It is always very pleasant to write on spiritual matters on the eighth day after the Feast of the Resurrection. In the Byzantine tradition, this is the Sunday when we recall the disciple and apostle Saint Thomas, Mar Thomas as we say in Aramaic. He was not present when Jesus appeared as the resurrected Lord to the disciples at the Upper Room at Mount Zion. It is written: “When the doors were closed for fear of the Jews” (John 20: 19-31). “mipakhad haYehudim – מפחד היהודים” (out of fear of the Jews) traces back to the Scroll of Esther. It should be emphasized – without any a negative interpretation toward anyone!
“The city of Shushan shouted aloud, the Jews rejoiced in the light, the joy, the happiness, the respect (honor)” (Esther 8, 17, read on the day of Purim ). The text continues: “In every province and city, when the decrees and commandments of the King were made public, the Jews rejoiced and organized festivities on that day, and many of the locals (me’amei haaretz-) mityahadim – מתיהדים / confessed (joined, adhered) the faith of the Jews because they were afraid of Jews had come upon them (ki-nafal pakhad-haYehudim aleyhem = they were seized by a fear of the Jews – כינפל פחד היהודים עליהם) ( Esther 8:17).
This fear of the Jews has traditionally been understood as a negative element rooted in ancient times, in particular when the Christians separated from the Jews and started to exclude them progressively along the centuries.
Yet, this expression in the Scroll of Esther is interesting because, to begin with, it refers to the unexpected salvaging of the Jewish people that should have been exterminated according to the project of Haman. The Jews suddenly understood that they had been saved from extermination. They burst into some extravagant joy when, in fact, Chapter 9 of the Scroll of Esther describes how they had avenged themselves in a very perilous context. They subsequently decided to kill their many enemies. Is it possible to kill in the name of some religious creed? History shows that human beings are quick to assassinate their opponents, those who are alien to who they think they are. It is definitely a great danger when it comes to spiritual convictions, faiths, religions.
Then, a special spirit of retaliation may come up against those who could have murdered some human group whose members were not likely to “convert” to their victorious doctrine. True, many people were killed in several Biblical accounts, with the intention to support some spiritual values (e.g. the destruction of the Baals by the prophet Elijah). Still, it should be noted that this “fear of the Jews” is linked to the cult of the One God. Intriguingly, the faith that the Jews confessed as recounted in the Book of Esther had become the prey of the first and most ancient “final solution” project of extermination. The Hebrew text does not mention the Name of God: the Lord is concealed during such a tragic event. The apocryphical prayers, said by Esther and Mordechai, in the Greek and Latin versions do mention the Name of the Master of the universe.
It is interesting to analyze the parallels with the appearance of Jesus on the eighth day after Thomas affirmed that he would only believe if he could put his hands in the side of Jesus and the fingers in the mark of the nails. When Thomas saw Jesus, he quoted Psalm 5: “My king and my God = מלכי ואלהי“ , showing that he really believed, indeed felt true faith.
It could be possible to say that the “fear of the Jews” in the context of the Scroll of Esther proves that true faith never corresponds to some evident matter. Who would admit and acknowledge to the full that God saves, frees and protects the humans, the creatures? We witness crimes, murders, violence, rapes. These acts of deep wickedness and transgression have shown the absence of humanness in societies that have tried to search some collective agreements for peace and hope. Along the centuries, we became convinced that the exists some common heritage, culture and religion – a true goal or in-born pedigree to be connected altogether by one faith. As centuries passed, it developed into other, often stiff realities.
During the Vespers of Love celebrated at the end of the day of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the phrase “in fear of the Jews” appears to be quite negative. We do not see that by the time of Jesus and the disciples – when a few disciples and Mary the Mother of the Lord were together at the Upper Room at Mount Zion – this “fear of the Jews” was a full part of the cultural heritage of Jesus’ followers. There was a direct connection with the Scroll of Esther, which is definitely not evident nowadays in the Christian circles. The Christian believers usually o not know that, during the festivities of Passover, the Jewish tradition continuously refers to the Book of Esther and the numerous commentaries of the miraculous salvaging act that took place in Shushan.
Mar Thomas’ day – actually the first Sunday after Pascha in the Byzantine Church – is the Anti-Pascha, the Easter Day, Resurrection Day that faces the Night in which the memorial of the rising of Jesus from the dead became true … after some hours and days and for Mary Magdalene first. Act of faith! the expression became “auto da fé” in Portuguese and reversed the meaning of what faith normally reveals. An Act of faith can turn to be an act of violence, of destruction. Some pious people carried out such “auto da fé” by burning books or men, women, children in the name of some “divinity”. We see how dramatic this continues at the present.
