On another note, the father of a newborn who attended the Easter Vigil texted me “It was an Easter miracle! The baby slept for ten hours straight last night. Man, that homily was good!”
And unlike some of my stories, those two are 100 per cent true.
I started work on my homily by Goggling the word “mercy.” I found a rap song, a TV series, a clothing company, a hospital, an international aid organization, a fleet of hospital ships, and a hangover cure. That list confirmed what I suspected: mercy is a word we really don’t know what to do with.
The world often speaks of mercy with irony or discomfort. When it takes the word seriously, it treats the word like a bit of an antique. Worst of all, common usage pairs mercy with killing to describe a kind of murder—“mercy killing.”
What does a Christian make of all that on Divine Mercy Sunday? Have we thought about what mercy means?
Certainly we should, because it is tough to understand God if we don’t understand mercy. The word appears 239 times in the Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible: 182 times in the Old Testament and 57 times in the New. Throughout the Bible, God shows mercy and demands we show mercy to others. St. Paul says that God “is rich in mercy,” (Eph 2-4) while Jesus tells us “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
To unpack this a bit, we need to distinguish mercy from other forms of charity. For you to show mercy to me, I must somehow need your compassion or forgiveness. Isn’t that true? Need must precede mercy. If you walk up to me after Mass and say “thanks so much for a fine homily,” you’re not showing mercy unless the homily was really bad.
To use another example, do we show mercy to a friend who regularly stands us up for lunch and couldn’t care less? That’s just being a doormat. But we might pardon the unpardonable if he or she’s one of life’s helpless space cadets who can’t manage life and is genuinely dismayed to have left us sitting alone at a restaurant for an hour.
So with God. He is merciful because we need mercy. God’s tender mercy is activated by human misery. My trusty Dictionary of Biblical Theology says that the face of infinite mercy is revealed whenever we become conscious of our unhappy and sinful condition. (Léon-Dufour, 351) In other words, if you want to know God’s mercy, know yourself.
Know that you cannot save yourself and that you need saving. That’s the one good thing about sin: it reveals the truth about ourselves. As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” [11:32]
Of course, if you want to know God’s mercy, know Jesus. He is the face of divine mercy. God “the Father of mercies” becomes visible in his Son. All the Old Testament prayers for mercy are answered in and by him, just as all the ancient promises are fulfilled in and by him.
Does all this talk of mercy make your head spin? I’ve already admitted it’s not a word we think a lot about.
Maybe it would be easier if we talked about “peace” instead. After all, Jesus repeats the word three times in the Gospel we’ve just heard. We may not feel the need for mercy, but which one of us doesn’t want more peace in our lives?
I’m not talking about the peace that comes on a good holiday or when the kids are all out of the house. The peace of Christ is something deeper; it’s a gift from God; it can’t be stolen from us by circumstances or misfortune.
And it can’t really be separated from mercy—because if I’m burdened by sin and weakness I can’t really be at peace with myself, with others, or with God.
Doesn’t Jesus point to this in today’s Gospel? Right after he says “peace be with you,” he gives his disciples the power to forgive sins in his name.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the great theologians of the 20th century, says that Jesus gave this power to the youthful Church as an Easter gift. This gift, von Balthasar says, is the best way the disciples and their successors can help people understand that Jesus is alive.
“Countless people whose sins have been forgiven have realized that they have received a share in the vitality of [Christ’s] Resurrection from the dead.” [Light of the World, 296]
It’s no accident that Blessed John Paul II declared the Sunday after Easter Sunday as Divine Mercy Sunday—because all our hope is founded in the Risen Jesus, “the living one,” who was dead but who now lives and holds the key that unlocks the door to death and leads us to eternal life.
Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life, was the power behind the healing miracles worked by the apostles; he is also the source of the healing miracles worked today in confessionals around the world.
The light of Christ shines most brightly in those who realize the darkness around them. Today, as we continue to celebrate Easter, let us celebrate its practical consequences in our lives: the merciful healing of our deepest wounds and fears.
For some of us, this is an invitation to an overdue confession. If we fall at the feet of the risen Lord, he will put his hand on us and say “Do not be afraid… I have the keys of Death. Peace be with you!”
For others, today’s a chance to obtain the remission of the punishment in purgatory that’s still due to us for sins already forgiven by God’s mercy. Details of the Divine Mercy Indulgence are easy to find on the internet.
For all of us, today is our chance to rejoice that Jesus truly rose from the dead, and that he has shared his “overwhelming vitality” with his Church until the end of time—so that each and every one of us, free from fear and embraced by mercy, may have life in his name.