St. Thomas the Apostle, whose day we observe today, had his fifteen minutes of fame in the week after Easter, when he doubted that our Lord had really risen from the dead. To remember him on Dec 21, just before Christmas, seems out of sync as a result. But if Thomas has ended up being the patron saint of doubters, he will have lots of activity right now.
Because Incarnation is not the way we would have done it, let alone a virgin birth to a humble peasant woman. It is not reasonable that someone is both human and divine, both sharing in the Godhead and in the most intense activities of humanity. Our belief system, which we consider reasonable, is that virgins do not conceive. We tend not to believe anyone who claims to have done so. And when people allege they are divine, we tend to lock them up in mental facilities. The doubts that Thomas experienced in regard to the Resurrection present essentially the same problem as doubting the Incarnation, since someone returning from death to life goes against our normal experience as well.
In contemplating this, the first question is how do we formulate what we accept as fact. Modern man is oriented to believe in the senses. If we can touch, smell, taste, see or hear something, it must be real. If everyone around us can replicate the same sensory apprehension, it must be scientific fact. This limits our scientific knowledge to the material environment and things which can be clearly deduced from it. When science strays from this (as in pontificating the age of the planet, for instance), it often enters an unscientific world of speculation which negates the authenticity of the scientific method. Jesus fully accommodates Thomas in this regard, inviting him to place his hand on the physical wounds to prove he is not some kind of spook or apparition.
We are not given the same opportunity. But in establishing the Eucharist, we are provided with a similar anchor. God is fully aware of our need for material evidence and our mistrust of both spiritual and abstract realities. The material sacrament which carries the reality of Christ’s presence is the continuous replay of the interaction between Thomas and Jesus. We who doubt and question are offered the chance to “taste and see,” and to react in response with “my Lord and my God.”
This is the tremendous comfort and affirmation of Emmanuel, God with us, which is at the heart of the Incarnation. It is very possible to get detoured by the details. How does Jesus enter the molecular structure of bread and wine to implement his presence? How did the Holy Spirit infuse male chromosomes to generate the incarnate birth? These may be interesting mental exercises to practice. But they are ultimately beside the point. Just as there are medical treatments which are known to work but we are not sure how they do so, the important fact is that Christ is present, both through Incarnation and Eucharist, without us having, or needing, a scientific roadmap of the process.
Ultimately, everything of certainty is washed away for those who need “proof.” This is true not only for Incarnation and Eucharist, but for the existence of my kitchen table or my shoes as well. The latter objects depend on my senses. But my senses, and yours, can be notoriously unreliable. What do we really see and feel? Science tells us these apparently solid material things are actually crowds of dancing molecules and atoms. Likewise, “proof” of God’s presence cannot be had. To be sure, the assertion that the earth is the Lord’s is probably a better explanation than other theories for how it came to be, but that is not the same as proof. There is, in fact, no proof of anything at all, only shared assumptions, some of which are very convincing and some of which are challenged by many of us.
After Jesus gives Thomas the physical, sensory evidence he craves, he comments “blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believe” (John 20:29). Which brings us back to the Nativity. Accepting Christmas is a belief in the concrete existence of love, something that cannot be seen under a microscope but which manifests its existence, for those who perceive, in a myriad of ways and a plethora of beings. Love has a genesis in a divine center and radiates from that energy source. It exists outside of scientific parameters but is a firmly existing reality forming the motivation and foundation for creation and for the continuation of life.
It seems strange to doubt that but believe without question in the molecules of my shoes. Yet we do. It is perhaps very appropriate to observe St. Thomas Day on Dec. 21 after all, because it is the darkest day of the year, and when we doubt is when we are least enlightened, just as it is our darkest moments when we are alienated from love the most.
And like the rhythm of the solar year, doubt and faith dance together, as light and darkness do in the pattern of the natural order. Christmas is the celebration of light come into the world at the darkest moment, just as doubt can strengthen faith through its challenge, until we, with Christ can overcome it and move on towards greater enlightenment, the Presence persuading us through the compelling reality of his love.
With Thomas, we doubt. Like him, we are confronted by Incarnation, right in front of our noses. It is not how we would have done it, because it is not the way humans reason. But there it is, in the plan of the God who loves too much to abandon us in our distress, the humble birth, the humble forms of bread and wine, carrying the real presence from the highest glory.