23 April 2017
2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy)
Jesus walked through the door and said to his disciples, “Peace be with you.” That was the first gift of God after the Resurrection: the gift of peace. And it was a much appreciated gift. After all, the disciples had been hiding out together in fear. And so, it was a welcome relief not only to see Jesus arisen from the dead, but also to hear his word of reassurance: “Peace be with you.”
But that peace wouldn’t have come to them if Jesus hadn’t walked through the door first. Before Jesus could offer them peace, he had to have mercy on them. He had to acknowledge that they were afraid; that they were locked up behind that door, and that they needed help. Jesus saw all that; he knew their situation and he had pity for them. That’s why he came through the door in the first place—because he took pity on them; he wanted to lift them up and to be okay.
And divine mercy takes a lot of different forms. We could talk about forgiveness as a type of mercy. Compassion and empathy are forms of divine mercy; kindness and love, encouragement and patience. Fidelity is a big one, too. We ask God to have mercy on us—to remember the covenant he made with us (even though we forget about it every now and then). We ask him to be faithful, to be the strong one in this partnership, especially when we are fickle and weak.
Divine mercy takes a lot of different forms. And that’s probably why it’s hard to pin down exactly what it is we’re asking for when we pray, “Lord, have mercy on us.” Maybe for some people they’re aware of sins that need forgiveness, and so they pray, “Lord, have mercy on us—Lord, forgive me.” While others are perhaps afraid or overly anxious, and so they pray, “Lord, have mercy on us—Lord, give me peace of mind.” Mercy isn’t one thing; it’s many things.
In the century behind Jesus was born, the ancient Athenians worshipped a goddess named Eleos [eh-LAY-ohs]. But Eleos was not like Zeus or Poseidon, or Athena or Apollo. Those other gods and goddesses had a more definite “look” to them. For instance, they could look at an image of Zeus and say, “That’s Zeus.” They could look at a figure of Athena and say, “That’s Athena.” But they generally couldn’t do that with Eleos.
Eleos didn’t have a particular “look” to her. She took many different forms. Eleos wasn’t so much a statue to be worshipped but, rather, a phenomenon to be experienced. It’s hard to carve a statue of “peace.” It’s hard to paint a picture of “forgiveness.” It’s difficult to make an image of “having a conscience.” They’re all things we humans experience; and they’re all different things. And, yet, they’re all related to the one idea of mercy.
The one aspect of the goddess Eleos which is constant in images of her is that her clothing is dark, earthy blue color. It’s a somber color; one that gets at the depth of what divine mercy is all about. Maybe there’s a connection there between that and the blue cloth that covered the Ark of Covenant in the Old Testament. Maybe there’s a connection with Mary as the Mother of Mercy, our Blessed Mother clothed in a blue mantle. Maybe there’s a connection with Advent and Lent, and those dark blue, dark violet colors we see at church; after all, those are seasons when we focus a lot of asking God for mercy.
One connection is for sure, and that is we get the word eleison from Eleos. Every Lent we sing, “Kyrie, eleison—Lord, have mercy. In whatever way we need your help and support, Lord, have mercy on us. Kyrie, eleison.” And whenever we’re aware of having received that mercy, it’s a wonderful thing. The disciples were overjoyed when Jesus had pity on them, walked through the door, and said, “Peace be with you.” It’s just what they needed, in that situation, at that time.
But, at the same time, there are a couple of problems with divine mercy. First, we have to be humble enough to realize that we need God’s help. And, second, we can’t make God be merciful in the way we want him to be merciful; we have to accept his mercy in whatever form it comes to us.
You know, our God wears many hats. He’s the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sanctifier. He’s also the Divine Physician, Healer, and Companion to all. Our God is a helpful God, a generous God, a God with a Sacred and Pure Heart, a God who is the Good Shepherd and wants his people “to have life, life in abundance.” In other words, our God is a merciful God, a loving God, a God of infinite pity and compassion.
But when pride gets in the way, who needs God? When “I can take care of myself,” who needs God? When I’m spiritually sick and running a fever (but I won’t admit it), who needs God . . . at least, a God of mercy? In order to benefit from divine mercy, there has to be the admission that “I do need God’s mercy. I do need God’s help and encouragement. And, yes, sometimes I even need God’s finger pointing at me, and maybe even a good spanking. I need God’s mercy, I need his help so I can have life, life in abundance, today and always.” It takes humility, simple humility (and a little bit of gratitude, too).
The other difficulty with divine mercy is, of course, we have to let God do his merciful thing in whatever way he wants to do it. When I was in seminary, studying for the priesthood, I prayed a lot that God would make it crystal clear to me: Should I be a priest, or shouldn’t I? I was asking God to have pity on me, to be merciful and just tell me what to do. But he wouldn’t. So I’d pray some more, and he still wouldn’t tell me. And, after several years of this, I realized one day that he wasn’t going to tell me. That’s how God chose to be merciful to me—he made it hard for me.
But that’s exactly what I needed. When God remained mercifully silent, it was then that I realized the vocation to priesthood (or any vocation) is a two-way street. God had put it into my head to think about priesthood. But the response had to come from me. After all, we’re not God’s puppets; we’re his disciples and his friends. Thanks to God’s mercy, he forced me take ownership of my vocation, to be intentional about it, and to offer it back as a gift from me to him.
And that’s certainly a challenge whenever we’re asking for God’s help. It may not come in the time or in the way we want it to. You know, we might ask for peace of mind because of some situation in life, but God might be saying, “You can have peace, but not by avoiding the situation you’re trying to avoid.” In that case, divine mercy would probably take the form of companionship and wisdom to get through the tough times, and not necessarily the form of a shield to avoid difficulties. God’s mercy and help, God’s pity may not come in the time or in the way we want it to.
And this is where Jesus’ words to Thomas ring in our ears: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” In other words, blessed are those who keep faith in God—even when they don’t see divine mercy at work in the way we expect it to.
Divine mercy is a tremendous gift from our God. Jesus had pity on his disciples; he walked through the door and said, “Peace be with you.” Peace was his gift to them—that day. As we know, they all had a tough life following Jesus. But God’s mercy carried them through both the good times and the not-so-good times. Even when they felt God was absent from them—like Jesus on the Cross when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”—even when they couldn’t see God’s mercy at work around them, they remained faithful.
We pray all the time, “Kyrie, eleison; Lord, have mercy.” And he does, whether or not we realize it. He has mercy on us, most especially here at the Altar. If we ever need a reminder of how much our God desires to lift us up and bring us to a better place, we need only remember the sacrifice of the Eucharist. Through his Body and Blood, Jesus comes through the door of our hearts, and he offers us . . . mercy, peace, forgiveness, healing, companionship, strength, and whatever else we need.
“Peace be with you,” he says to us through his Body and Blood, “Peace be with you.” What’s left but to be glad of heart, and to say a prayer of thanks that Mercy has visited us.