“The Man who Shot Liberty Valence” is one of the great American Films. It was produced in the early 1960s and chronicles both the evolving American West and the developing American newspaper industry. It contains a most memorable line “When a legend becomes fact, print the legend” This combined with the adage “Nature abhors a vacuum” is the foundation of many of our Christian stories. St Thomas the Apostle is a case in point. (Link to the scene in the movie can be found here liberty valance print the legend – Bing video)
St Thomas appears 3 times in John’s gospel. When Jesus said that he would go to Bethany to see Mary and Martha after Lazarus’ death, Thomas knowing the danger told his fellow disciples “Let us go and die with him”. (John 11:16) After Jesus says that he is going to prepare a place for his disciples to follow, Thomas asks “how can we know the way”. (John 14:5) Today he states that he will not believe that Jesus has risen until he can put his “fingers into the nail marks and his hand into his side” (John 21:25) Thomas is brave and dedicated but somewhat clueless. These qualities continue with the legends that follow him.
The most famous of them sends him Caesarea in Syria. It was an important trading center with connections throughout not only the Mediterranean but the whole world. The Lord appeared to him and told him to go to India. Thomas, as usual, was practical to a fault and said he could not afford such an expensive trip. Jesus told him that he would go as arcarchitect the king of India. The king had sent his “provost” to Caeserea to get an architect to build for him the greatest place in the world. Jesus sent Thomas to him. The provost demanded a model. Thomas told Jesus that he could not make one. Jesus reminded Thomas that he, Jesus, was a carpenter and when Thomas awoke the next day, Jesus had created a model of a palace beyond imagination. The provost was so impressed that he hired Thomas and took him back to India.
The king was so excited about the model that he gave Thomas a huge amount of money and told him to begin work immediately. The king left him and went on a military campaign for two years. Thomas promptly gave the money to the poor and set about converting the province to Christianity. When the king returned, he asked to see how much of the palace was completed. When he saw what Thomas had done, he threw him into prison and prepared an elaborate and painful death for him.
That night the king’s brother died. He was a good man and was taken to heaven where an angel showed him a great palace. He asked who lived there and the angel said that it is the place Thomas built for your brother. Knowing what his brother intended to do he asked to visit his brother in a dream. The king understood, freed Thomas, and experienced the true meaning of “building treasure in heaven”. (Mathew 6:19-21) (see below)
It is unlikely that the details of this story are true. But there is a historical basis for some elements. The Church in India is very old. Indeed, Christianity may have reached South Asia at the same time it reached Rome. The language of many branches of the Indian church to this day is Syrian-Arabic. Most intriguingly, Syrian speaking Indian Christian groups refer to themselves as “St Thomas” Christians and believe that they were catechized by him. Notice that the distance between Damascus and Delhi is about the same as Damascus to Jerusalem (about 2400 miles) and we do not doubt that both Peter and Paul reached Rome.
This story also reflects that of St Laurence of Rome. He was the Pope’s banker and when the Roman authorities demanded the wealth of the Roman church, Laurence brought the poor and destitute and told his interrogators “These are the treasures of the Church”.
This is a common Christian instinct and one which beautifully illustrates this week’s gospel. Jesus formed the church at the cross with Mary his mother and the beloved disciple (John 19:25-27) but today he breathes on all the disciples and gives them the power to forgive sins. (John 20:21-23) This empowers the church by giving her meaning and purpose.
John’s gospel is written to believers who will carry on the Church’s mission of freedom by forgiveness. We, like Thomas, were not in the upper room but we must still receive the spirit to fulfill our mission.
The key experience is being part of the community formed by the apostles. We believe that they have seen the Lord and we trust in their word. Before the Passion Jesus prayed for those who would believe because of the word of the apostles (17:20) Jesus today says: Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed’ (John 20:29)
Yet this does not mean that we have not experienced the resurrection. The legend of St Thomas shows us that Jesus is always with his church. We celebrate Mass with word and sacrament but must remember that the poor are always a part of the Church’s imagination. It was work done for the poor that was the king’s treasure in heaven. Pope Francis reminds us insensately that Jesus is to be found at the peripheries, the margins of the church and world. As we have seen this is a very early Christian insight and just as true now as in the first century.
We have also seen countless legends of Jesus disguising himself as a beggar or leper and revealing himself only after a person has shown kindness. The church finds and reveals Jesus not by amassing wealth and power but by caring for and learning from those the world around us would deem the least and seek to make invisible.
Legends like that of St Thomas are not strictly historical but they point to the great truths that we find not in print but in life.
Many if not most of the legends of the early church that we have today may be found in the “Golden Legend” compiled by Jacobus Voragine around 1275. The only version that I could find in the public domain was somewhat different from the one that I use and was translated by William Caxton in 1483. It is in fact funny to our ears, but if you wish for more detail check here https://www.christianiconography.info/goldenLegend/thomas.htm