Some time ago, “Mercy” was a favorite name for women, and “Mercedes” is still popular among many Spanish-speaking families. But we don’t hear a lot about mercy these days and the name has fallen in popularity. But we’d probably all still like a bit more mercy in our lives.
Today became known as Divine Mercy Sunday instead of Low Sunday in the year 2000 when Pope John Paul II added the title to the second Sunday of Easter to commemorate the mystical revelations of Saint Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun to whom he had a special devotion. We’re also right in the middle of a special Holy Year of Mercy that was declared by Pope Francis last April.
You may be more familiar with Misericordia Home – taken from the Latin word for mercy. “Misericordia” contains the words for “pity” and “heart.” The English word “mercy” that comes 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, “God 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 usually 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 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.”
It isn’t easy. We, too, would like to have some proof, some tangible or visible evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead, some sign of power such as those shown by the disciples after Pentecost as they walked through Solomon’s Portico or the vision the elder John saw at the beach on Patmos. But our faith rests on the Word of God, in our confidence in those who did see, and touch, and eat with the risen Lord and testified about it. It does not rest on visible or tangible evidence.
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 the New Testament 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 him, Jesus commands his disciples to continue his mission, the work he was given by the Father. And the gift he now gives is his own Spirit, which he breathes on them.
But there is more to come: the third gift. 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.
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, forgiveness, and kindness dwell and where the peace that only Christ can give has found its truest home. It is the heart of mercy.