Every year on the Sunday after Easter, the greatest celebration of faith, we encounter the gospel’s most famous story of doubt: the story of Thomas, who demands proof before he will believe.
We live in an age when we are surrounded by Thomases – not only doubters, but disbelievers. Atheists, agnostics, secularists, whatever you want to call them. The so-called “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have become 21st century icons. More and more, atheists are seeking to challenge believers, and are making their voices heard in the public square.
One that I read about recently was a man named Patrick Greene.
Greene was an avowed atheist from Henderson County, Texas, and he complained, often bitterly, about the hostility he experienced from his neighbors who were Christian.
Last year, he gained some notoriety when he joined the fight against a Nativity scene that had been set up outside the courthouse in the town of Athens, Texas. Greene was angry that such an open display of religion was allowed on public property. He threatened a lawsuit to have the scene dismantled and removed.
Shortly after making the threat, however, he learned that his eyesight was deteriorating. Doctors found that he suffered from a variety of serious problems, including cataracts, glaucoma and a detached retina. Greene made his living as a cab driver, and soon had to give up his job. His legal battle began to sap his time and money. Finally, he decided that he couldn’t go forward with the lawsuit if he was blind, so he withdrew his threats and waited for the darkness to descend.
One of his neighbors, Jessica Crye, a member of the Sand Springs Baptist Church in Athens, learned about Greene’s illness. “I knew about his lawsuits,” she told a local paper, explaining, “I thought he must have never felt the love of God through Christians. This is a great opportunity to turn the other cheek and show God’s love.” She asked her pastor if there was something they could do. There was. But the results were not what anyone expected.
They did something remarkable. A Baptist church started a fund drive , raising money so that one of the most notorious atheists in town could have an operation and, maybe, recover his sight. But Greene refused the money, saying the surgery wasn’t guaranteed to succeed. Undeterred, the church asked him if there was anything else they could do. Greene said that, since he could no longer drive a taxi, he could use help with his household expenses.
He expected he might get a couple checks for ten or twenty bucks. A few days later, he got the first check: $400.
As time went on, the checks and the support and prayers continued. Patrick Greene was overwhelmed. To his amazement, he found that his faith in his own disbelief was being shaken.
Just before Easter, he gave an interview to the Christian Post. Greene said the outpouring of love had changed him. “I realized,” he explained, “that the questions I was asking you just had to accept on faith without doubting every period and every comma.” He’s now joined a local church. Greene recently said he’s thinking of studying to become a minister.
Like Thomas in today’s gospel, confronted with something he thought impossible, he could only say, “My Lord and my God.”
Patrick Greene’s story reminds us that the experience of God’s love, an encounter with Christ, doesn’t depend on physical evidence. It is something beyond what can be touched, or heard, or seen. It is an offering poured out.
It is love.
The apostle Thomas experienced that. And this is something to remember: after the apostle adamantly, even angrily, expressed his doubt, Christ didn’t dismiss him. He didn’t write him off.
Christ came back.
He gave Thomas another chance, and offered him the gift of faith – and Thomas, overwhelmed and awed, accepted.
Christ does that with all of us.
When we least expect it, he will break through locked doors of the human heart. He will find us, in our fear and uncertainty. He understands our misgivings, our hurts, our infirmities and weaknesses. He knows only too well the human condition. As Thomas discovered: he has the wounds to show for it.
And he wants to give us another opportunity.
That, too, is part of the message of this Sunday. This is a time for seizing second chances.
This Sunday, we mark Divine Mercy Sunday, when we embrace the power and beauty of God’s forgiveness. It is the Sunday in which we remind ourselves of God’s tender mercies – when we strive, more than ever, to let Him break through the locked doors of our hearts.
It is a time for fulfilling the promise of the Resurrection, the glorious hope of Easter.
Christ has left the tomb. If we choose to, so can we.
We can step out of the tomb of selfishness and sin. We can feel the healing light of God’s care. We can take that second chance.
God’s mercy, Divine Mercy, assures it. The Sacrament of Reconciliation enables it.
We can be made new.
The Texas papers report that in gratitude, Patrick Greene bought a star to go atop the tree that is part of the Athens, Texas Nativity display – the very display he tried to outlaw. Given his condition, he can’t be certain he will ever actually see that star next Christmas.
But I think he would agree: he has seen something far more wondrous.
And he has seen it with the eyes of faith.
As we gather around the table of the Lord this Sunday, and prepare to receive Him in the Eucharist, let us invite Jesus into our own locked upper rooms, and pray as well that He will break through all the barriers that might be keeping Him out of our lives.
Let us pray to be open to God’s tender mercies — that we might say with the joy of Easter discovery, and with the wonder of St. Thomas:
“My Lord and my God.”