There are negative aspects expressed by some expressions that revolves from a highly positive conviction that The Lord is One. It is incumbent upon the true believers to act positively. We sing this along the Great Compline. It is so moving during the Bright Paschal week. The royal gates of the iconostasis are open. The big “Artos” (Bread blessed during the Night of the Resurrection) is there on the ambo. It is the sign that the Holy Communion, shared to feed the faithful, consists of this act of true faith that continues over the week as the resurrection of the Lord is confessed as a Church body. Truly He is risen, He is risen indeed!
The faith of St. Thomas corresponds to what is celebrated today the Orthodox and Eastern Church: the faith of the one who, by some Providence, was absent when Jesus, resurrected from the dead, had come to the Upper Room. We can speak of some “felix absentia – blessed absence”. This absence of the disciple was a requirement for the sake of faith.
Thomas was absent and required to see the Risen Lord. It was quite pragmatic. He wanted to touch… whom to touch? How did Jesus look as he appeared in the shape of the resurrected? We cannot fathom this moment. Thomas had a very substantial question. It was not only a question, a requirement. He wanted to put his fingers into the wounds, the marks of the nails. There is no evidence that he touched the Lord when he saw him. He just burst into a cry of faith, a quotation from the Psalm, i.e. an well-known expression. He saw and believed at once, he had faith.
The Eastern traditions of Christendom insist on the resurrection of the Lord. We focus on his breaking-through the silence of death. Of course, we compare the texts, the sources of the Gospels, the Biblical Scriptures. It makes sense to read the Talmudic tractates and also to consider the numerous Middle-Eastern mythological accounts. Exegetical and ethno-historical comparisons allow to show similar prophetic situations.
Interpretation is based on true faith that these books witness to the Living Treasure revealed and transmitted since ancient times. We do not see, we do not attest by our own experience that these events took place and are described in multi-faceted ways by the Christian writings. Faith supplies. The dynamic act of liberation and flight from Egypt is a memorial, a living act perpetrated each year on Nisan 14th. It occurs on the the exact date of the month that follows Adar 14th when Esther saved the Jews from Haman’s project to exterminate them all. A fairy tale? An oriental text rooted in some remote experience? Or is it a prophetic sign inscribed in the Divine design to show the Divine Presence and give the opportunity to share it? Some people may be doubtful, of course! – and consider these are legends. Faith relies upon events, persons, acts and societal contexts that we do not see, will never be a part of.
The Jewish Feast of the Unleavened Breads was over when Jesus came for the first time to visit the disciples assembled at the Upper Room. The word “matzah/מצה = unleavened bread” is written in the same way as “mitzvot/מצות = the Commandments (of the Torah). After the eight days of unleavened bread, the Jews eat anew some leavened breads or doughs that grow, raise up as signs of life.
Eight days after the Night of the resurrection, the Eastern Orthodox will share the “Artos”, the leavened bread that prolongs the graceful presence of the Lord. Bread is the nourishment that grows in this period of the year into the first Pesach crops, the first harvest of Spring time as it exists in the Fertile Crescent.
The Christians of the Early Church of Zion and Jerusalem did not communicate with a full awareness of What/Who the risen Body and Blood of the Lord IS. The institution of the Eucharist did not take place at the time of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He shared bread with some of his disciples. These who ate it suddenly understood that he was in their midst as the resurrected Messiah.
During the period from the resurrection to the Ascension, Jesus of Nazareth was to be seen because of the fraction of the bread, a very usual and fundamental act performed during the meals. Breaking the bread and sharing it led to open the eyes of individuals and groups. It was not the Sacrament of the Lord’s presence since he was with the disciples.
It is quite interesting that the Lord was to be recognized at the fraction of a piece of bread and then could disappear. Thomas had not seen the resurrected Lord and could not imagine or see him. He needed “to have a real look” at Jesus risen from the dead and required to touch him in order to have faith. The fraction of the bread consisted for Jesus to give a piece of bread as a full sign of his presence and resurrection. This caused the disciples to see and touch (taste) him by an act of faith.
