Today is the Feast of the Resurrection for millions of Orthodox Christians throughout the world, from the splendid cathedrals of Moscow to the great churches of Greece, the basilicas of Eastern Europe and the Americas, and the subway tunnels and basements of Ukraine. The tragedy of the Russian invasion of that country seems more like an endless Good Friday than a joyous Easter, but despite the horrors of war, Ukrainian Christians struggle to celebrate their faith in the Risen Christ. It is not without sad irony that for Western Catholics this is also known as Divine Mercy Sunday. It is about that mercy that “falls like the gentle rain from heaven.”
Various translations have been offered for the memorable phrase that we have heard repeated in today’s responsorial psalm “God’s mercy endures forever.” The Hebrew has “hesed,” which is often rendered as “loving kindness,” “compassion,” “clemency,” or more traditionally “mercy.” It encompasses all of them [Ps 118. See also Ps 136, where the same verse is repeated as a choral response 25 times]. The English word “mercy” that comes from it especially 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.” In the Greek New Testament, it is rendered by “eleos,” which also connotes the divine quality of compassion and pity and once even the name of a goddess who was “characteristically kind, compassionate and gentle. She gives succor to all who ask for it. She is described as ‘among all the gods the most useful to human life in all its vicissitude’” [Wikipedia].
“Mercy” and its cognates appear almost 300 times in scripture. In Latin translations, we find “misericordia,” which contains the words for “pity” and “heart.” 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.
Mercy was a favorite name for girls and women in England and the American colonies, right up to the 19th century. And in Spanish-speaking communities “Mercedes” remains a very popular name. Conversely, to be known as “merciless” was a frightful insult, especially in wartime.
When in the year 2000 Pope John Paul II made this “Divine Mercy Sunday,” replacing the old “Low Sunday,” a title hardly anybody understood anyway, he picked the appropriate occasion. Today’s readings portray the divine clemency and kindness in dramatic fashion – the compassion that led the early disciples of Jesus to heal the sick, to comfort the bereaved and poverty-stricken, with often astonishing results as desperate throngs followed them even into the Temple. Even the often harrowing (and misunderstood) Book of Revelation begins with the refrain found over and over in scripture, “There is nothing to fear.”
In the gospel account of the confrontation between the risen Jesus and the skeptical disciple Thomas, there is no recrimination, not a hint of censure, but an invitation and forgiveness. Not by chance does John follow up the story of Thomas with the commission first of all to forgive sins.
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. For mercy, however we define it, is also a human virtue and an expected attitude of mind and heart that signs all those who hear the Word of God and keep it.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. …You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [Matthew 5: 43 – 48] For Jesus God’s perfect holiness is revealed by treating everyone with the same measureless compassion, even the wicked and unjust. And so is ours.
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.
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:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
[The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I]
Today Vladimir Putin went to church and blessed himself with the sign of the cross. Let us pray for the peace of Ukraine and for Putin, that the tears of divine compassion may enter his heart and those of his followers.
This year the day on which we commemorate the resurrection of Jesus is marked by turmoil, war, and bloodshed, as if the forces of sin and hatred have gathered strength for a renewed onslaught against peace, joy, and happiness – the will of God for all children of the Earth. But our faith tells us that darkness will not prevail, that the present turbulence is momentary. That depends in large measure on how ready and willing we are to extend the Divine will to every human person, but also every living being on the planet and the very Earth itself. The time grows shorter, it seems, with every passing year, the goal more distant. We need Easter. We need Passover and we need Ramadan. We need peace on earth.
Here, this morning, we are confronted by Jesus’ closest followers, from Mary Magdalene to Peter, who simply couldn’t understand what had happened. But they came to believe, Paul last of all, like one born out of sequence as he says, because they encountered the Risen Christ. Or, rather, because Christ encountered them. Not because of the tomb, not because of the discarded shroud or face cloth. But because of Jesus himself, vibrantly alive and yet scarred by the wounds of his passion. Wounds of glory.
