Finding the meaning of mercy

Several years ago, the Catholic Church designated the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday.

Apr 06, 2015

By Marcellino D'Ambrosio
Several years ago, the Catholic Church designated the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday. That raises two questions — what exactly is “mercy” and what does it have to do with the Easter season?

Mercy is not pity. Neither is it simply sparing someone from punishment. “Mercy” can be defined as love’s response to suffering. When mercy encounters suffering, it ultimately seeks to alleviate it. God the Father is so rich in mercy that St. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 1:3, calls him “Father of compassion and God of all encouragement,” and, in some translations “the Father of all mercies.”

Jesus is the perfect human image of the Father’s mercy. When he meets those suffering from hunger, he feeds them. When he encounters people suffering from physical illness, he heals them. True mercy is not superficial, but radical.

Jesus recognizes that the deepest suffering in human life, the root cause of all other suffering, is sin. Sin debases us, robs us of dignity, weakens and even ruptures our connection with the source of our life, namely, God. Sin, then, is not just a transgression of some arbitrary law.

It is a violation of our nature, it creates a wound in us that can fester and, if left unattended, corrupt us entirely. True mercy seeks to alleviate this deeper suffering that can potentially lead to eternal suffering.

It was to address this most profound of all wounds that Jesus gave up his life. And the risen Christ instituted the sacrament of penance to apply mercy to each individual sinner at the moment of their deepest need.

Where does the Bible say Jesus instituted the sacrament? In John’s Gospel 20:21. Despite the locked doors, he stands amid the apostles and says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Jesus is the original “apostle” of the Father — the word means “one who is sent.” As he was sent on a mission of mercy, so he sends out his apostles on the same mission. He breathes on them and says in John 20:22-23: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

From the looks of this text, he gave the apostles and their successors, whom we call bishops, a great deal of authority in this matter. But he also gave them a great deal of spiritual power.

The same Holy Spirit who was responsible for bringing order out of chaos and causing a virgin to conceive is breathed upon the apostles by the risen Christ. He is the spirit of mercy, the spirit of healing, the spirit of liberation and resurrection.

This means that going to confession is about more than an appointment with an official of the church. It is an encounter with a man who has been anointed with the spirit of mercy to stand in the place of Christ and serve as an instrument.

True, this instrument is a sinner who is himself in need of mercy, much like Peter and doubting Thomas were, but he is nonetheless an instrument of God’s healing and merciful love.

The spirit Christ breathed on the apostles has been passed on to bishops and priests through the sacrament of holy orders. That means that Jesus Christ is ultimately the one who comes to meet you in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. He comes not just to forgive but also to heal, to liberate, strengthen and transform.

His merciful love means that he did not die simply to “cover our sins” and wipe them off God’s record book, leaving us the same miserable creatures we’d always been.

In the sacrament of reconciliation, Jesus invites me, as he did with Lazarus, to come out of the place of darkness and decay. He says to his priestly confessors the same thing he said to the people standing around Lazarus’ tomb: “Untie him and let him go.”

That’s divine mercy.

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