Christianity is a dynamic religion. That doesn’t mean being a Christian requires acrobatic ability, rhetorical skills or flashy spiritual encounters. Christian dynamism comes from a willingness to actively seek and live a personal relationship with God, and with the Communion of Saints. It is a willingness to engage one’s Catholic imagination, whether from the pew, in one’s daily activities – or even from the comfort of the sofa. Faith, worship and Christian witness are serious business; but without some creativity our religious practice can become less than perfect, and more pedestrian than personal. I’m a visual person, prone to boredom and easily distracted. As a result, my prayer and contemplation of Scripture is usually pretty colorful. When I read a Bible passage or hear the Sunday Gospel I try to put myself there. I try to see people, hear sounds, and relate my own experience those of people in the Bible. Scripture isn’t written on dead trees, but in the active witness of those who encountered the living God and were transformed by Him. It is God’s Word made flesh and brought to full flower in the incarnation of His Son. That written Word is to be continuously “fleshed out” by you and me as we “practice” the Faith by following Him.
This month’s important feast of Mary prompted me to think a lot about St. Thomas, and how much the Apostle needed her – and her Son. The more I thought about it, the more I realized: I’m Thomas, too.
“Wait – what? August, Mary…we’re talking about the Feast of the Assumption, aren’t we? Where’d you get this Thomas stuff?” If I might beg your indulgence, read on and engage your Catholic imagination….
Thomas was one of the original Twelve chosen by Jesus for what amounted to an apprenticeship leading them to preach the Gospel (Mk 13:10) and found Christian communities throughout the known world. Of course that Apostolic mission didn’t end in the First Century, but continues through the Church today. It was an important mission Jesus entrusted to those men, and He chose them specifically because of their unwavering faith, courage, grace-under-pressure and great wisdom. Or…not. The truth is the Apostles were a lot like us, and even after their infusion with the gifts of the Holy Spirit they retained many of their foibles and faults – even clashing with each other (see Paul throw down in Gal 2:11). Regardless of their personal weaknesses the Apostles went all in for Christ, and in many cases shed their blood on His account. Their devotion to Him wasn’t always pretty, but they never stopped letting Him mold and shape them, and by yielding to the movement of the Holy Spirit they continued learning from Him.
Thomas is the kind of Apostle I think I’d have been: enthusiastic and impetuous enough to blurt out a willingness to die with Christ, without fully comprehending the seriousness of such a declaration. Thomas was fearful, questioning, and a little clueless. Having lived and spoken directly with Jesus, witnessing many signs and wonders, Thomas still asked, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” In the midst of big events he was often just a little too late, missing out on their significance . Thomas was skeptical, even a bit cocky, when his fellow Apostles testified to the risen Christ. He heard what they said they saw, but unless he saw Jesus for himself he was unmoved. He even declared the notion of the resurrection so far-fetched that he’d only be convinced of it sticking by his hand in the Master’s wounds. Yes, indeed, there’s a lot of Thomas in me. I often dive head first into my devotion to the Lord, making promises I know I can’t keep, taking on more than I can handle, and losing motivation when it’s clear I can’t live up to my own unrealistic standards (Can you say, “54-Day Novena?”) How many times have I expressed my frustration at Catholic/Christian politicians who don’t let Faith inform their public lives – only to look around me at a restaurant as I sheepishly make the sign of the Cross, hoping not to make a too-public declaration of thanks to God? I recall with shame the many challenges I’ve issued to Jesus when I am wounded, restless, scared and frustrated. “Unless I see proof that Your wounds were really endured for me,” I cry, “I won’t believe You hear my prayers. I won’t believe You’re for me. I can’t believe You’d let me down….” I am Thomas, a real “Twin,” who moves from faithful follower to doubting daughter on a dime.
So far this isn’t a very pretty picture of the Apostle – or me. Except that Jesus was always with Thomas – with you and me – in spite of imprudent speech, doubts, and the despair that comes when we think He’s gone for good. When Thomas doesn’t know where he’s going Jesus simply says, “Follow me.” When he can’t believe that the worst loss of a friend he’s ever experienced can be reversed, Jesus gently places Thomas’s hands in His side and blesses his (and our) coming-to-belief. Jesus forgives our comedy (or tragedy) of errors as many times as we, like Thomas, open our hearts and say, My Lord and my God!
Which brings me – finally! – to this blessed Feast commemorating the Dormition of the Mother of God and her bodily ascension into heaven. According to Tradition (and emphasized in the Eastern Church), Mary died – “fell asleep in the Lord” – surrounded by the Apostles. Well, almost all. To be fair, it’s possible that Thomas was out tending to the Church, preaching the Gospel and fulfilling his mission. Still…the Eleven, each one charged with the same mission, were at the Holy Mother’s bedside, keeping watch and then mourning her loss. Once again, I am Thomas, as I recall those times I’ve been busy about my own work – important as it often is – but too self-centered to take that call from a friend in need, honor a request (regardless of how trivial) from my husband, or visit a family member I’ve not connected with in a while. I, too, have heard secondhand accounts of the troubles of someone I care about, about how others had been there, while I was…Thomas.
At Cana Mary told the servants to “do whatever He [Jesus] tells you,” and she followed her own advice. Like her Son, Mary accepts us in our imperfection, embraces us in love, and points us toward the One who can make us new. When Thomas received word that Mary had died – that he’d once again been too late – he begged the others to take him to the tomb to see her one last time. (Yes, Thomas and I, knowing better, doing what we must, forgetting to do what we ought.) When the Twelve arrived the tomb was empty but filled with a beautiful fragrance. In place of the Holy Mother’s body were bunches of flowers. Once again Thomas gets more than he bargains for, more that he deserves, witnessing the power and the faithfulness of God. The flowers are a sweet and beautiful remembrance from the Mother who, even in her passage from this life to the next, shows the way to her Son. The flowers say, “I know – and I love you anyway.” Though Thomas often gets in his own way as he seeks to follow his Master, he’s shown time and again it’s never too late.
I am Thomas, both in my stubbornness and my desire to be so close to Christ I can touch Him. I am Thomas, who sometimes opens my mouth too much; who can be over-confident or paralyzed with fear. I am Thomas, with good intentions if not always right actions. Jesus loves me anyway, and invites me to place my wounds in His so He can heal them. Mary loves me, too, and she is my Mother when I miss the mark and when I come to my senses and run to Her. I am Thomas, who believes – and needs His grace to help my unbelief.
I am Thomas. Who are you?
Ann Koshute teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.