It always strikes me, as December 21 rolls around, that doubting Thomas crashes Christmas. His feast day turns up, you guessed it, today. It transports us from holiday preparation, from hopeful Advent observance, to the days after Jesus died, when rumors of resurrection were surfacing, and disciples were locked behind closed doors, for fear of the authorities.
I’m not enough of a scholar to know exactly why his feast day ended up on this day. But one thing it tells me is that fear and doubt are part of the biblical record, from beginning to end. It’s true of the Christmas story, as we’re told shepherds were terrified, or as the King James Version so artfully puts it, they were sore afraid. Angels repeat the message to Joseph and Mary, in separate encounters: “Be not afraid.” Mary wonders: “How can this be?’ She ponders it all in her heart, which makes me imagine that she must have had doubts along the way.
And then Thomas helicopters in, you know, the one who goes down in history as the one who doubts. Skeptic, cynic, loser. That doesn’t always strike me as 100% fair. I imagine that he might well be an Episcopalian if he were around today. He is not alone, for the gospels tell us that fear and doubt surfaced in many of the appearances of Jesus after he was resurrected.
Maybe fear and doubt are part of your story. Fear is in the air, energizing political campaigns as 24/7 news services fuel that fire. This former ad guy will tell you that fear is one of the great motivators. (One of the campaigns I worked on had this tagline: You can pay me now or you can pay me later.)
And there is plenty of reason to doubt. In my own journey, doubts have many sources. It’s just too good to be true. I’ve been disappointed too many times. It doesn’t make sense. If God is in charge of the universe, how can this happen? If God is working through religious people, why isn’t the world a better place? Why do so many religious people of all traditions often seem so mean?
I’m grateful to have found my way to the Episcopal Church, as our Presiding Bishop describes it, a part of the Jesus movement. This denomination has a special vocation to celebrate questions, to welcome skeptics, to work it through. That has been a huge gift in my own spiritual journey, as I’ve resonated with what folks have said about doubt. For instance:
Frederick Buechner called doubt the “ants in the pants of faith.”
Paul Tillich noted that doubt is “not the opposite of faith, it is an element of faith.”
Emily Dickinson said: “We both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble.”
But doubt is not destination. It is discovery, integral to nimble faith. The fear and doubt the shepherds knew led them to worship at the manger. The fear and doubt Thomas knew led him to see Jesus in a new way, to offer one of the great affirmations in the gospels as he addresses Jesus as “My Lord and my God.”
Our church calendar invites us to recognize fear and doubt as part of the journey. No wonder. How amazing that the word would become flesh and dwell among us! Whatever fears and doubts you bring to this day, whatever their source, see them as a possibility for discovery, for learning, for new life, as we await the arrival of the one called Immanuel, which means “God with us”, with us in our fears and doubts.
Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with the other disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, 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. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 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 have come to believe.”