‘My Lord and my God!’ A Reflection for the Feast Day of St Thomas the Apostle (3rd July 2022) from Krista Ovist

Last November when Ian invited me to offer a Reflection at the beginning of Advent, the Gospel reading for that day forced me to admit that I do not expect the end of the world to be announced by the return of Jesus on a cloud.  And now, today, the Gospel reading for the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle forces me to admit that I do not believe in personal resurrection.  I do not expect my consciousness – the subjectivity and unique integral being I now experience myself to be – to survive the great leap of death

I do, however, expect to be kept in eternal life.  I expect all that composes me to decompose; to disperse and participate in endless far-flung re-compositions – resurrections, I will call them – new beginnings born from new endings.  Or, as my favourite poet, Walt Whitman, put it: I expect to ‘effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.’  And I expect the consequences of my having been composed as I am now to go on forever in innumerable, incalculable ways.

Like many of you, in other words, I do not take the resurrection accounts – and much else in the Bible besides – literally.  I do not take them at face value as records of miracles that have actually occurred.  Yet I would not like to say that I take them figuratively either.  What is figurative, after all, about the kind of resurrection I have just described: being kept in eternal life, implicated in ongoing transformation through the twin processes of birth and death, system organization and entropy?  I would say, instead, that I read the Bible in search of figurative meanings that I can take literally.

The story of doubting Thomas is a good example.

Here we are, post-Pentecost and well into so-called ‘ordinary time’, when the story Thomas suddenly blows us back to the wilderness of Easter – to that be-wildering interval between the empty tomb and the Ascension, the time of the resurrection appearances when everything was, in a very real sense, out of order for the disciples – confused and confusing, in flux and transformation.

Odd, you may think, to talk of the time of the resurrection appearances as a wilderness.  But, in Acts, Luke uses a clear biblical figure of transformative ordeal to suggest this very idea.  He writes that, after Jesus’ passion but before his Ascension, Jesus ‘showed himself alive’ to his chosen apostles ‘during forty days’ (Acts 1.3) .  Like the Flood, and the wandering of the Israelites in the desert of Sinai, and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, the time of the resurrection appearances was a forty-unit measure of turmoil.  Contrary to what we might suppose, it was not a Golden Age in the presence of God, but a passage through perilous uncertainty.  It was a version of the awful-wonderful, barren-teaming wilderness Sue Chin invited us to contemplate during Lent, where fearful attention is required to discern what to outgrow and what to become next.

Scholars who have compared the traditional initiation rites of indigenous people around the world argue that these rites often exhibit a three-phase structure.1  First, groups of initiates undergo separation from the rest of their society.  Second, while in this seclusion they witness revelations.  Their elders show them marvellous, monstrous things: fantastic images composed of opposites – part male, part female; part human, part non-human – images of impossible things contrary to everyday experience, images that reveal the rushing torrent of mutability below the surface of ordinary life, masks that unmask the chaos behind order.  Scholars call this phase the ‘liminal phase’, based on the Latin word (limen) for a threshold or limit, because in this phase initiates themselves, like the objects they are shown, are on a threshold, ‘betwixt and between’.  They are neither children as before, nor yet the adults they will become; they are in the throes of a mighty metamorphosis.  Then, finally, the initiates reintegrate into society, ready to accept adult roles and responsibilities.

It seems to me that the story of the formation of the early church fits this initiation paradigm remarkably well.  If we read the Gospel accounts together with Acts, we find several indications that, after Easter morning, the disciples withdrew and hid themselves from the rest of Jewish society.  They took a kind of wilderness retreat and, in their seclusion entered a kind of liminal phase.  Like initiates, they were betwixt and between: neither the followers of an itinerant preacher and healer as they had been before, nor yet the missionaries whose re-engagement with the world would generate the holy catholic and apostolic church.

And here is where John’s unique attention to Thomas becomes central to my search for a figurative meaning that I can take literally.  It was during this liminal phase that the disciples are said to have witnessed revelations: namely, the resurrection appearances of Jesus.  But what was it they were shown?

This symbolic story suggests to me that, like initiates, the disciples were shown something marvellous and monstrous, something fantastic composed of opposites – part life, part death; something as betwixt and between as themselves: no longer a living man in any conventional sense, nor a lifeless corpse, but an image of life and death eternally and creatively conjoined.

If it were not for the story of Thomas, however, I might miss this.  I might be inclined to imagine that the evidence of life was all that mattered in the resurrection appearances.  But Thomas leads my gaze to the evidence of death – to the fatal wounds he probes to convince himself that the being before him has really died and is not just the power of life but also the power of death.  ‘My Lord, and my God!’ he exclaims, able only to worship this awesome unedited reality.

To have faith in this – in the eternal co-existence of birth and death – is not to embrace ‘blind faith’ and accept what is presented as authoritative without reliable, repeatable demonstration; it is only to believe what is palpably evident at every moment: a brute fact if ever there was one, at once monstrous and wonderful.  And so I can say that I take these verses literally.  They declare an unchanging truth by means of a gripping and unforgettable story – what we call the Gospel.  It is Gospel Truth.  And with Thomas I can stand in awe and worship this self-evident mystery as ‘My Lord and my God!’

1See, especially:
Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (1909)
Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols (1967)
Jean La Fontaine, Initiation: Ritual Drama and Secret Knowledge Across the World (1985)

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