Biblical, traditional and spiritual perspectives on St Thomas the Apostle — the so-called “doubting Thomas” — were the focuses of an Ecumenical Day in Auckland last month. The day, organised in cooperation between Te Ngakau Waiora Mercy Spirituality Centre and Vaughan Park Anglican Retreat Centre, was titled “St Thomas the Apostle: From doubt to faith to Kerala, India and beyond”.
The first speaker at the event at St Columba Centre in Ponsonby on July 14 was Good Shepherd College Scripture lecturer Fr Kevin Waldie, SM, who considered the apostle from a biblical perspective.
He noted that John’s Gospel has “a lot more to say about this Thomas figure” than do Mark, Matthew and Luke. In the Johannine text he is “quite a significant figure”.
Fr Waldie said Thomas is a “trigger character”, who “brings to light what it is to understand Jesus truly”.
The Marist spoke about each of the times that Thomas was mentioned in John’s Gospel, but it was in dealing with chapter 20 that Fr Waldie elaborated the most.
Fr Waldie cast doubt upon the label “doubting Thomas”, pointing out that he [Fr Waldie] didn’t like one translation of the instruction given to Thomas by the risen Jesus as “Do not doubt but believe”. In the Greek, it states “kai me ginou apistos all pistos” (transliteration). So a better translation of this would be “Be not unbelieving, but believing”.
“The key thing is to repeat the key word. That is what that text is really about. Nothing is said about doubt.”
Fr Waldie said he does not see Thomas in this encounter as a negative character. “What he does is — he prompts a response that we want to hear. We want to learn what it is to believe. Believing is part of a process of coming to understand properly.”
Thomas is a character “coming to believe”.
“There is a process going on. All the characters in John’s Gospel are coming to believe.”
Fr Waldie also linked Thomas and Mary Magdalene in their encounters with the risen Lord in this chapter.
“If you contrast Mary Magdalene, who wanted to touch Jesus, and then this fellow who is invited to touch Jesus — but no-one ever touches Jesus, we are never told that.
“That changes things a little bit in your understanding.”
“No one is touching Jesus because he has to ‘go’. What are you understanding about the risen Jesus — how do you believe — do you have to see him, have to touch him?
“We in the 21st century are very privileged because we have come to believe without seeing, without touching.
“It is an explanation of what the early Church had by way of privilege, but we have to stand in the long tradition of those who handed the tradition onto us like Mary Magdalene.”
Fr Waldie also referenced a commentary by Scripture scholar R.A.Burridge in which it was noted that Thomas’ confession “My Lord and my God”, echoed the claim of the Emperor Domitian to be called “Dominus et Deus noster”.
The next speaker, Redemptorist Fr Majesh Kurian, a Syro-Malabar Catholic priest based at Ellerslie, detailed how tradition holds that the Apostle Thomas travelled on a trade route from the Middle East to Kerala on the coast of India, arriving in 52 AD. Thus arose the tradition of “St Thomas Christians” in India.
Tradition holds that St Thomas baptised people in Kerala, built eight churches (seven in Kerala and one in neighbouring Tamil Nadu), challenged the local religious authorities, and even worked miracles, such as one in which water stayed suspended in the air instead of falling to the ground, as the water of the local Brahmin clergy did.
Fr Kurian discussed the great devotion to St Thomas in India. He is the patron saint of that nation and his feast day, July 3, is a holiday in Kerala.
Holy sites at which he is reputed to have been, and at which modern devotions occur, include a spring, a footprint in stone, a cross, and a hilltop. The latter, in Malayattor, is the site of a church which has been designated as one of eight international shrines in the world, Fr Kurian said.
St Thomas met his death in 72 AD near Chennai (Madras) after local Brahmin believed he insulted their god, Kali, the priest added.
Devotion to St Thomas is reflected in artwork, dance and song which have been passed down to modern times, he said.
“Let us make our prayer like his — my Lord and my God.”
The third speaker, Anglican Rev. Dr Hilary Oxford Smith, called St Thomas honest, courageous and tenacious.
She noted how the others in the first Jesus community did not exclude Thomas for his lack of belief but allowed him to be with them.
“Thomas isn’t excluded from the fellowship. So maybe that is an example to the Church that the person who dares to ask questions — questions about doctrines, structures, policies, procedures . . .is just the person the Church needs and needs to give a voice to.”
She spoke of St Thomas’ deep sorrow and grief at the death of Christ and his reaching out to touch his wounds.
“[Thomas’] real and authentic connection with the risen Christ would be his wounds, and that was why Thomas needed to reach out, and I’m going to say touch those wounds, we don’t know, connect the wounds of his deep sorrow to the wounds of Jesus.”
Rev. Oxford Smith said followers of Christ have reached out across centuries to forgotten corners of the world, touching the places and the people who feared that God was not for them, that forgiveness was not them, that grace was too far away to reach, that suffering could not be redeemed or transformed.
So new beginnings, hope, life and peace became possible — so people could see, like Thomas, their Lord and their God.
“It is for us, in our day, to continue that immense legacy of faith, reaching out and touching with love, the wounded places and people of the world.”
The talks were interspersed with singing led by Fr Chris Skinner, SM.