Thomas the Apostle

Today is Thomas Sunday in the Eastern Orthodox calendar, commemorating the appearance of our risen Lord to Thomas and the other disciples. Many people refer to St Thomas of the Twelve as “Doubting Thomas,” the phrase even having entered English as a trope describing any doubtful person. There is more to the story of St Thomas than this, however.

This is the same Thomas who, with Jesus leading them to Judea just after Lazarus died, knowing the Lord was in danger from the Judeans, says to the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (John 11.16). These are not the words of a disciple without conviction, the words of one who is not wholeheartedly attached to his Master.

Later, on the day Lord rose, the disciples were gathered in a locked room, “for fear of the Judeans” (John 20.19), Thomas was not there. Why? Perhaps he was in seclusion, but then again, perhaps he wasn’t afraid. In any case, he wasn’t with the rest of the group. When he hears from the other disciples that they have seen the Lord, he refuses to accept their testimony, stating that he will require personal, physical confirmation before he believes that the Lord lives. This is a double problem. He has rejected the testimony of eyewitnesses to the living Lord, his own companions, and has resorted to personal investigation and rationalization, to the basest sense of all, that of touch, though perhaps hoping against hope that they are, after all, not deluded. Regardless, his lack of faith is not necessarily in the Lord Himself, but certainly a lack of faith in his companions.

But then, a week later, the Lord appears again, telling Thomas to do just as he said he would require before he would believe. And his response? It is not, “Welcome back!” or, “Glad to see you!” It is, “My Lord and my God!” These are not the words of an utter doubter. Even so, we learn the lesson that “Blessed are those,” like ourselves, “who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20.29). We aren’t told what the other disciples said, but Thomas’ response is certainly worthy of remembrance. A spark of faith in his heart was in that moment fanned into a flame that would burn throughout the East, spreading the light and warmth of that faith to uncounted others.

We certainly learn from Thomas’ example several things: a loyalty that doesn’t shrink even at martyrdom, a recognition of Jesus as Lord and God, and that we who have received the testimony of, among others, Thomas and the rest of the disciples, without requiring a physical or visionary experience of the Lord, are also blessed, despite what we may at times think.

Christian Idolatry

Some may mistakenly take the title of this post to be an oxymoron, thinking a Christian incapable of idolatry. They would be wrong.

I’ve noticed a disturbing theological trend recently. I won’t specify the writings that led to my thoughts on this matter, aside from saying they were from a high-ranking member of a mainstream Protestant denomination from whom I expected better.

There is a growing fascination with Jesus as a kind of idol, even if acknowledged as Son of God, second Person of the Trinity, though some would heretically restrict Him to being just a man, although a particularly fine example of the species. They approach Him as a kind of elevated divinity on a pedestal, a kind of idol deserving emulation, adulation, and adoration, no doubt such as Apollo and Baal once elicited. What does it mean to make God the Son into simply a singularity, a point of holiness or proper behavior or just nice guyness? What does it mean to reduce the Incarnation of the Most Holy for love of us to a set of take-them-or-leave-them morals, perhaps projected in a PowerPoint presentation? In all these things, in seeking answers to questions, these people are looking outside themselves in the usual manner of idolatrous man, looking for an image to conform themselves to, to sacrifice superfluities to for conscience’s sake, to an idol that doesn’t talk back with any absolute requirements of them. If these are members of the Body of Christ, they appear to be artificial appendages, created by the skillful hand of men, designed to fit the Lord’s Body for His presumed absence of limbs, but they are unnecessary, indeed are superfluous because He has living limbs, and so are instead left aside, unused and unwanted. It is a willful idolatry, at once placing the locus of all responsibility for holiness outside oneself, and simultaneously making every such worshipper the cult’s high priest, expecting honor and all the best from his god simply by holding the position.

They do this, neglecting that the Church is His Body, that we are members precisely of Him, and so we are incapable of externalizing Him if we are truly in a proper relationship with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ our God. He is not “out there” but we are “in Him” and “of Him” if we are truly members of His Body the Church. There are no two ways about this. The process of sanctification, called by our Eastern Orthdox tradition theosis, is ongoing, a life of immersion in the Body of Christ that leads to a sea-change in our lives. As we humbly let go, and let God the Holy Spirit like a Holy Fire pass through us and purify us of our passions, we are more and more like the gold tried by the fire, purer and purer. But this worship, this intra-familial love, is not something directed outward, but, to quote the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, “holy things for the holy.” It is the hand honoring the head, the heart, the shoulders. It is the Body standing erect, supporting the Head. It is the symphony of members of the Body of Christ in a holy life, organically living in an ongoing act of worship that breathes God the Holy Spirit for air.

What of that sea change, that complete transformation?

