The first Sunday after Easter commemorates the Apostle Thomas’ doubting, then assurance, of Christ’s Resurrection.
Described in John 20:19-31, the Icon of the feast describes the moment eight days after the Resurrection when Christ appeared amidst His disciples. It was His second appearance to the Apostles, yet the young Tomas had not been present first time round and had said to the others: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
Here, now, Christ appears miraculously within the disciples’ hiding place, the door firmly shut; and yet He is real, and invites Thomas: “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving but believing”.
The composition of the icon: Christ’s arm raised, His right side revealed, Thomas bending down to poke it, has been established since at least the 5th century, as evidenced by a first millennium ivory diptych showing the Resurrection; this is unsurprising, as the icon takes its cue from the written description in John’s Gospel.
Where the Icon does, in part, give a deeper interpretation of the account is in the inscriptions found on images of Thomas touching Christ’s wounds. The term “doubting Thomas” is a familiar one, referring to the Apostle and used to describe someone who unreasonably doubts someone’s word. Even in Russian there is a term for such a person: Фома неверующий (Foma neveruyushchii).
However, the inscriptions of Orthodox Icons do not bear this description of Thomas. In Greek, the inscription reads Η ψηλάφηση του Θωμά, that is, the “Touching of Thomas”, making no reference to Thomas’ doubt. In Slavonic the meaning is even clearer as the inscriptions read Уверение Фомы, i.e. the “Assurance of Thomas”. Usually, English icons translate the Slavonic and inscribe their icons “The Belief of Thomas”.
The icon does not show “Doubting Thomas”, but the reassured Thomas. The Thomas who, bending before Christ to touch His wounds exclaims: “My Lord and my God!”. The Church Fathers recognized that whilst Thomas doubted, his doubt was not unreasonable, and as such Christ responded, spurring Thomas to a confession of Jesus’ Divinity more explicit than anywhere else in the Gospels.
Looking out from the scene, Christ’s response to Thomas is also for us: “Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen Me yet have believed.”
While the tomb was sealed, You, O Life, did shine forth from the grave, O Christ God; and while the doors were shut, You did come unto Your disciples, O Resurrection of all, renewing through them an upright Spirit in us according to Your great mercy.
With his searching right hand, Thomas did probe Your life-bestowing side, O Christ God; for when You did enter while the doors were shut, he cried out unto You with the rest of the Apostles: You are my Lord and my God.
(from the Hymns of the Feast)
More frescoes of the cathedral Protata in Kars, Athos (includes the “Touching of Thomas” fresco used above)
About the Daphni Monastery (from where the 12th century Greek mosaic is found)