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.