Things are hard and the message of Advent, the days before Christmas, is not to cheer up, but to look up. The redemption of all people is coming, but it is coming on God’s timing.
That frustrates me and I suspect I am not the only one.
We want help when we think we need it, but God insists on giving it when we really need it.
The days before the first Christmas were dark days for the Jewish people. Jesus came and He came at the best possible moment, but also at the last possible moment.
Good was exhausted and Rome which had started well, establishing law and peace around much of the Mediterranean world, was degenerating into tyranny and brutality. Judaism was tempted, most sorely tempted, to become just another religious option in a polytheistic world, a reverse-Dawkins where men believed too much rather than too little.
There was almost no hope, but almost no hope is not the same as no hope. It was sensible, reasonable really, to doubt, but the very doubts were still driving men to look for salvation.
Rash men never doubt, foolish men men never doubt, cowards justify themselves with doubt, but a brave man doubts his way to hope.
The celebration of the brave man is one reason, I suspect, that some of the Church celebrates the feast of Saint Thomas on this day, December 21. It is the darkest day, as my Dad liked to point out when I was a boy, the days get longer from this point on.
Mid-Summer is coming!
Thomas was a brave man. How do we know? His followers knew that Jesus had enemies amongst the powerful. He had offended too many by refusing to accept the claims of the establishment to all power and authority.
When Jesus insisted on traveling to Jerusalem right before Passover, the wiser amongst his students knew there would be trouble. They went after him, because they loved him. Thomas was one of these brave men.
In John 11:16, Thomas says:
“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
History would deal Thomas’ courage Roman blow after Roman blow. He saw his teacher murdered by a rigged trial. He saw him buried and then he nearly despaired. When some of the other students of Jesus said they had seen Jesus alive, Thomas would not believe.
Thomas, like many of us, had received so many blows from the world, the flesh, and the devil, that he almost lost the will to believe. Wouldn’t it dishonor his pain to accept any easy cure?
Peter said, but he was not Peter. John reported, but he was not John. Mary believed, but Thomas was not Mary. He had not seen and so he could not believe, but he also did not go.
He stayed and waited. His was an act of hope and hope is not yet faith, but given even the slightest evidence, it can become faith, and faith can heal the most broken heart.
If you know the Bible at all, you don’t know Thomas as a brave follower, but this wounded doubter. Here is the story (John 20):
24Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
26Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Thomas saw, he touched, and he believed.
Today we are in hard times. We have been battered and bruised by our own history. We have failed many we should have helped and many who should have helped us have harmed us. So many have let us down and we have let down so many that we are almost hopeless.
But not quite, because we still long for Christmas. We know the “day” itself might disappoint us and we are certainly too old to think toys can make us happy, but we still hope. We know that deep down Christmas is the story of Jesus and we hope that He is still alive.
We hope that the baby born in Bethlehem did not stay a baby, did not stay dead, but lives. I once met an atheist who sneered I followed a “zombie god,” but I thought this meant he had, perhaps, missed the point.
Jesus is not undead, but alive. He is the evidence, if it is all true, that personal life is more powerful than death. We don’t just want to believe that life is more powerful than death, because we miss so many individuals who have died.
A universe teeming with life is no consolation to a man who has lost a single beloved.
Jesus said something directed to us in this passage to Thomas. He said that we would be happy, blessed, if we could believe before we could see.
This made no sense to me at all during parts of my life. Why not just come? Why not show Himself? Why not overpower all my doubts with one glance?
I suspect that Jesus refuses to overpower our will, hides, because He wants us to choose to love Him. There is sufficient evidence in the cosmos, in history, in our personal experience to have hope transformed to faith, but not enough reason to doubt to keep choice alive.
We can face the darkness as it is, but we can also believe that the Light is coming.
There is no pretense in Christianity. We admit that He is not here now in the same way He was here or that He will be here. Jesus was, is, and is to come, but for now He is physically absent.
We long for Him. We long to be sure, but right now surety would not be good for us. We must grow up, must learn to walk up right and stop crawling, we must put away toys and learn to be adults.
He guides us, prods us, gives us the very grace that gives us hope. This dark night will end and we will see Him face to face. For every man or woman reading these words it will certainly come within one hundred years.
Death itself will free us to see Him. We will bow and say, “My Lord and my God” and faith will become knowledge. Certainly will replace hope and joy will transform all sorrows.
Today, December 21, the night is longest and the day is shortest, Christmas is coming. Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.