THE DIVINE MERCY
Happy feast of Easter! Easter is the prototype of all Christian feasts. It is such a great event that one day of celebration does not suffice. We needed eight days of liturgical celebrations. Yes, today we conclude the Octave of Easter.
On this 2nd Sunday of Easter, every year, we have the same gospel reading, though the other two readings vary. The gospel passage of today begins with the narration of the first appearance of the Risen Lord to his apostles on the day of Easter, it goes on then to narrate the appearance of the Risen Lord to Thomas who was absent on the day of the Easter. The latter incident takes place on the eighth day of Easter (like today). Thus the gospel text of today from John (20:19-31) really links the Easter Sunday to the Octave. A very apt reading indeed to conclude the Octave of Easter!
Often, preachers prefer to center their reflection on Thomas – his unbelief and belief, as I too have done in the previous years. This year, however, I would like to focus on the first part of the gospel passage, which describes the events that take place on the very day of the resurrection of Jesus. In this part, as I have said earlier, Jesus makes his first appearance to his disciples. We could recall here that his previous appearance in the Gospel of John, in fact the very first appearance, was to Mary of Magdala (Jn 20:11-18). In his appearance to his disciples, after his typical greeting of ‘Peace be with you’, Jesus performs three significant actions:
1) Jesus commissions them. He sends them out: “’As the Father sent me, so am I sending you” (Jn 20:21).
2) After this, “He breathed on them and said: Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn 20:22). It is interesting to note that the evangelist John does not separate the resurrection of the Lord from the decent of the Holy Spirit. In a sense, the Easter and the Pentecost (as Luke calls it in the Acts) are one: we receive the Holy Spirit when we experience the Risen Lord.
3) Finally, on the same occasion, Jesus institutes the Sacrament of Reconciliation. “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained” (Jn 20:23).
It is on this third part that I would now like to focus. Today is the ‘Divine Mercy Sunday’. It is not a mere coincidence that in the private revelations that Sr Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938) received, Jesus asked on numerous occasions that a feast day be dedicated to the Divine Mercy and that this feast be celebrated on the Sunday after Easter. Therefore, on 30th April 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonised his country-woman, Faustina, he said, “It is important then that we accept the whole message that comes to us from the word of God on this Second Sunday of Easter, which from now on throughout the Church, will be called ‘Divine Mercy Sunday’.” In brief, this Sunday invites us to contemplate the mercy of God. What is mercy? Mercy can be understood in two ways:
a) Not getting something bad that one deserves. Our sins (understood as the rejection of God – or going away from God) deserve punishment, but God does not punish us according to our sins (Ps 103:10). This is Divine Mercy. We experience this mercy very tangibly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
b) Getting the good that one does not deserve. This is Grace – unmerited favour; gratuitous gift. This is also Divine Mercy. We experience this every time we earnestly turn to God.
Divine Mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation
Today is the feast of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In the gospel today, Jesus gives authority to his disciples to forgive sins. It is God who really forgives. This understanding is still maintained in the formula of absolution that the priest utters during the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation:
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (C.C.C. # 1449).
It is God who gives pardon and peace. The priest – who takes the place of the ‘disciples’ of Jesus today – absolves in the name of the Church, that is, he frees the penitent from their guilt and blame.
Often, a lot of people ask, “Why should I go to a priest for confession?” “Why can’t I confess directly to God? After all, God forgives every time we acknowledge our sins.” To these questions, my simple answer is: True, God forgives me every time I acknowledge my sins before Him. But how will God let me know that He has forgiven me fully in a way that I can hear and see, except through the instrument of another human person. Of course, this human person has to be anointed and set apart (ordained) for this purpose, so that the sign becomes very real. This is the wonderful possibility available in the Sacrament of Reconciliation: the visible sign of God’s invisible mercy.
Do I really and deeply experience the healing power of the mercy of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation? If not, why is it so? Is it because I use the sacrament without much preparation, as a mere routine, as a ritual of magic? Or is it because I do not fully confess my sins – out of fear, out of outward shame, or out of insensitivity to sin itself – that I have not opened up the wounds sufficiently for the Lord to touch them! (Click on link for a Sermon on Confession).
On this feast then, let us resolve to make frequent confession – good confession, sincere confession, open confession!
Divine Mercy as the Rejuvenating Compassion
The Latin word, which is the root of our English word “mercy,” is misericordia. It, in turn, derives from two words: misereri, meaning “to have pity on” or “compassion for” and cor, meaning “heart”. Mercy, therefore, carries the idea of having compassion on someone with all of one’s heart. Compassion is the most repeated attribute or adjective for God found in the Scriptures. In the New Testament, the Greek word, ‘Eleison’ is used. In the Old Testament, there are at least two Hebrew equivalents; the most closest would be ‘rachamim’ (also ‘rachem’, ‘rahim’) which literally means ‘womb’, another equivalent of ‘mercy’ in Hebrew would be ‘hesed,’ which means, ‘steadfast love’. Taken together, when we pray, ‘Have mercy on me, God!’ we are actually asking God to have compassion on us, or to hold us in His loving-kindness. And more intimately, we are asking Him to keep us in his ‘womb’ and to re-create or rejuvenate us.
In the Gospels, several people cry out this prayer of “Have Mercy”, and they are re-created:
· The blind man, Bartimaeus, cried out to Jesus, “Son of David, Jesus, have mercy on me”, and he received his sight (Mk 10:48; also Mt 9:27; Mt 20:31; Lk 18:38; note that the word ‘pity’ can also be translated as ‘mercy’.)
· The Canaanite woman cried out to Jesus on behalf of her daughter, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.” And her daughter was freed (Mt 15:22).
· The ten lepers called to Jesus, “Jesus! Master! Have mercy on us.” And they were cleansed (Lk 17:13).
· In the parable of the two men who went up to the Temple to pray, “the tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk 18:10-14). The man went home justified.
Yes, let us also cry to God in Jesus, “Have mercy!” and He will re-create us. Today, we want to join the Psalmist and sing: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his faithful love (mercy) endures for ever” (Ps 118:1).
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.