Truly, Jesus is Risen! Alleluia!
Today we celebrate the Octave Day of Easter. While this is the eighth solar day since Easter Sunday (Romans always included the current day, in case you’re wondering), the Church has considered this simply one long day. We also celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday today. This insight, of God’s steadfast mercy, can assist us as we continue to reflect on the meaning of the Resurrection in our lives, because the Resurrection—and God Himself—has the concept of mercy at its core. For Easter to truly make sense, we need to know why God did what he did. To know why God did what he did, we need to know more about God, namely: who is this God that we worship? To really answer that question, we need to go even further back in time. We need to understand what makes our understanding of God different than the pagan understanding of the gods. To do that, we need to go back to the time of the Exodus, when God revealed himself to the Israelite people. We must go back to this time, because it is when God Himself tells us what differentiates him from the false gods of the pagans.
In the time of the Exodus, there were many, many religions. With these religions, there were many, many false gods. If you look at the patterns amongst all the ancient religions, two deities tend to be the most important. Baal and his consort Asherah, perhaps under other names, tend to be the most worshipped deities in the ancient religions. Baal was the god of power and Asherah was the goddess of fertility. These were the two traits most desired by ancient peoples, because these two traits seemed to lead to earthly prosperity. You needed power to hold on to what you and your people had, and you needed fertility to grow your people.
The Israelites, however, had an entirely different conception of God. Power and fertility were not the defining traits of God: mercy was. If we read the Old Testament with our eyes open to this reality, we see that God constantly reinforced this understanding. This is, perhaps, most obvious in Exodus 34:6-7. In this passage, God passes before Moses and announces himself, saying “The LORD, the LORD, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity, continuing his love for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless, but bringing punishment for their parents’ wickedness on children and children’s children to the third and fourth generation!” (NABRE) Don’t get fixated on the last sentence there. The English translation here makes God seem very dark. God is declaring that while he forgives our sins, the effects of sin last well beyond the person and the event of an individual sin—but that’s another homily. Instead, let’s look at the first words God speaks of himself. If we go back to the Hebrew (יְהוָה יְהוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן) (Adonai, Adonai, El raḥūm weḥannūn) and Greek (Κύριος ὁ Θεὸς οἰκτίρμων καὶ ἐλεήμων), a slightly more literal translation would be “LORD, LORD, God merciful and gracious.” God considers himself to be, above all, a merciful God. To us, this is obvious, but we live in a world where the Israelite understanding of God, which is also our Christian understanding of God, is dominant. In those days, where most of the world followed deities of power and fertility, most people would have considered this God of Mercy, to be weak and powerless. This is, perhaps, one reason that the Bible tells us the Israelite peoples had such trouble staying faithful to God. Through time, though, we have seen that mercy does conquer all, and the culmination of mercy was when Jesus conquered death on the Cross for us.
How, though? How does mercy prevail over all else? How is mercy more powerful than power and more fertile than fertility? Think about what happens when God shows us his mercy, about what happens when we show mercy. To show mercy implies that something evil has been done. Evil is nothingness. It cannot create; it can only destroy. Evil is predatory upon the good. But when mercy is shown in the face of evil, we deny the evil its goal. We prevent the destruction which was intended by the evil and we turn it into something creative, even if it is solely creative within us. When God shows mercy, it is even more powerful, because in those cases God can take an evil which has been done and re-create something good. God created all of the universe out of nothing, and when he re-creates something destroyed by evil, we call it mercy. Even now we see examples of this. We can easily see the pain and destruction wrought by the evil effects of the coronavirus, but if we honestly look around us, we see that God is creating in the wake of this destruction: the solidarity of people who join together to support their brothers and sisters, the awakening of ingenuity and creativity of science and industry, the emphasis on the common good and recognition that individuals have a responsibility to contribute to the common good.
God’s triumph of mercy despite suffering is a cause for joy. St. Peter writes, “rejoice, when you share in some measure the sufferings of Christ; so joy will be yours, and triumph, when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:13 Knox) God’s mercy is not obvious, and it is strange, but through His mercy, death and sin are conquered. God’s mercy blesses us, so that despite the blindness of our senses, we who have not seen can believe. God’s “great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for [us].” (1 Peter 1:3-4 NABRE) God’s consistent response to evil is mercy. His greeting to the disciples today is, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I have sent you.” (John 20:21) God sent his Jesus Christ on a mission of Divine Mercy to humanity. Today, Christ sends us on that same mission. As we celebrate God’s mercy upon us today, let us strive to imitate his mercy in our lives. Let us strive to see his mercy coursing through all the world. Most of all, let us surrender ourselves to the love of the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and compassionate, saying, “Jesus, I trust in you.”
April 19, 2020
Divine Mercy Sunday, Year A
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 118; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31