A famous plastic surgeon, Dr. Maxwell Maltz, wrote a book describing some of his experiences, including his encounter with a couple we’ll call Leo and Ramona. Leo’s story was a tragic one. His parents had just died in a house fire; Leo had tried to rescue them, but failed; in the process, his face was terribly burned and disfigured. Afterwards, when he was released from the hospital, Leo was so self-conscious about his hideous appearance that he wouldn’t let anyone see him, including his wife; he stayed in his room all the time, with his door locked. Finally Ramona made an appointment with Dr. Maltz and went to see him on her own, reporting the entire situation. When the doctor assured her he could restore her husband’s face, she said, “You don’t understand, Doctor. He won’t let anyone see him; he won’t accept any help.” “Then why are you here?” the doctor asked, and Ramona explained, “Because I want you to disfigure my face so I can be like him; if I can share his pain, then maybe he’ll let me back into his life.”
When Dr. Maltz recovered from his shock, he told Ramona that his professional ethics would never allow him to do anything like that—but because of her amazing love for her husband, he would go speak to him himself. When he came to the house later that week, Ramona led him to Leo’s room, where he knocked on the door, saying, “My name is Dr. Maltz; I’m a plastic surgeon and I want you to know I can restore your face.” There was no response. “Leo, please come out,” he said, but still there was no response. Finally Dr. Maltz said, “Ramona wants me to disfigure her face like yours in the hope you’ll let her back in your life; that’s how much she loves you.” After a moment of silence, the lock on the door clicked, and the doorknob slowly began to turn. That was the first step in the process of successful plastic surgery, and in Leo getting his life back (Bausch, Once Upon A Gospel, p. 122). It’s quite common for people to feel sorry for themselves, but sometimes it gets out of hand—even to the point where they believe no one could ever possibly love them, forgive them, or want anything to do with them ever again. The apostles must have been consumed with feelings of guilt, self-contempt, and worthlessness after the events of Good Friday—but the Risen Jesus came to reassure them of His love and restore them to grace and life. Whenever we’re experiencing crisis, guilt, or tragedy, Our Lord can reassemble the broken pieces of our lives; all He asks is that we open the door to our hearts and give Him our trust.
Why was St. Thomas so stubborn in refusing to believe the testimony of the other apostles that they had seen the Risen Lord? The traditional assumption has been that Thomas must have had a doubting or skeptical nature, needing to see something with his own eyes in order to be convinced of its truth. That’s probably the case—but there may be more to it than that. Perhaps Thomas was so unwilling to believe because of his own shame and guilt. Unlike the others, he had an extra week to wallow in self-pity, to struggle with spiritual agony and depression over Christ’s execution, and to condemn himself for abandoning his Master. If what the other apostles were saying about the Lord’s Resurrection was true, it meant he was off the hook—everything would be all-right in spite of his sinful weakness—and Thomas didn’t think he deserved such a break; in his stubbornness, and pride, he felt he had to continue suffering. Jesus, of course, felt differently, and by ordering him to touch His wounds and to let go of his unbelief, He forgave him and restored him to grace. Thomas responded with faith, just as the Lord desired, and from that time on the formerly-doubting apostle took his place as one of the leaders of the early Church, playing an important role in helping spread the Gospel and building up the Body of Christ.
Some years ago a prisoner on death row in Utah named Gary Gilmore was executed after being convicted of murdering his girlfriend; before being put to death, he wrote a letter honestly reflecting on his guilt and his need for forgiveness. He said, “It seems that I know evil more intimately than I know goodness . . . I want to get even, to be made even, whole, my debts paid—whatever it may take!—to have no blemish, no reason to feel guilt or fear. . . . I’d like to stand in the sight of God, to know that I’m just and right and clean. When you’re this way, you know it. And when you’re not, you know that, too. It’s all inside of us, each of us” (Michael P. Green, 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, p. 181). Obviously none of us needs or wants to take spiritual advice from a convicted murderer, but Mr. Gilmore did make a valid point: we will not be able to deny our personal guilt when we stand before God, and we are not able to free ourselves of this burden through our own efforts. This, of course, is precisely the reason why Jesus came to save us, and we especially celebrate this wonderful truth throughout the Easter season.
When we’re dissatisfied or unhappy with ourselves, and particularly when we feel intense shame, guilt, or self-disgust, that’s precisely the time when, more than ever, Jesus wants to be with us. No one can ever sin so horribly that forgiveness and a return to God’s grace becomes impossible. That’s the entire point of the Feast of Divine Mercy; we have Our Lord’s assurance that He is eager and delighted to forgive each one of us, no matter what we may have done. His mercy has nothing to do with whether we deserve to be forgiven, and everything to do with our need to be forgiven. All He asks is that we open the door to His grace, and that we extend this same message of mercy, inner peace, and acceptance to others.
We can probably all think of times when we’ve been so embarrassed or self-disgusted we wanted to crawl into a hole or lock ourselves in our rooms, feeling that the world would be better off without us. St. Thomas and the other apostles surely felt that way after Good Friday—but Jesus would not allow them to remain trapped in their self-imposed prison of guilt, and this gracious concern on His part is also directed to every sinner, including us. No matter how disfigured our faces or our souls may ever be, He will never stop reaching out to us in love and compassion. We must always remember this truth, believe it and rejoice in it, and share it whenever we have the chance.