‘My Lord and my God!’”
In his concluding remarks, the Holy Father pointed out that Thomas was later an apostle to Persia, Syria and India: “With this missionary perspective, let us end our meditation, expressing our hope that Thomas’ example will increasingly strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God.”
Dear brothers and sisters,
As we continue our encounters with the Twelve Apostles whom Jesus himself chose, we will devote our attention today to Thomas. He is present in each of the four lists found in the New Testament, where he is placed in the first three Gospels next to Matthew (see Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15), while he appears next to Philip in the Acts of the Apostles (see Acts 1:13). His name is derived from a Hebrew root, ta‘am, which means “twin.” In fact, on several occasions the Gospel of John calls him by his nickname, “Didymus” (see John 11:16; 20:24; 21:2), which means “twin” in Greek. The reason for this name is not clear.
The fourth Gospel, in particular, provides us with some information describing some significant features of his personality. The first incident concerns the exhortation he made to the other apostles when Jesus, at a critical moment in his life, decided to go to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, coming dangerously close to Jerusalem in the process (see Mark 10:32). On that occasion, Thomas said to his fellow disciples: “Let us also go to die with him” (John 11:16). His determination in following the Master is truly exemplary and offers us a valuable lesson. It reveals his total willingness to follow Jesus to the point of associating his own fate with Jesus’ fate, and of wanting to share with him the supreme trial of death.
Indeed, the most important thing
is never to distance oneself from Jesus. When the Gospels use the verb “to
follow,” it means that wherever he goes, that’s where his disciple must also
go. Thus, Christian life is defined as a life with Jesus Christ, a life that is
to be spent together with him.
Thomas’ second intervention is recorded during the Last Supper. On that occasion, Jesus, predicting his imminent departure, announces that he is going to prepare a place for the disciples so that they, too, will be where he is. He explains to them: “Where I am going, you know the way” (John 14:4). At this point, Thomas intervenes, saying: “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). Although his remark reveals a rather low level of understanding, his words give Jesus the opportunity to make the famous remark: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
Although this revelation was made, first of all, to Thomas, it is valid for all of us and for all times. Every time we hear or read these words, we can picture ourselves next to Thomas and envision the Lord speaking with us as he spoke with him. At the same time, Thomas’ question also gives us the right, so to speak, to ask Jesus for explanations. We often do not understand him. We should have the courage to say to him: “I do not understand you, Lord. Listen to me and help me to understand.” In this way and with such frankness — which is the authentic way to pray and to talk with Jesus — we express our limited ability to understand, yet, at the same time, we place ourselves in an attitude of trust as one who expects light and strength from the one who is able to give it.
The episode of doubting Thomas, which took place eight days after Easter, is especially well known and even proverbial. Initially, he did not believe that Jesus had appeared in his absence and said: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Deep down, these words demonstrate his conviction that Jesus is no longer recognized so much by his face as by his wounds. At this point, Thomas believes that the characteristic signs of Jesus’ identity are now, above all, his wounds, which reveal the extent to which he loved us. In this regard, the apostle is correct. As we know, eight days later, Jesus again appeared once again to his disciples and Thomas was present this time. Jesus addressed him: “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and place it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe” (John 20:27).
Thomas reacts with the most
splendid profession of faith found in the entire New Testament: “My Lord and my
God!” (John 20:28).
The evangelist records one last word of Jesus to Thomas: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29). These words can also be cast in the present tense: “Blessed are those who do not see and believe.” At any rate, here Jesus is formulating a fundamental principle for those Christians who would follow Thomas — that is, for all of us. It is interesting to observe how another Thomas, the great medieval theologian from Aquino, associates this blessing with another beatitude that Luke recorded and that seems to be quite the opposite: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (Luke 10:23).
However, Thomas Aquinas makes this comment: “He who believes without seeing has much more merit than he who believes upon seeing” (In Iohann. XX lectio VI § 2566). In fact, the Letter to the Hebrews, recalling the line of ancient biblical patriarchs who believed in God without seeing the fulfillment of his promises, defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). To us, the case of the Apostle Thomas is important for at least three reasons. First, it comforts us in our insecurities. Secondly, it shows us that every doubt can lead to a luminous outcome that surpasses all uncertainty. Finally, Jesus’ words to him remind us of the true meaning of mature faith and encourage us to continue, despite the difficulties, on our journey of fidelity to him.
The fourth Gospel has preserved one last note on Thomas for us, presenting him as a witness of the risen Christ following the miraculous catch on the Sea of Tiberias (see John 21:2). On that occasion, his name is mentioned immediately after Simon Peter’s — an obvious sign of the notable importance that he enjoyed within the first Christian communities. In fact, later the Acts and the Gospel of Thomas were written under his name, both of which are apocryphal but important, in any case, for the study of early Christianity. Let us remember, finally, that, according to an ancient tradition, Thomas evangelized Syria and Persia first of all (to which Origen refers, as recorded by Eusebius of Caesarea, Historia Ecclesiastica 3,1) and later went as far as western India (see Acts of Thomas 1-2 and 17 and following), from where Christianity also later reached the south of India. With this missionary perspective, let us end our meditation, expressing our hope that Thomas’ example will increasingly strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God.
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