It maybe a trick of memory, but I recall that when much younger the week after Easter was a time of quiet joy – no school, lots of chocolate eggs and brightly colored real ones, time spent with friends and family. Such happy memories are a far cry from recent days, from the terrible bombing in Sri Lanka on Easter morning, the midweek discovery in northern Illinois that the body of a missing 5-year-old seemingly murdered by his parents had been discovered in a shallow grave, to the shooting at a synagogue in California during prayer services only yesterday, the day after the President spoke supportively before the National Rifle Association at their annual convention.
Perhaps coincidentally, the 57 “active shooter” incidents over the last two years mark the highest level of such events in this country since 2000, according to the FBI. That was the year Pope John Paul II changed the title of this day from of Low Sunday to Divine Mercy Sunday to commemorate the mystical revelations of Saint Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun to whom he had a special devotion. Clearly today’s world is in greater need than ever of God’s Mercy. And ours.
People from this area are familiar with Misericordia Home, a residential center run by the Sisters of Mercy for children and adults with developmental disabilities. “Misericordia” is the Latin word for mercy, made from the words for “pity” and “heart.” The English word “mercy” that derives from it points to kindness, forgiveness, and benevolence. “Merciful” is one of the oldest titles for God in Judaism, Christianity, and especially Islam, in which a favorite name for God is Al-Rahman, “The Merciful.” Mercy is what we want from God and, let me add quickly, what God wants from us. Not by chance, lots of hospitals are called “Mercy” for that reason. In the gospel accounts, when lepers and blind people and desperate mothers and soldiers and dying thieves encounter Jesus, what they beg for is mercy.
It was because of the compassion, care, love, and forgiveness of God shown in Jesus and realized so clearly in his death and resurrection that this Sunday was a very good choice to remind us
of divine mercy – God’s and ours. But Easter is especially about faith – a special kind of faith, as we learn in today’s readings. “Happy are they who have not seen yet believe,” Jesus says. Faith, St.Paul wrote, comes through hearing — accepting the word of someone for something one hasn’t seen oneself.
In John’s Gospel there are four stories of Easter faith that involve coming to believe the hard way. The first is the story of the Beloved Disciple, who came to believe because he saw the burial wrappings. Second is Mary Magdalene, who believed that Jesus had risen when he called her by name. Then, as we hear today, the ten disciples come to believe when Jesus appears to them and shows them his wounds. And finally, in today’s Gospel, Thomas himself — the Twin, the double, the doubter. They all saw, and they believed.
If Thomas is at first reprimanded for his lack of faith, his confession is the culmination of the Easter appearances of Jesus, the great proclamation towards which John’s whole gospel is aimed: “My Lord and my God!”
Surprisingly enough, Jesus’ blessing is not for the disciples or for Thomas. Jesus turns away from his own time and addresses all those who come afterward. He is speaking to us: “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.” It is for us that the gospel is written, we are the audience who has heard the story and are now called to believe, to say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”
Jesus then extends three surprising gifts to those who believe. First, Jesus gives peace. He imparts it, he does not just wish it — “Peace to you.” Not “May peace be with you,” but Peace to you: my peace. Not as the world gives, but peace as I give it and no one can take away.
Secondly, he shows the disciples his wounds — they see and believe. It’s a surprise, although we have grown so used to it we don’t realize that at first. For this is the only reference in scripture to the nails with which Jesus was crucified and the wound made by the soldier’s spear [John 19:34]. And when they believe it is truly he, Jesus commands his disciples to continue his mission, the work he was given by the Father.
But there is more to come: the third gift, his own Spirit, which he breathes on them. With the Holy Spirit comes the power, the authority, the charge to forgive sins — which was the work that Jesus came to do. Forgiveness is the sign of the Spirit of Jesus at work in the community. It is what God’s mercy – and ours – is all about. Where forgiveness is found, we can be sure the Spirit of Christ is present. Where it is missing, that Spirit has fled. St. Paul lays it out plainly in his letter to the Christians in the small Greek town of Colossae:
“Because you are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with heartfelt mercy, with kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another. Forgive whatever grievances you have against one another. Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you. Above all these put on love which binds the rest together in perfect harmony” [Col. 3:12-15].
Thanks to John’s Gospel, St. Thomas the Doubtful Apostle is perhaps more than anyone else the patron saint of those called to faith today. Like Thomas we are tempted by the lure of signs and wonders, and would like to withhold faith until we have seen, touched, weighed and tasted, and if at all possible put it on our credit card. But true and lasting Faith comes through hearing the word of God with a heart open to good news. It may need to be a heart bruised and even crushed by the world’s cares and assaults, but it is a heart in which compassion, kindness, and forgiveness dwell and where the peace that only God can give has found its truest home. It is the heart of mercy.