Sunday is the octave of Easter, which commemorates the eighth day after Jesus’s resurrection from the dead. An octave is a repetition, but a repetition with difference. It’s not the first note played again, but the first note at a higher pitch.
Octaves mark new beginnings in the Bible. The octave is rooted in creation: After the Lord God strums his six-plus-one song of creation, the cycle begins again with the day after the Sabbath, a first day which is also an eighth. Fittingly, Hebrew boys were circumcised on the eighth day. Firstborn animals were dedicated to Yahweh on the eighth day after birth. Aaron entered the priesthood on the eighth day. Lepers, men with discharges, women with flows of blood were cleansed on the eighth day. The temple dedication climaxed with a solemn assembly on the eighth day.
Easter is itself an octave, striking all the notes of the old creation on the first day of the new. But in John’s Gospel, Easter has an octave, since Jesus’s resurrection is replayed eight days later when Jesus appears to Thomas. In some Christian traditions, the octave of Easter is the feast of St. Thomas.
Thomas famously comes slowly to faith, but so does everyone else. Like the Bride in the Song of Songs, Mary carries on a desperate search for her Lord, weeping outside the tomb that has become a holy place flanked by angels. She at first mistakes Jesus for the gardener. She’s not entirely wrong, because Jesus strides the graveyard as the new Adam, a living man among the dead, ready to delve while Mary spans.
Peter and the Beloved Disciple see the grave clothes neatly arranged, like a priest’s after the day of atonement. They enter the tomb, but neither speaks to or of Jesus until he joins them later for a seaside breakfast. Throughout John’s resurrection story, the leading disciples remain utterly, ambiguously silent. Even after they hear Mary’s “I have seen the Lord,” the disciples stay locked in a room, hiding from the Jews. All the disciples, not just Thomas, struggle to believe news too glad to be true.
What makes Thomas unique is not his sluggishness but the fact that he doesn’t see Jesus on Easter, the first eighth day. When Jesus breathes fresh Pentecostal Spirit into the disciples (making them new Adams), sends them to continue his mission, and gives them authority to forgive sins, Thomas isn’t there.
Thomas listens with sarcastic skepticism. He wants the others to produce Jesus so he can touch the nail prints and handle the scar in Jesus’s side where the rib was removed to form the new Eve. It’s an inauspicious beginning to the apostolic mission: Their first evangelistic contact is one of the twelve, and they can’t even convince him.
When he appears on the eighth day, Jesus offers himself to Thomas’s inspection. John says in his first letter that the apostles “handled” the word of life, but the Gospel doesn’t tell us if Thomas took Jesus up on his offer. John doesn’t record any Caravaggio-esque finger probe. Jesus’s presence convinces, and Thomas becomes a son of God not by the will of flesh or man but by an utterance from the risen Word.
Criticize Thomas if you must, but he confesses Jesus before Peter or John does. Mary sees “the Lord,” and the ten apostles tell Thomas they “saw the Lord.” Thomas sees Jesus’s wounds and worships, for the wounds prove that Jesus is “my Lord and my God,” the same Yahweh-Elohim who planted a garden for the first man. It’s the climactic confession of John’s Gospel; canonically, it’s also the high point of the fourfold Gospel. Thomas’s confession is the confession of Mary and the apostles, raised an octave.
John’s conclusion is open-ended, though. John 20 moves from Mary and the apostles, who see Jesus on Easter, to Thomas, who sees Jesus after eight days. But then John adds that he writes for those who have never seen Jesus at all. Thomas the twin stands in for all of us. He completes the rhythm of Easter’s octaves: Mary sees Jesus and witnesses to the disciples; the disciples see and witness to Thomas. Their witness is reliable, so we can believe Thomas when he sees and witnesses to us.
Thomas’s encounter with Jesus on the octave of Easter assures John’s readers that the new life of the eighth day is not limited to those few who saw Jesus at the beginning. After two millennia or ten, we can still know that “Jesus is the Christ the Son of God” and, by believing, have life in his name. Distance from the event does not exclude anyone from an encounter with the wounded and risen God. To believe without seeing is to raise the faith of Thomas yet another octave.
Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.
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