Today in the midst of the world-wide pandemic known as COVID-19, the Catholic Church pauses to commemorate something relatively new in our tradition, Divine Mercy Sunday. Pope John Paul II espoused the theme of Divine Mercy due to his devotion to Saint Mary Faustina Kowalska (1905–1938), “the Apostle of Mercy.” In 2000, when she was added by him to the list of saints, he established Divine Mercy Sunday to be observed on the second Sunday of Easter. Pope Francis continued and expanded this devotion when in 2015 he proclaimed an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, from December 2015 until November 2016.
Because calendars still differ, Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter today, but like Western Christians mostly in nearly empty churches and cathedrals. But the theme of mercy resounds throughout, perhaps especially in the Russian tradition. In today’s second
reading the theme is unmistakable: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” [1 Peter 1:3].
Jesus urged mercy in his preaching, as Matthew was quick to point out: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” [Mat 5:7]. He further commanded us to be compassionate and merciful the way God is compassionate and merciful” [Luke 6:36]. That’s a tall order. In the Hebrew scriptures, mercy is rarely listed as a human quality, but usually seen as divine, in fact, the most appealing of God’s qualities when it comes to needy human beings.
That old mystic, Meister Eckhart, claimed that mercy is the greatest act God is capable of (German Sermon 7). Even for Shakespeare –
“… earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.” (The Merchant of Venice, iii. 1.)
In mercy, God bends down to us and lifts us up to divine heights. Our mercy is to be no less, Luke says. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” And how is God merciful to us? “By being kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.”
This, of course, is how Luke expounds the Golden Rule. As with Matthew’s account, Jesus makes it a positive statement, which is rarer than similar statements found in the Book of Tobit, Confucius, and the Talmud which are negative: do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you. Jesus’ statement is also more extensive. It is, in fact, universal in its sweep. Jesus simply says, give to all who ask. Just give. “If someone robs you of your cloak, your outer garment, also give him the shirt off your back. And don’t expect to get it back. Don’t even ask” [See Mat 5:40-48].
In Islam, too, the title “Most Merciful” (al-Rahman) is one of the most common names of Allah and “Compassionate” (al-Rahim), is the most common title occurring in the Quran. Both derive from the root ‘Rahmat,’ which refers to tenderness and benevolence. As a form of mercy, the giving of alms (“zakat”) is the fourth of the Five Pillars of Islam and one of the requirements for the faithful.
The measure we give to others is the same measure we will get back — and here, as elsewhere, Luke goes farther than Matthew. So abundant is God’s mercy, our reward will exceed our capacity to receive it, it will run over like grain or fruit out of the fold of a tunic that served as a shopping bag in the ancient world.
That we are to love not only our enemies but, even worse, our neighbors, seems to be what Jesus expects of his followers. It isn’t easy. But the general directions are clear — give without being asked and without hope of return; forgive without demanding apologies or punishing the offender for days or weeks with silence, scorn, or condescension; be sparing of blame, don’t condemn, be quick to overlook offenses to our own sacred persons, and look for opportunities to be of real assistance and comfort when needed. Or even when they’re not.
And that, including the story of “Doubting Thomas” in today’s gospel reading, brings us home to today. Jesus is gentle and forgiving in the face of Thomas’ stubborn refusal to believe, leading to what is the apex of the entire gospel in Thomas’ outburst, “My Lord and my God.” The face of God is most clearly revealed in the countenance of mercy and forgiveness.
Anger, resentment, and recrimination have begun to poison the atmosphere of mutual care and sacrifice that so wonderfully marked the early days of people’s response to the new coronavirus. We especially saluted the unselfish, generous and truly sacrificial compassion extended by those in the health professions and first responders among the police and fire-fighters, essential workers, and the military who rushed into danger (continue to), but many others as well, including our neighbors and other citizens who elected to endure the hardship of isolation and quarantine to spare and protect others. Charity and heroism come in many forms.
But impatience, hardship, and boredom have begun to take their toll, and pressure is mounting, vociferously and sometimes unkindly, to get things “back to normal.” Today’s remembrance of divine mercy and the mercy that is expected of us all could not come at a more opportune moment.