Monday, December 22, 2014

St. Thomas Comes to Bethlehem

St. Thomas’ feast day was yesterday, but, since it fell on a Sunday, it gets transferred to today. At first, I wondered whether I should pause long enough in my pre-Christmas-sermon-writing routine to reflect on the over-familiar story of Thomas and his moment of doubt, but, as I prepare to make the trip to Bethlehem and hear the story of Mary and Joseph and the no-room inn and the angels and the shepherds, I realize that today is the perfect day to remember Thomas.

Thomas’ story (John 20:24-29) is read every year on the second Sunday of Easter, which means that while our ears are still burning with the news of the empty tomb, we stop to consider just how unlikely the story is. Thomas embodies our own doubts. He plays the role of the post-enlightenment skeptic. He reveals that such doubt and disbelief isn’t just a modern reaction to a supernatural text. His doubts were first-century doubts, and they are reasonable in any generation.

In John’s gospel account, Thomas’ doubts are overcome by Jesus’ invitation to put his finger in the marks of the nails and his hand in Jesus’ gaping side. We notice, however, that Thomas stops short of taking that step. Instead, the mere invitation to encounter the physicality of the resurrection is enough to overcome his doubts: “My Lord and my God!” In other words, John brings his reader to the moment of potential touch but asserts that the confidence that comes from the testimony of those who were in that room is enough to bring us to faith: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And so we find ourselves hearing again the unbelievable story of the Virgin’s birth. We wonder again whether it was possible for the power of the Holy Spirit to come upon Mary so that the child she would bear could be holy. Is it possible that God himself could take on human nature in the Incarnation? Could it be that God’s own son was brought into the world in such a lowly birth? We cannot go and see the manger ourselves. Instead, we must hear the testimony of others and discover whether faith can take hold in our hearts.

This time, Jesus doesn’t ask us to place our finger or hand in the marks of the nails or in his side. This time, we aren’t invited to hold the infant Jesus or hear him coo. Instead, we must ask ourselves whether it is possible for God to be with us in our moments of need. Do we feel that God has taken upon himself our very brokenness? Can we feel that we are not alone in our times of suffering? Yes, our doubts are real and reasonable. But the overwhelming witness of two-thousand years confirms that God is not only above us but among us and with us and even within us.

Thomas teaches us that God is more powerful than our doubts. That is as true at Christmas as it is at Easter. Even if we doubt that God is with us in our moments of deepest need, God is able to break through and come beside us. Hear the invitation not to come to the manger and see the baby Jesus with your own eyes. Instead, hear the story from long ago as an invitation to search for God’s real presence in your own life. How does the truth of the Incarnation overcome even your most persistent doubts?

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