Today is the Feast of St. Thomas, the Doubter. It’s a heavy sobriquet with which to go through history: to be remembered, not by what you loved, or whom, but by your questioning, your uncertainty, your irresolution.
And the Feast, as we are supposed to honor it, resists that reading. The prayer for the day pleads for certainty and conviction: Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight.
It’s a natural-enough impulse; after all, most of us would rather have some confidence that we know what we are doing and why we are doing it, would like to hold onto our faith (in whatever form it takes) as a rock of stability in our lives, a rod and a staff that comfort us in our hour of need.
But what if that’s not what Thomas was about at all? What if he was about, precisely, uncertainty, about what it looks like to move forward faithfully when faith itself fails, when the situation in which we find ourselves is confusing or ambivalent, when we do not know the One Right Way?
Thomas actually appears prominently in two stories in Scripture. In the first, Jesus and his twelve companions were ministering across the Jordan, healing and teaching, when they receive word that their friend Lazarus is ill. Jesus waits two days, then announces he is heading to Bethany, where Lazarus has died. His friends warn him not to go, since the Jewish leaders were trying to kill him, but, when Jesus insists, it is Thomas who replies, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” (We’ll come back to that.)
The more famous story appears later, after Jesus’ resurrection, when Jesus appears to the other disciples at a time when Thomas is not with them. When they tell Thomas, he refuses to believe them, saying, “I will not believe unless I see the wounds in his hands and touch the wounds in his hands and side.” And so, a week later, Jesus appears again, holding out his wounds to Thomas, who then cries out, “My Lord and my God!” — the first of the Twelve to proclaim him divine.
Traditional explanations have tended to emphasize that last proclamation, to see in Thomas an icon of what it means for each of us to encounter Jesus and emerge with firm and clear convictions. But I am more captivated by what preceded that encounter.
In both stories, Thomas confronts a situation of considerable confusion and danger, and he does so by seeking, at all costs, to follow Jesus, even into danger and pain. It is not clear that he or the twelve will survive the visit to Bethany, but he insists that they go, because that is where Jesus is going. And when the others tell him they have seen Jesus glorified, Thomas brings them back to the stubborn reality of woundedness, pain, and death. He insists on seeing, not Jesus’ image, but his body, and on going precisely to where that body is most in need of love.
It’s about as good a model for discernment as we can find, we who live in spaces of unclarity, who struggle to find the right path, we for whom the Word of God rarely appears in neon lights with a convenient flashing arrow: GO HERE.
We do not always know the One Right Way. We do not always — or even often –understand the actions of God. But we do know what mercy looks like, and we have Christ’s own promise that when we seek the least of his children, we will find him there. So go to where the Body of Christ is in pain, and if we have no certainty to bring, we can at least bring our love and our questions, asking: What do you seek? Do you want to be healed? Where is Christ to be found in you? And so, with all due respect to the authors of our prayerbook, I will offer an alternative prayer for today, for Thomas and for us:
Grant us, Lord, in all our uncertainties, to seek your face, and when it remains hidden from our eyes, to seek out the places where you are wounded, alone, unfriended, or in pain, and to bring there, not our certainty, but your holy and life-giving questions and love, which restore us to ourselves and to you; through Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and our Friend. Amen.