St Romanos: Hymns on the Doubt of Thomas

Christ is risen!   Indeed He is risen!

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

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Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.  (John 20:19-31)

St Romanos the Melodist in long poem with many stanzas (ON THE LIFE OF CHRIST: KONTAKIA, pp 185-188) comments on the Gospel lesson of the doubt of the Apostle Thomas.  Like many ancient commentators, he does so by imagining various thoughts that might have gone through Thomas’s mind as well as by creating dialogue between Thomas and Christ.  The dialogue and thoughts are fictitious, yet he uses them to teach truth drawn from the Gospel lesson.

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In the first of the stanzas below, Thomas is wrestling with why Christ appeared to the other apostles at the very moment Thomas wasn’t with them.  That Thomas would wonder why Christ appeared to the apostles when he wasn’t with them, seems highly likely to me – a very natural human response.  Thomas’ internal turmoil leads him to look critically at his fellow disciples and he brings to mind reasons why he shouldn’t believe them—he remembers their faults and deems them untrustworthy.  He both wants to justify his own disbelief as well as to remind Christ of the faults of others.  He is criticizing Christ for choosing to appear to the apostles at that moment that Thomas wasn’t with them.  The stanza begins with Thomas raising a question to and about his brother apostles:

“How shall I be able to believe you, for I hear unbelievable words?’

For had the Redeemer come, he would be seeking his servant.

If the Day had dawned, he would not have appeared at the wrong hour.

If the Shepherd had appeared, he would be calling the lamb.

Once he asked, ‘Where have you laid Lazarus?’

And now he has not said, ‘Where have you left Thomas?’

But has he forgotten the one who wished to die with him? (John 11:6)

I remain unbelieving until I have seen.

When I have seen and touched, I will believe and say,

You are our Lord and our God.

[Thomas’ first thought shows his own hurt ego.  He critically asks his brothers – you all are rejoicing because Christ appeared to you, but did He even ask about me?  Did He ask where I was or why I wasn’t with you?  Thomas says he is asking this because Jesus is the Good Shepherd and surely He would have noticed that one of His sheep was missing.  So he begins to feel a justified hurt at the Lord’s lack of concern for him.  That is when he decides to raise the issue of Peter’s ‘lying’ to Jesus when Peter said in John 11:6 that he was willing to die with Christ.  Peter goes on to deny not only that he is Christ’s disciples but even denies knowing Jesus at all.  Yet Jesus still appears to him but not to Thomas?  So Thomas feels very justified in saying until he sees Christ Himself, he will not believe.

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In the next stanza, Christ has already made His second visit to the apostles, and this time Thomas is with them.  Christ has asked Thomas about his disbelief.  Thomas now regrets the rashness of his disbelieving comments.  But he explains that he was provoked by the rejoicing and happiness of his brothers in an event which he did not share with them.  He again brings up the failures of his brother disciples – Peter denied Christ, the others fled when Christ was arrested.  Thomas desperately wants Christ to tell him: “You are not worse than them or somehow a lesser disciple.  I didn’t appear to them when you weren’t there because you aren’t part of them or me.” Christ doesn’t explain why he appeared when He did, but He is clear that He has nothing against Thomas.

Thomas now continues his lament.]

. . .

Would that I too had exercised silence, like Jesus when being judged,

But the sight of them rejoicing drove me to speak;

I was piqued by the words of those who were crying in joy,

‘We have clearly seen alive the One who was willingly dead.’

Therefore, seeing Peter, the denier, all joyful,

And, cheerful again, those who had fled with him,

I was jealous because I wanted to dance with them.

Through jealousy, then, I said what I said before.

Let me not be blamed, my Jesu, but be accepted as I cry to you:

You are our Lord and our God.

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[Thomas admits it was sinful jealousy which caused him to make his foolish declaration and now he is asking Christ to forgive him and receive him again into the fellowship of believers.

Now Christ addresses Thomas with a blunt comment: Here I am risen from the dead and instead of you being thankful, you are both unbelieving and judgmental!]

. . .

‘I slept for a short time in a tomb and after three days came back to life.

For you and those like you I lay in a grave,

And you, instead of thanksgiving, have brought me unbelief.

For I heard what you said to your brothers.’

At this, Thomas trembled and cried out,

‘Do not blame me, Savior, for you I always believe.

Peter and the rest I have difficulty believing,

For I know that they lied to you (Matt 26:31-35)

And, in the hour of evils, they were afraid to say to you,

You are our Lord and our God.

[Thomas, now a bit fearful of having offended his Lord, still attempts to justify his misbehavior by saying he always believes Christ, it is Peter and the other disciples he mistrusts because he has witnessed their lying.  He is again trying to raise his self in Christ’s eyes and his own self-esteem.  He still wants some kind of affirmation from Christ that he is somehow not a lesser disciple because of his personal failure for he reminds himself and Christ that all the others lied to Him when they said they would never deny Him.  Christ is loving them all, despite their personal failures. He remains Good Shepherd even to the sheep that have become lost or willfully left the flock.

Thomas is also raising a very important issue about faith in Christ – before we can believe in Christ, we have to believe in His witnesses – the Apostles, their successors, all believers, the Church.  We are not only asked to believe in Christ, but to believe that His witnesses are being faithful to what they experienced.  Faith turns out not to be in Christ alone, but also in His chosen witnesses as well as the witness of all Christians, namely, the Church which gives us the Scriptures, the theology and wisdom which bears witness to Christ.

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John does not tell us in the Gospel why Thomas was away from the fellowship of the apostles on that day Jesus appeared to them.  Was he gone on personal business?  Was he doing something for the other disciples?  Did he feel he needed some time away from the others to think things through what Christ’s death meant for him and them?  If the latter idea is right, then Thomas was guilty of breaking the fellowship/communion of the apostles.  He needed them and needed to be with them, rather than being apart from them.  This he came to realize when he heard they collectively had seen Christ.  He hadn’t seen the risen Lord for the simple reason that he wasn’t in and with the fellowship of apostles.  By going off as an individual rather than remaining in the fellowship (in the Church), he had cut himself off from Christ.  He was experiencing a test of faith – we not only believe in Christ, we have to believe those who witness to Him.

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