Monday, December 21, 2009

Apostle to India

St. Thomas thrusting his fingers into the wounds of the Risen Christ,
depicted in a Gospel Lectionary copied in Salah in 1227
for the church of Mor Sobo in Hah.

Tomb of St. Thomas, Apostle,
in Mylapore, India, near Madras

Today I was trying to remember, and praying for, people I knew who were named "Thomas": my late stepfather, Tom DeHaven; my seminary classmate, Tom Stang; a dear friend from college teaching days in Kansas, Sister Thomasine, ASC; Tom McCoy, 16 year old son of Kevin and Lee-Ann McCoy, whose marriage I celebrated in August, 1983 at Lake Almanor, and brother of Savannah, whom I baptized at Susanville in 1985: 24 years ago tomorrow; Fr. Thomas Aquinas, OCSO, my novice master at the Abbey of the Holy Trinity in Utah in 1960; and another Trappist friend, Fr. Thomas Davis, OCSO, former abbot at New Clairvaux Abbey in Vina, CA, near Chico, who recently emailed me from Jerusalem. A blessed namesday to all through the intercession of St. Thomas!

Legend has it that St. Thomas the Apostle arrived in Kerala c. 52 A.D. He preached in Mylapore, India, near Chennai, not far from Madras, where he suffered martyrdom c. 72 A.D. and where his tomb is kept today. The Syriac Christians in southwest India are called "Thomas Christians" or "Mar Thoma" Christians, because of the missionary efforts of St. Thomas. The independent Mar Thoma Churches of Malabar are in Communion with the Episcopal Church.

According to Fr. John Julian, OJN, the great Church historian and 4th century bishop, Eusebius, wrote that Thomas: "...was referred to by a label – "Tohmah" – which means “Twin” in Arabic. This was not a proper name, but when the Greek Gospel writers encountered the word, they didn’t understand that, and merely produced a Greek phonetic spelling of it as “Toh-mahs” and treated it as though it were the proper name of the Apostle. He came, therefore, to be known as “Thomas”. (Stars in a Dark World, p. 774)

The Gnostic Acts of Thomas in Syriac, where he is called Judas Thomas, attest that he brought the Gospels to India. It is believed that Thomas' body was transferred to Edessa in the 4th century. St. Ephrem's works note that the bones of St. Thomas were venerated there in his time. The great hymnodist alludes to the transferral of the bones in his Carmina Nisibena (42:1.1-2.2, Kathleen McVey, Ephrem the Syrian, Paulist Press, 1989, p. 25):

"The evil one wails, 'Where then
can I flee from the righteous?
I incited Death to kill the apostles
as if to escape from their scourges
by their death. More than ever now
I am scourged harshly. The apostle I killed in India
[has come] to Edessa before me. Here is he and also there.
I went there, there he is.
Here and there I found him, and I am gloomy.
Did that merchant carry the bones?
Or perhaps, indeed, they carried him!'"

His relics were said to have been moved from Edessa later and rediscovered in this century at the Syriac Orthodox Church of Mosul by His Holiness Mor Ignatius Zakka I, while he was the Archbishop of Mosul.

There are a number of apocryphal writings under his name: most notably the
Gospel of Thomas, discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1946 (2nd century); the Acts of St. Thomas which is of Syriac origin and dates back to the middle of the 3rd century, with translations in Greek, and portions in Latin, Ethiopic and Armenian; the Apocalypse of Thomas and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (all from the 3rd-4th centuries).

The Syriac Church commemorates the memory of St. Thomas on July 3rd, which marks the transfer of the remains of the Apostle to Edessa. The Church in India also commemorates the Apostle on the New Sunday after Easter, on December 18 when the Apostle is believed to have been speared, and on December 21 when he was martyred.

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