It is also significant that the radical of the name of Thomas is “Tëom\תאום = twin (brother)” in Hebrew, “ܬܐܡܐ / tuma” in Aramaic, Didymos in Greek. Thomas is “the joined one, the close-to-[Jesus] one”. It means something special. We always refer to the lack of faith of the disciple. Did he react with some stubbornness? After two millenia, pious Christians would consider that his interrogation about the “risen Lord” has been introduced in order to show how a deep sentiment of absence of faith can be evident… and abnormal though, because “normal” believers are told to confess the Risen Lord at all times, in all situations whatsoever.
History has proved that it is absolutely not evident. There may be another explanation: the disciple’s name could also mean that Thomas was and remains forever the twin man, totally identical to his Master, of the same nature of vivid faith. Just as Jesus had called Nathanael a “true Israelite”, Thomas is the one who perfectly matched with the Messiah. Jesus told him something that is undoubtedly relevant: “Be not faithless, but believing [ἄπιστος, ἀλλὰ πιστός]”.It is not a matter of creed, but of fulfillment in faith.
It was not a poll. The question can be compared to the question that Jesus had asked to Peter: “Simon, son of Yonas, who am I according to what people say?” (Matthew 16:16 ss.) Peter had confessed him as the Messiah six days before the Feast of the Booths. Here, Thomas’ interrogation is evident. He was not present when the Lord had first come to the Upper Room. The other disciples did not ask to check if Jesus really was the Resurrected. They had seen and had been convinced that he was the One he was. Thomas wanted more.
The account of Saint John transmits a very precious way of apprehending reality. Jesus appeared to the disciples as a crucified man and still… his divine nature and person would prevent any other individual to physically check that he was risen and alive. The Byzantine verses are known as it is said that Thomas had a “curious hand, an investigating hand”. There is no proof that he indeed put his fingers into the wounds of the Lord. On the contrary, he turned to be totally faithful. His mood of believing is thus comparable to a full identification with Christ whom he had followed and confessed as the true Savior. In that sense, he remains the model of how to “clutch” to the Messiah whom the Abba – Father of All had risen from the dead. Thomas proved to be his native twin. He did not accept Jesus’ transfiguration after his death in a mood that could depend on human predication or capacity to convince human beings. He had become like the other disciples who all had seen the risen Lord.
True faith in God would pre-suppose, in order to be authentic and sincere, that a person or a people do believe in Him because they have reached a particular level of conscience. It means that this degree of awareness is limited by a sort of blindness, comparable to some impossibility to see the Lord whilst still being capable to confess Him – despite his being absent. The same is said about how Jesus Christ explained to Thomas the way the true believers are not to be faithless, but truly believing.
This is profoundly present in the Jewish Passover and the Night of the flight from Egypt, the eating of the unleavened bread and the forty-nine/fifty days that move on till the Feast of the Giving of the Written and Oral Law (Feast of the Weeks/Shavuot). On that festive day that marks the completion of the Paschal salvaging act, the Holy Spirit was pouring down onto the disciples and those who were present in Jerusalem.
In the Jewish tradition, the “counting of the Omer, of the barley measure that was offered in the Temple” begins on the second day of Passover and ends, 49-50 days later, on the Feast of the Weeks. This measure of grain corresponds to what barley means in the scriptural tradition, i.e. the soul of animals (nefesh behemit/נפש בהמית) that, on the fiftieth day will reach to the power of existence, conscience, holiness. It is a way of ascending till the Jewish nation is able to make a clear distinction between goodness and evil through the Commandments of the Living Law. The nascent tribes in the Sinai could commence the work of building one nation that will not be based upon material matters but will comply with the will of the Master of the whole universe.
The fifty days that started with the Night of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, follow the same pattern as in the measures of barley till it is replaced by wheat (corn) and matures into the total Presence of the Resurrected. This includes a process that develops from personal, ego-centered and temporal appreciation of existence. Then, all the nations can be united by the one invisible Body Who teaches how consciousness allows to accept the will of the Lord.
According to the tradition, Mar Thomas-Toma journeyed through the Middle-East and died as a martyr in India where he had created several congregations of Christians. They do exist at the present, quite dynamic, segmented in different jurisdictions. During the Qurbono-Qurobo (Eucharist, Sacrifice of the Lord) often celebrated in the Indian Malayayam language, the priests continue to say the words of the Consecration in Aramaic. We should be aware of the this extension of the Church toward the East of Jerusalem and the richness of what brotherhood in Jesus Christ means along the continents.