St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Thomas, the Apostle of India has a prominent place in the congregation of the Apostles of Jesus Christ. He was instrumental in the manifestation of the mystery of Heaven, which God had promised us through Jesus Christ. St. Thomas is also unique in taking his apostolic mission to a far off place like India. The Syrian Christians of Kerala have every right to boast of the rich tradition they have inherited from St. Thomas. Though some people are sceptical about the arrival of St. Thomas in India, there is no reason to disbelieve the pastoral work of St. Thomas as we have a lot of strong evidences. The recent excavations at Muziris (Pattanam), near Kodungalloor has clearly shown that trade relations existed between Kerala and the Middle East. So the chances of St. Thomas coming to the Kerala coast is very high and can be believed by corroborating with the traditional evidences.

Historical evidences

The earliest record about the apostolate of St. Thomas is the apocryphal Acts of Judas Thomas, written in Syriac popular in the Edessan circle (Edessa, today called Urfa, in eastern Turkey), about the turn of the third century A.D. Even though this work has been acknowledged as apocryphal, several scholars find in it a historical nucleus, which represents the second century tradition about the apostolate of St. Thomas in India.

There are references about St. Thomas in various documents written by early Church Fathers, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Ephrem, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose, Balai, Jacob of Sarug, Gregory of Tours, John of Saba, Isodore of Seville etc. All these testimonies are of a date prior to the commencement of the Malayalam era, i.e. A. D. 825. Many of these belong to centuries immediately following the first Ecumenical Council of 325 AD.

The Indian traditions of the Apostolate of Saint Thomas consist of a combined tradition of Kerala, Mylapore and the East-Syrian Church. Some details of this combined tradition was obtained from Rampanpattu and other folk songs popular among the Syrian Christians of Kerala. The people of Kerala undoubtedly possessed a rich oral tradition, which was reflected fully or partially in their folk songs in Margamkali, Parichamuttukali etc. and even in written records. Even though authenticity of these works cannot be traced back prior to the sixteenth century, there is no doubt that these percolated down through generations. The Portuguese people when they came to Kerala collected all these traditional works and had it documented. They are today the richest, and perhaps the earliest written sources of Indian tradition on the mission of Apostle Thomas in India, his death and burial at Mylapore.

The Chronicle of Seert states that in 300 AD, Bishop David of Basra visited India, travelled the country and won converts. As per records of the Council of Nicea, there was an attendance of 318 Bishops and out of this one was from India. At the Council of Nicea, during the writing of the Nicene Creed in 325 AD, Mar John has put his signature in the decrees of the Council. Along with the signature, Mar John has given the title as “Prelate of Metropolitan of Persia and the Bishop of Great India.”

Biography

St. Thomas was born a Jew in Galilee and was called to be one of the twelve Apostles. His birth and death dates are unknown, but his feast day is celebrated July 3. The Apostle Thomas ("twin" in Syriac) was also called "Didymus" (Greek for "twin"). Why he is called a twin is not known although there are many stories. One story is that he closely resembled Jesus Christ and was considered his twin brother. He was a dedicated follower of Christ and was prepared to come to India with the gospel and reached Kodungalloor in AD 52.

Tradition says that at the dispersal of the Apostles after Pentecost this saint was sent to evangelize the Parthians, Medes and Persians. He ultimately reached India, carrying the Faith to South India.

Following his death in AD 72, some of his relics were taken to Edessa while the rest were kept in India. They can still be found within the San Thome Basilica in Chennai, Mylapore, India. The relics taken to Edessa were moved in 1258 to Italy, where they can be found in the Cathedral of St. Thomas the Apostle in Ortona, Italy. However, it is believed that Saint Thomas' skull rests in the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian on the Greek Island Patmos.

Biblical references

The call of Thomas as a disciple of Jesus can be seen in Mathew 10:3, Mark 3:18 and Luke 6:15. When Jesus said He was returning to Judea to visit His sick friend Lazarus, a trip which involved certain danger and possible death because of the mounting hostility of the authorities, Thomas immediately said to the fellow disciples, "Let us also go to die with him" (John 11:16). At the Last Supper, when Christ told His disciples that He was going to prepare a place for them to which they also might come because they knew both the place and the way, Thomas pleaded that they did not understand where He was going and received the beautiful assurance that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:5).

St. Thomas is best known for his role in verifying the Resurrection of his Master. Thomas' unwillingness to believe that the other Apostles had seen their risen Lord on the first Easter Sunday earned him the title of "doubting Thomas." Eight days later, on Christ's second apparition, Thomas was gently rebuked for his scepticism and furnished with the evidence he had demanded - seeing in Christ's hands the point of the nails. Thomas even put his fingers in the nail holes and his hand into Christ's side. After verifying the wounds were true, St. Thomas became convinced of the reality of the Resurrection and exclaimed, "My Lord and My God," thus making a public Profession of Faith in the Divinity of Jesus (John 20: 24-29).

St. Thomas is also mentioned as being present at another Resurrection appearance of Jesus, at Lake Tiberias, when a miraculous catch of fish occurred (John 21:2).

Churches established by St. Thomas

It is believed that the pastoral work of St. Thomas covered areas in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. He established eight churches and are commonly known as Ezharappallikal or seven and a half Churches. After his arrival in Kerala at Kodungallur in AD 52, established the Eight Churches and evangelised in present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu. These were at Maliankara (Kodungalloor), Kollam, Niranom, Nilackal (Chayal), Kokkamangalam, Kottakkayal (Paravoor or Kottakkavu), Palayoor and Thiruvithamcode (Kanyakumari). The church at Thiruvithamkode near Kanyakumari was built on the land given by Arachan (king) and hence the name Arappally.

Portraits of St. Thomas

In art, Saint Thomas is commonly depicted as a young man holding a scroll or a carpenter’s square or spear. The carpenter’s square stands for his architectural skill and the spear for the way in which he was killed. In some portraits he is seen as a young adult touching the resurrected Christ's wounds. In some pictures St. Thomas is depicted as receiving the girdle from Mother Mary as he was absent during her assumption.

Veneration of St. Thomas

As our patron saint we have a special affection towards St. Thomas. He is venerated as the patron saint of architects. Christians in Kerala are really proud of this saint, as he was instrumental in bringing us close to Jesus and also in providing an opportunity for the Churches in Kerala to inherit a rich tradition and becoming part of the salvific mission of the Church. So we never consider him as doubting Thomas, but as a person who was instrumental in revealing the secrets of heaven.

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