The Holy Apostles: St. Thomas

"The Incredulity of Saint Thomas" By Caravaggio
“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas”
By Caravaggio

The next apostle on our list is St. Thomas, who we are all very familiar with.  We really don’t know how he was called, but we know that he was originally a Jew and that he left it all to follow Jesus.  He is mentioned briefly here and there throughout the Gospels.

But of course, what everyone knows St. Thomas for is his reaction to the Resurrection.  When all his brothers told him that they had seen the Lord, he refused to believe until he touched Jesus himself and felt his wounds.  Well, I guess he opened his big mouth too far, because that’s exactly what happened!

Say what you will about “Doubting Thomas”, but that experience clearly changed him.  His immediate response was, “My Lord and my God!”, but that was only the beginning.  Whereas many of the apostles went north and west to preach to the people of Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome, St. Thomas went to the almost complete geographical and cultural opposite.  He started going north through Syria to Edessa (southern Turkey), but then made a u-turn and headed south.  He preached to the Parthians, Persians, and Medes through what is now Iran, and kept going south to India.

Tradition tells us that St. Thomas encountered King Gondophernes (a historical king featured on ancient coins!), and eventually converted him and his brother.  The king must have wanted to put Thomas to work, because he was put in charge of building projects, several of which were churches.  Apparently, this didn’t sit well with a number of the local priests, because they chased him up a mountain (now called St. Thomas Mount – original, I know), and killed him with a lance.  His body was buried at the church he built in Mylapore, India.  The tomb remains there even to today, although a significant portion of the relics were moved back to Edessa.

St. Thomas Basilica in Mylapore, India Site of the Tomb of St. Thomas the Apostle
St. Thomas Basilica in Mylapore, India
Site of the Tomb of St. Thomas the Apostle

Much of the story about St. Thomas in India comes from the Acts of Thomas, which is pretty shifty, and probably not very reliable.  It was probably written by Gnostics, who tried to incorporate a warped form of Christianity into their mystical religion.  What is true, however, is that later missionaries found a large body of Christians that had been in India for a very long time, some of whom still speak Syriac, a dialect of the language that St. Thomas probably spoke.  Even Marco Polo visited the tomb of St. Thomas on his journeys and learned the stories, so if nothing else, there is probably a kernel of truth to these legends.

So what can we learn from St. Thomas?  One thing is that as doubtful or weak as we might consider St. Thomas, Jesus doesn’t pick worthless men and women to do his work.  St. Thomas’s human weakness, and our human weakness as well, points out the fact that real Christian holiness is a gift from God, not something we do on our own.  God uses our doubt and weakness to transform us, and to do great things through us, just as he did through St. Thomas and his travels.  Let us entrust ourselves even more to God through the prayers of St. Thomas, that he would make us better disciples!

Homily From the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Apostle St. Paul by El Greco
Apostle St. Paul
by El Greco

Normally, I try to preach mostly on the Gospel, following the life of Christ and trying to bring out what message I can, but today’s second reading is just too good.  Well, that, and of the things I read in preparing for the homily, the stuff from the second reading was better.  It’s a great reading though, and one that gives shape to a lot of our Catholic way of life.

St. Paul is trying to make a distinction here between faith and works.  He tells us that “salvation comes from faith in Christ.”  Faith is what brings us into the right relationship and friendship with God that we all seek.  It might seem kind of like common sense to us, but it was a little different from what Jewish leaders were saying at the time.  They believed in what St. Paul calls the “works of the Law,” that if they could just follow the Law perfectly, (the 10 commandments and the other things derived from them in the first 5 books of the Bible) they would be in the right relationship with God.

We forget that in the earliest days of the Church, many people were converts from Judaism, but at first, they didn’t really see themselves as terribly different than the Jews.  They believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of Judaism, but many of the things they were doing were just following what they did before.  That’s what St. Paul was preaching against.  The Christians in Galatia had heard his message, but when he moved on, many of the Jewish Christians just went back to doing their old thing.  And when he heard about this, St. Paul was not happy at all.  The Letter to the Galatians is actually one of the most anger-filled books of the Bible.  Actually, a few verses later than our reading today, St. Paul calls them “stupid Galatians”, but we figured that wasn’t really the best reading for people at Sunday Mass.  But he does respond directly: “We know that a person is not justified by the works of the Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ.”

Now that was a long time ago, but I think we need to hear this as much as the Galatians did.  Some things never change.  We are still as susceptible to the same temptations as the Galatians, the same as the Israelites, the same as Adam and Eve.  It’s the temptation of trying to achieve happiness through our own efforts.  It’s the temptation of thinking of our lives as a kind of cooking recipe.  It’s just the perfect combination of everything: a tablespoon of religion here, a half cup of popularity there, some money, and then just a dash of prestige, and voila! we make our own heaven on earth.  But that’s a lie.  St. Paul says that “if justification comes through the law,” basically, if happiness and peace come through our own efforts, “then Christ died for nothing.”  Happiness and fulfillment and fruitfulness come from Christ alone, and in our friendship with him.

I love coffee cups, and I have all sorts of strange ones.  I have a pink coffee cup given to me by the Pink Sisters, a black Kenrick-Glennon Seminary coffee mug, two-handled coffee mugs (the same used by this order of Carmelite monks in Wyoming), a tea cup celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and another for her anniversary last year, Star Wars mugs, plain mugs, and of course, my Mizzou mug.  Like I said, I’m a big fan of coffee mugs – but at 5:00 in the morning, I really don’t care what it looks like, as long as it has coffee in it.  You see, as fancy and as awesome as my coffee mugs are, what matters is the coffee, not the cup.  It’s kind of a nice illustration of St. Paul’s point.  With our own efforts in life, all we can do is make coffee mugs.  Jobs, prestige, money, popularity and appearances – these are great, and good for you if you have them, but these are just the cup, the outside, and the container of life.  No mere cup, even the coolest or fanciest, is going to satisfy your thirst on its own.  What matters more than anything, is that our cups are filled with the right drink – with Christ.

The best situation is when the container of our lives, the outward appearances, the things we do, the “works of the Law” to use St. Paul’s expression, reflect what is going on inside ourselves.  Coffee mugs were a good analogy, but maybe a chalice is a better one for this.  The chalice is valuable, but for the Church, it is valuable for what it holds, not because of what it is.  Chalices are designed to reflect that and call attention to it.  They are made of gold or other precious metals, they have holy images, crosses, or other sacred words etched into them.  Everyone knows that as beautiful as these chalices are, they are ultimately designed for a sacred purpose.

The same should be said of us.  It’s ok to have things like prestige and popularity and wealth.  Those are great blessings.  We would encourage you to do works – acts of charity to other people, like the group from our parish that just left to go to Belize.  But remember, those are simply the containers for the greater gift going on inside.  When people see us, can they tell what is within the container?