The Meaning of Mercy

The Meaning of Mercy

Mercy Sunday

It has been almost a quarter of a century since Pope John Paul II canonised Sister Faustina Kowalska and declared this Sunday to be henceforth Mercy Sunday. There were other times in the history of the Church when Our Lord sought to introduce a new feast, and to do so He revealed Himself to some holy soul (the feasts of Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart in particular). The devotion to Divine Mercy however did not require a new feast. Indeed, the concept is so central to the entire economy of salvation that it is intimately linked with it in its most perfect expression, that is to say the celebration of mysteries of the passion, death and Resurrection of Our Lord. It was therefore supremely fitting to honour the Divine Mercy on this octave day of Easter.

Today’s Gospel which is composed of two apparitions, the one on Easter Sunday to the apostles less Thomas and the second one week later to the same apostles with Thomas, portrays Divine Mercy at work. The power to forgive sins, which Our Lord gave to the apostles on Easter Sunday shows us that the forgiveness of sins is actually the raison d’être of the redemption: God wills to manifest His omnipotence by forgiving those who have offended Him. Just as He instituted the Holy Eucharist with the words this is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins, so He institutes the sacrament of penance for the very same reason.

The thought can be found throughout the New Testament. When the angel reveals to Joseph the identity of the child in Mary’s womb, He adds that He will save His people from their sins (Mt 1:21). When the apostles are brought before the Sanhedrin after their first miracle, St Peter makes it clear why Jesus was sent: Him hath God exalted with his right hand, to be Prince and Saviour. to give repentance to Israel and remission of sins (Acts 5:31).

The episode of St Thomas shows us how the Lord goes looking after the lost sheep. Even though Thomas had committed a grievous sin in refusing to believe all the apostles together, and effectively commenced what we might call the first schism, the Lord comes after Him as to a prodigal son, and gives Him another chance, and at the same time giving him the opportunity to give voice to one of the simplest and most beautiful prayers: My Lord and My God!

So the concept of Divine Mercy has certainly been there in the revelation of the New Testament. What is it exactly that we refer to when we speak of Divine Mercy? It is the love that God has for His creatures which causes Him to stoop down to their level, to purify them and lift them up. Only what is miserable can be in need of and obtain mercy. And we are all miserable. St John in his first epistle writes that if anyone says he is without sin, he is a liar (cf 1 Jn 1:10). So we are all with sin, and therefore all in need of mercy.

Our contemplation of the Lord’s mercy towards us should have two effects. First of all, it should inspire within us an immense gratitude. It is again St John who tells us: He loved us first ( 1 Jn 4:19). We did not love Him first, He loved us first. And had He not done so, we would all be lost. So first of all, gratitude, immense gratitude for the mercy shown to us.

The second effect it should have is to inspire us with a great desire to imitate God by showing mercy to others, having a heart touched with compassion at seeing the sufferings and needs of others. Material needs require corporal works of mercy. Spiritual needs require spiritual works of mercy. In an age in which society distances itself more and more from its Christian foundations and becomes once again as in pagan times merciless, severe and exacting, it is good for us to reflect upon how this concept of mercy shaped our world and as a consequence why the Lord wanted to stress the mercy in modern times.

Compare for example the stiff and rigid justice of the Old Testament’s eye for eye and tooth for tooth with the precepts of the law of the Gospel: Love your neighbour as yourself. Love your enemies. Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them. Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink, etc.

Think of the way the mercy present in Gospel stories changed our world. Public sinners such as the woman taken in adultery and Mary Magdalene are forgiven their sins and told to go and sin no more. The prodigal son is welcomed home, and a party is thrown because he has been found again. We have gotten so used to these stories that we do not realise how they shaped a culture in which redemption is possible, in which no one is locked up forever in their sin. It is because the Lord has shown us all mercy, and because we are all now invited to communion with God, that the Christian must always be on the lookout for someone to help. If God has so dealt with us, so let us deal with one another. Let us open our minds and hearts to those in need.

Above all, let us be mindful that the most valuable act  of spiritual mercy is to remind people of their origin and of their destiny, that life is short, eternity is near, that this life is the time in which mercy is offered, but after death, justice will reign. Now then is the time, whilst it is day and we have the light of life, to show  mercy and to receive it, to confess our sins and give God the joy of welcoming us home.

In this task of mercy, let us turn to Our Blessed Lady, the Mother of Mercy, and ask her to intercede for us so that we may live in such a way, by showing mercy, that we may deserve to receive it ourselves.