Luke does not mention the burial shroud or face cloth in his account of what the women found when they peered into the tomb. It is a detail recalled by John. For almost two thousand years, believers have treasured those two cloths believed to have held the body of Jesus in the tomb. Skeptics have tried in vain to show that these relics are fraudulent, but more and more examinations support their authenticity. I have often wondered why else anyone would have preserved winding cloths unless the body that had been wrapped in them was not only gone but in fact not dead? Blood-stained cloths from a corpse would be the very last things any good Jew would have even touched, let alone treasured.
But even if authentic the Shroud of Turin and the Sudarium of Oviedo cannot prove the Resurrection. Nor did the empty tomb prove that Jesus had been raised. The preservation of the tomb itself, the burial shroud, and the face cloth is a sign of insistent faith, a result based on meeting the Risen Lord himself. It is not the cause but the effect, a consequence of their faith.
The message of Easter is no different for us today than it was for Mary, Peter, and the other disciples. Like them, we, too, must learn to believe, especially because unlike them we do not see. That message is not simply about the triumph of Jesus over the bonds of death. It is about the resurrection of humankind, about the rebirth of hope, the end of the reign of sin and death, the beginning of eternal life. It is about our own death and resurrection. Paul, the earliest Christian writer of all, put it so simply: “For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. [And] When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory “ [Col 3:3-4].
Faith in the Resurrection of Jesus reveals itself in our new life, a life being renewed again and again, in fact being renewed forever. That is a life of love and justice, of peace-making, of forgiveness and reconciliation, of undying hope and sacrifice, a life devoted to truth and freedom. To live in that Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, is truly to rise beyond death. That is the gift we celebrate this morning.
Be Christ, then: that is the message of Easter. If people ask you where is he, now that he is risen, let them see him in your life. Transform the world. For Christ is truly risen.
Today, Christians around the world begin the holiest week of the year in which we recall the final days of Jesus’ life, his death, and his Resurrection. This year, it coincides with Ramadan and Passover. The eyes of three great Faiths are fixed on Jerusalem, where these things took place, a city also called Holy, but which is all-too frequently still a place of strife and bloodshed, as these three world religions square off because of deeply held differences regarding how we are to worship the one true God. We are also sadly aware of the violence in Ukraine and other parts of the world, where similar struggles are still murdering the Prince of Peace in the person of his brothers and sisters.
We are perhaps tempted to look away from all this, yet we do so at our peril. The world still languishes in need of healing and redemption. And we often feel the need keenly in our own hearts. If not, we aren’t paying attention.
Today’s procession and ceremonies recall Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, where the last scenes of his earthly life would be played out. It is found in all the gospels.
Details differ, as we might expect, for different communities remembered the events of Jesus’ life differently. Palm fronds and olive branches are not found in every account, nor cries of “Hosanna.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that after entering Jerusalem Jesus goes directly to the Temple, where he finds the market atmosphere abhorrent and drives the money-changers and animal-sellers away. John places that tumultuous scene much earlier. All agree, however, that Jesus came to the Temple where he preached daily, stirring the officials to resentment and eventually to murderous anger and intent. In the meantime, Jesus stayed out of the city at night, returning to Bethany, where according to John he had so recently raised his friend Lazarus from the tomb.
Thus begins the week in which the story of Jesus and our salvation reaches its culmination.
But unless we understand why Jesus chose to suffer and die to accomplish that mission, we are left wondering, like the people around the cross, why it had to come to that, why God let it happen. Why for that matter, any of us have to suffer, especially the innocent…
In the days to come we should remember that how Jesus suffered is less important than why he did. It is sufficient that it happened, that Jesus died in a painful, shameful way, rejected and despised by the leaders of his people, even abandoned by many of his disciples, because as we have heard, in that willing sacrifice he took away the sins of the world. He became the final paschal offering.