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange . . . .
Wm Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 1, scene 2

There is no sea-change into the rich and strange without immersion into the ocean itself. Staying on the shore, proclaiming love for the ocean will do nothing. Basing one’s life and character upon the movement of the ocean will do nothing. One must be immersed, baptized, in it. That ocean is Christ.

The world is turned upside down

Death itself was invaded and conquered by Life, in that God Himself entered death and He sanctified it, abolishing it not just for Himself, but for all in His glorious grace. The Law of Moses, particularly the ritual law entailing separation between the holy and unholy, between life and death metaphorically and literally, was then also abolished, through the change of everything in death by Christ our God. With death sanctified by the presence of God within its boundaries, a Presence that it was by nature utterly incapable of holding, death itself was healed, and no longer separate from God. The Law collapses at this indistinction between life and death, and the ritual requirements can no longer hold, when the basis of their distinctive separation between life and death has been overturned. The Holy entered death, that we might enter life. The world is turned upside down, in glory to God. Death, formerly everlasting, is now temporary, while life, formerly temporary, will be everlasting.

We have received this promise: He will come, and when He has granted us everlasting life, death’s last victim will be death itself, and everything will be made anew.

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen! Glory to His third day resurrection!

Holy and Good

God is holy. And good. And love. The presence of God sanctifies, through His very nature, and in love, heals. Sanctification is the goal of Christian life, not teaching, not good works, not a life of prayer. All of these things will spring from the fountain of sanctification. This time of year is one to remember our Lord and God, who came into the world personally, sanctifying human existence itself, healing it, and thereby healing all of us. His assumption of all the sufferings of humanity, the day to day woes, the brutality of violence, even the darkness of death itself, has led all of these things to be sanctified and healed. Even though we may not sense it now, because we are always repenting, always working to change our perception to be more like that of God, the deed is done, from Incarnation through Passion to Resurrection and Ascension. It takes that Spiritual vision, a precious gift of God’s grace, to see the perfection, to catch a glimpse, however short, of the blue sky beyond the clouds. Someday, there will be no more such clouds. This season we celebrate the birth of our Lord and God as a humble infant, the most helpless of creatures. But in His plan, His first arrival is the guarantee of the second, when He will come with all power and glory, and all will be healed. There is no other possibility. All will be healed. That is the work of the Mighty God, a work of love, and good, and holiness. In approaching that manger, like the shepherds, and beholding the infant, and hearing the glorification of the angelic host, we should only add to their hymns: Come, our Lord! Come!

Absence and Presence

…of Mystery, that is.

Not precisely a mid-life crisis, but perhaps a crisis of blog direction. The academic is more and more unsatisfying, while the faithful is increasingly more satisfying. This is due to simple quality, and an avoidance of stodgy, fusty studiousness, the academic failure of conscience represented in its obsessive qualification of every point, and just the disgust at the direction academic Biblical studies have gone/arrived at.

Part of the problem with the “scientific” approach to Life, the Bible, and everything is that it leaves no room for Mystery. Now I don’t mean “mystery” in the Agatha Christie sense, or even in the Godforsaken “Da Vinci Code” sense, as in a whodunnit. That’s quite obvious. Nor is it a reference to any general mystery, as in a tough problem that needs solving though this is closer. “Mystery” in the Christian sense are those items of our Faith which have been revealed to us, without explanation, as either beliefs to hold or practices to do. We do not, in this life, receive the answer. Indeed, maybe the answer is simply, “Because that’s the way it is.” Certainly, though, because this is the Way.

Avoiding the mysteries, or seeking to explain them, both of these approaches have dire consequences. We have the mystery of Man and Woman as Humanity, and Marriage as the only proper environment for their joining in sex and the production of children. Those nations which have altered this institution are, frankly, failing. Their populations are now in serious decline. Those nations which still hold to a strongly traditional approach to Marriage, even if they are not Christian, have population growth. Seeking to explain why this is so runs into so many walls that we’d rather avoid, walls which call into question everything dear to our modern, civilized selves, walls of privacy, freedom, intervention, trust, love, sex, life, death, and many others. Mystery stands against them all, a vast, unshakable reality, saying, “This is real, and works. That is not real, and doesn’t work.”

In Biblical Studies, it’s atrocious what’s happened. All Mystery, even mystery as in oddities requiring explanation, have been removed. Oddities are given an unlikely explanation which is accepted because scholars find it impossible to admit ignorance. After all, are we not all led to believe that they are most prized for its opposite? But stripping Mystery from the foundational text of our cultures is wrong, as well. There’s something unusual in that Book of Books, something far more compelling than just a classic of literature. There’s Mystery. Avoiding mention of that 800 pound gorilla is a scholarly art form. And despicable.

[From my scribere jottings, as is, which particular one I liked, so here you go! It dates from mid-May, which accounts for the mention of the entirely passé mention of yon Da Bacle.]