The Sunday after Easter, which is also known with greater reason as Resurrection Sunday, has even more names: Low Sunday, Quasimodo Sunday, and most recently Mercy Sunday thanks to Pope John Paul II. The earlier names referred to Latin words used to begin or celebrate the Eucharist and we still hear in the entrance song “Like newborn children” from the first Letter of Peter [1 Pet 2:2]. “Quasimodo,” familiar to us as the deformed bell-ringer in Victor Hugo’s great novel, is not part of that history, although the character was so named because as an infant he was found abandoned at Notre Dame cathedral on Quasimodo Sunday.
There is nothing “low” about the feast, except that it follows in the wake of the glory of Resurrection Sunday. Or, rather, continues it, for the gospel account in particular picks up the narrative with Jesus’ appearance that very night. The liturgies of this week all reflect that glory, reluctant to limit the celebration to just one day.
The readings from the Acts of the Apostles and the first letter of John expand the message of Easter first in the account of the
manner of living shared by the earliest followers of “the Way” as Luke retells it, and then with the personal and global implications of recognizing Jesus as Savior and Son of God. But it is the gospel that is so arresting.
First, the author of the gospel describes Jesus’ commission to the crowd of disciples cowering in the upper room, perhaps not surprisingly as the ability to forgive one another. But he adds to this the power to withhold forgiveness as well – something that will require considerable reflection over the centuries. But this double endowment follows on the gift of the Holy Spirit, this gospel’s version of the coming of the Holy Spirit to these same disciples on the Feast of Pentecost that Luke so wonderfully relates in the Acts of the Apostles.
Mercy – “misericordia” in the familiar Latin, “unhappy heart,” compassion — is right at the heart of it all – both God’s mercy and ours. It is the frequent cry for mercy that moves Jesus to perform his most astounding acts of healing: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David” [Matt 15:22, Luke 18:38 and elsewhere]. Twenty years ago, in his 2001 homily on this April Sunday, Pope John Paul II extolled mercy as “the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity at the dawn of the third millennium.” [https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/2001/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20010422_divina-misericordia.html].
The great Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, extolled divine mercy as “the highest work that God ever performed in all creatures” [German Sermon 7.] In one of his most memorable sermons he continued, “God’s highest work is mercy, and this means that God places the soul in the highest and purest place that she can attain to, into space, into the sea, into a bottomless ocean, and there God works mercy.”
Shakespeare, in the voice of Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” memorably echoes the thought:
“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice” [Act IV, Sceme 1].
It is showing mercy, the active practice of compassion, that we mirror the divine gift of the spirit in forgiveness and resistance to every form of evil. Addressing the wounds of hunger, ignorance, want, and disease has from the earliest Christian era been known as “the works of mercy.” In Matthew’s gospel, they provide the heart of Jesus’ last sermon [Matt. 25:31-46]. Today as well, we are ever more increasingly aware of the desperate need for active compassion toward Creation itself, as Pope Francis has insisted in his great encyclical “Laudato Sí” – the animals, plants and the whole living planet itself, now all under threat because of selfishness, greed, and indifference.
Jesus taught us that the measure of our compassion is the mercy we show to others, which is the heart of forgiveness — ‘letting go,” “unbinding.” Today’s gospel underscores this in the story of “Doubting Thomas,” whose disbelief is overwhelmed by a simple, merciful act of kindness. “Come, see. Touch me and believe.”