For that reason, as the Letter to the Philippians proclaims, God exalted him so highly that his holy name itself is the most revered in any language. But our celebration of the triumph of innocence, truth, and justice awaits the remembrance of the divine drama that precedes it, the story of the redemption of the world. The whole world.
During the coming week, as we follow Jesus in the terrible journey toward Golgotha and the glory of Easter morning, we are first called upon to take up the cross of suffering for him like Simon of Cyrene [Luke 23:26]. That is how we show ourselves worthy to be called “disciples” [Matt 10:38, 16:24].
Now with the fifth Sunday of our Lenten pilgrimage at hand, the goal of the journey approaches even closer. Today we are bidden by the word of God to consider what lies ahead, not in the past, to fix our eyes on the prize. The great mystery of salvation is about to unfold. But the temptation to look away, to rest our tired eyes and minds like the Disciples of Jesus on the mountain of Transfiguration or in the Garden of Gethsemane, or just to look back, remains great.
We are quickly, perhaps too easily distracted by the events of the day, whether terrible and disheartening such as the conflict in Ukraine or trivial episodes such as the fracas at the Oscar Awards, which has received at least as much attention in the news outlets this week. Wages, prices and the inflationary spiral grab notice as such things do periodically. Political engines are roaring more ominously than usual. The brackets of “March Madness” are captivating. Sudden and violent shifts in weather concern us for the moment, appropriately enough as have so easily forgotten the climate changes we continue to create by our wasteful misuse of the earth’s bounty. It is not easy in the midst of the clamor to focus on something so familiar as Easter.
The readings for today may seem oddly disparate in that regard, except for a significant theme that appears in each, call it a reminder.
In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah recalls the generous mercy of God, who prepared a path in the mighty waters of the sea for the people, an invocation of the Exodus. He insists, however,
“Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not.
See, I am doing something new!” [Isaiah 43:18-19].
Look ahead, not behind.
In his letter to the Christians at Philippi, Paul describes the urgency which impels him to devote all his energy to the preaching of the Gospel, spurred ever onward by his faith in the Resurrection and eager to conform himself ever more closely to the pattern of Jesus’ life and death. “Thus do I hope that I may arrive at resurrection from the dead” [Phil. 3:10-11].
Like Isaiah, Pauls’ gaze is riveted on what lies ahead, not the events of the past: “I give no thought to what lies behind but push on to what lies ahead” [Phil. 3:13-14].
At first glance, the story from John’s gospel seems less focused on the theme we see in the readings from Isaiah and St. Paul. It is one of the significant accounts that center on Jesus’ relation with seven remarkable women. It prefaces a much longer and crucial passage from Jesus’ instruction in the Temple, which ends with his denunciation by the Pharisees and Scribes and an attempt to stone him as they would have the woman “caught in adultery” [John 8:58].
The hypocrisy of her accusers is portrayed in dramatic fashion, but it is what occurs after her accusers slink away in shame and confusion that connects this passage to those of the other readings. Apparently, the woman had a reputation as a sinner, possibly being a prostitute but clearly one involved in adultery. The penalty is listed in Leviticus 20:10, which stipulates that both parties were liable to suffer death, although stoning, the usual method of execution, is not mentioned. What seems evident in this case is that the other party, the male, has been let off, perhaps by paying a penalty price, which seems to have been possible for those with the means. That much hasn’t changed greatly in the modern world, usually abetted by well-paid law firms.
The woman is only a pawn. Jesus perceives that a trap has been set but he evades it by exposing the hypocrisy of the leaders of the crowd, leaving only himself and the woman cowering at his feet. But far from condemning or even chastising her for her sin, he bids her to go forward, to look toward a future made possible by mercy and forgiveness. “Go, and sin no more.” Prior to this caution, what he says is even more important for us as Lent draws to its climax: “Neither do I condemn you.”
That surely is the message of Lent as we approach the Feast of the Resurrection. What else could repentance be about?