Thomas the apostle appears three times in John’s gospel and on each occasion, he’s made to stand out from the other disciples.
It’s he, for instance, who impetuously (and poignantly) exhorts the others to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, despite danger to their own lives. It’s he who cheekily complains to Jesus at the Last Supper that he’s not making himself clear enough. And, in this gospel, Thomas stands out from the others by refusing to accept that Jesus is risen until, that is, he can see him for himself.
This refusal to accept the word of the others, without the evidence of his own eyes, has earned Thomas the most misleading moniker of all time. “Doubting Thomas” is lodged in the Christian imagination as the archetypal sceptic. But this moving episode of John’s gospel isn’t about doubt and certainly not about scepticism: it’s about faith.
And far from being the odd man out, the petulant empiricist, Thomas represents all of us who believe, both in terms of how and what we believe.
The clue is that this episode is thought to come at end of what is thought to have been the original text of John’s gospel. John has quite deliberately used it, in other words, as a climax.
Remember how he begins his gospel with the majestic Prologue: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God”.
Now, as he brings his gospel to a close, Thomas is the first person in the gospel to address Jesus as God. With his “My Lord and my God”, the purpose of the gospel, namely, as John himself tells his readers, “that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God”, is seen finally to be fulfilled, in Thomas.
Thomas, in other words, isn’t the archetypal doubter but the archetypal believer: the phrase “he saw and he believed”, runs like an antiphon throughout John’s gospel about many individuals: but it applies quintessentially to Thomas, and therefore to each one of us.
So, what exactly does the story of Thomas teach us about faith?
First, it makes it resoundingly clear that, as in all matters of truth and understanding, intelligent questioning and searching enquiry are essential, not inimical, to faith.
Faith isn’t a crutch for the credulous, or a comfort blanket for the fearful: on the contrary, it requires real courage.
To have faith is to live in the presence of mystery, sometimes comforting, often challenging, but never complacent. Faith points us, indeed, in the direction of the ultimate mystery, the ultimate question that hovers over and lurks under every question, a question about the source of existence itself, which remains permanently and in principle beyond our intellectual reach.
But, in reverse of what most of us might assume, rather than empowering us to reach out to God, faith renders us receptive to his reaching out to us. Because the source of existence is also its goal, but a goal we can’t arrive at through effort of will or exercise of intellect alone, but only by will and intellect enlarged by love: his love for us, his reaching out to us.
Again, in this particular episode, John is showing us that we don’t believe alone or in a vacuum: faith isn’t a private possession. No, here John shows us that faith in the Risen Christ is not only given, but given to us together, not me alone.
It is given in the context of and is the possession of a community, that is, the Church. It engages us horizontally as well as vertically. Indeed, John shows us that faith is the very antithesis of that existential anxiety, which invades every thoughtful human mind, that we are ultimately alone.
Individualism may have become the ruling mindset of modernity, and its causes might be endlessly debated, but the Church has always known herself to be a living community of faith, the bearer, from generation to generation, of a tradition, a truth that has been received and handed on.
“That which I have received, I handed on to you”, says St Paul, speaking of the Eucharist.
Of course, modernity – officially, at least – is impatient of tradition, too.
The prophets of the Enlightenment confidently predicted that reason would inexorably displace tradition, the two being mutually exclusive.
That they were manifestly wrong hasn’t prevented the suggestion seeping into the secular mind, giving rise to the view, contrary to all evidence, that in order to engage in free enquiry, you must first be freed from the constraints of tradition.
But that sundering of reason and tradition was a departure not only from ancient wisdom but also from universal human experience, and not just in matters of faith but in every part of life.
Without tradition, learning of any kind is impossible.
You have to be taught if you want to learn and you have to be taught how to learn: that, surely, is the most valuable lesson we teach our young and the very basis of any educational system worth the name.
In all fields of culture and learning, immersion in traditions of both learning and living is indispensable for excellence and even originality. All concepts and ideas have a history.
And this is true, a fortiori, of Christian thought and understanding.
To believe is, for a Christian, to be immersed in a tradition of faith which has been safeguarded and transmitted by the living Church, “the Catholic faith, which comes to us from the Apostles”, as we say at Mass (or as we used to, when we had a half [but only half] decent translation).
But this gospel also makes it plain that the truth in which we believe and to which we give witness isn’t a relict much less a relic of the past, but a truth we know here and now.
And we witness (or fail to witness) to the Risen Lord whom we know here and now, not with words only, but with our lives. The first witnesses to the Resurrection spoke not just of what they’d seen, but of how their lives had changed because of what they’d seen. 4 In the end, Thomas’s profession – “My Lord and my God” – is as much a profession of love as of faith.
And this is because faith, like love, is the kind of knowledge that draws us deeper and deeper into itself. Which is why, for us, the goal isn’t merely to know about God, not even only to know God, but to know and love Him, just as we are known and loved by Him. In the end, both belief and knowledge, even of God, have clipped wings: both are tethered to the earth, sterile even, without love.
And, finally, to emphasise that it is neither the hard-won reward of effort nor the inescapable pressure of evidence, faith is not so much cognition as recognition. It isn’t that we see and know something others don’t see or know - that’s the territory of the visionary and the gnostic; rather, it’s to see with different eyes entirely, just as one who loves and is loved sees the beloved (and everything else, for that matter) with different eyes; and to know in a way illuminated and immeasurably enlarged by love. Some of the early Church Fathers spoke of faith as enabling us to see with the “spiritual senses”.
The third century theologian, Origen (185- 254), speaks of the “faculties of the heart” and the 20th century Jesuit theologian, Bernard Lonergan (1904-84), spoke of faith as “knowledge born of religious love”.
To believe, then, is not only to have seen and touched the Risen Christ – it is that, too, but more: it is to have been seen and touched by Him. Remember he is recognised by Mary only when he addresses her by name.
It’s he who asks the other whom they seek. In the end, to believe is to be overwhelmed by his presence, to be overwhelmed by love, as Thomas was.