There is a lot of emphasis these days on equality and that, in some ways, makes it difficult for us to understand, or indeed to accept, mercy. Mercy, of its very nature, is given and received in situations of inequality. Mercy is about reaching down and lifting someone up. It is those who are strong and secure and good who exercise mercy to those who are weak, vulnerable and sometimes undeserving. The Scriptures present us with an image of God whose very nature is to be merciful. His mercy is expressed in the various covenants He makes with His people, in the way that He sends the prophets to draw them back into right relationship with Him and, especially in the way He sends His own Son.
In our human relationships, we are sometimes in the position of strength and sometimes in the position of weakness. I think, for example, of married couples and how their love for one another depends so much on the readiness to compromise, to forgive, and to avoid saying “I told you so.” At weddings you sometimes here people say silly things like “love means never having to say you’re sorry”. I am convinced, on the contrary, that a successful marriage depends almost as much on mercy as it does on love. I have just recently been reading about Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who are themselves due to be canonised later this year. It seems clear that, if they are saints, it is in no small measure due to the very real sacrifices they made for one another, because they both believed in the mercy of God.
Go back for a moment to the Gospel passage to which we have all listened this afternoon. Jesus who had been betrayed and denied, ridiculed and beaten, crucified and abandoned, appears to His disciples in the Upper Room and says “peace be with you”. He returns again with the same message to Thomas who was slow to believe. This greeting “peace be with you” is repeated three times in today’s Gospel. This is the peace “that the world cannot give” about which Jesus had spoken to those same disciples at the Last Supper.
When, during the celebration of the Eucharist, we refer to this particular expression of the mercy of God, we pray “look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.” One of the mysteries of Easter is that Jesus has entrusted us with being the ministers of His mercy. He does this in a unique was through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which as the Gospel today reminds us, is the out-flowing of the fruits of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. If you listen carefully to the words of absolution, you will notice that they begin “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins.”
The life-style of the first Christians, as we heard in our first reading, was characterised by mercy. We are told that “no one claimed for his own use anything that he had, as everything they owned was held in common” and “none of their members was ever in need” because those who had property would sell it and give the money to the Apostles, to provide for the needy. Where did they learn to do that? I think we can say that they acted with mercy, because they themselves had experienced the mercy of God in a rather unique way in the person of Jesus. It would, of course, have been easy for the disciples to simply to celebrate the outpouring of God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But sacraments, if they are to be authentic, have to become part of who we are. They have to be “brought out onto the street.” It seems that the disciples understood this from the very beginning and they set about reflecting the mercy of God in all of their dealings with one another.
So what can we learn from this for our own lives today. There are two related aspects of living in the mercy of God. The first is to recognise our own smallness and to allow ourselves to be lifted up by one who is stronger and wiser than we are. The poet Denise Levertov [i] expresses this very beautifully in a lovely image which a child could understand: “to float, upheld, as salt water would hold you, once you dared.” We need to be “upheld” and we need the Sacrament of Reconciliation today, just as much as we ever did. We also need to prepare well for it, so that it is not just a shopping list with all the items ticked off one by one. We come to it honestly, with all the messiness of our lives. It must always be, first and foremost, a celebration of the mercy of God.
The second aspect of living in the mercy of God flows from the first. If we have begun to grasp the reality of God’s mercy towards us, we can also begin to recognise that, alongside our smallness, each one of us is gifted in some way that allows him or her, on a daily basis, to lift someone up. As well as giving the gift of our forgiveness to those who offend us, we can be listeners, mediators, carers. We can lift people up in prayer. We can lift them up with good food, with music, with a smile or simply by being present. Which is the more difficult for you; to dare to trust in God’s mercy towards yourself, or to dare to extend God’s mercy to others?
We hear quite a lot these days about the importance of being non-judgemental. Indeed people are fond of quoting Pope Francis saying, “who am I to judge”? But what does this actually mean? The paradox is that we live in a world which is anything but merciful. This is due in part to the fact that we live our lives in a much more public way than any generation before us. They used to say that, in urban society, the nearest rat is never more than a few metres away. I don’t know how true that is. Today, however, it seems that the nearest smartphone is never more than a few metres away. People are recorded, tweeted and judged in a matter of seconds, presumably by people “who never put a foot wrong in their lives”. Let us be honest too, there is a market out there for watching other people squirm. So how does mercy sit alongside judgement?
I think we need to learn from the scriptures and especially from Jesus, who is the personification of God’s mercy. From the time of Moses, God’s commandments were understood as an aspect of His mercy. They are an element of the covenant by which He made the people of Israel His own and promised to walk with them. Jesus Himself explained that love of God and love of neighbour is at the heart of the commandments. But His was not a wishy-washy kind of love. He spoke the truth without apology. He certainly made judgements, but He didn’t condemn people. Likewise, I believe that we have to make judgements between what is true and false, right and wrong. Otherwise, how could we live with any kind of integrity.
What we can never do, I believe, is to place ourselves in the position of judge over another person, in order to condemn him or her. God alone can see into the depths of another person’s conscience and pronounce him or her to be morally innocent or guilty. Jesus spoke of Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life. If we, as Church, are showing people “the Way”, it will always be because we are helping them find the direction that is consistent with the Gospel, rather than simply condemning them because they are going the wrong way.
I think it is important not to simply speak in a vacuum about mercy. We are about to have a referendum on the meaning of marriage. I know that this is quite painful for some people because the question of same-sex relationships touches them in the reality of their own families. Others, while believing in the marriage of a man and a woman, wonder if they are entitled to express this view publicly anymore, because it might offend others. So where is the balance between mercy and truth? Can we judge?
The answer of course is that we must judge, but that our judgement must always be merciful. In addition, at this time, we should reflect that:
- There is a moral responsibility on every Christian and indeed every citizen to make a judgement about the forthcoming referendum, a judgement which is based on the truth.
- As citizens we are all entitled to cast our vote, according to what we believe to be true, and I believe there is a moral responsibility on all citizens who have a vote to exercise it, unless they are physically unable to do so.
- The idea that marriage is between a man and a woman is not a uniquely Christian one. It is rooted in the nature of our humanity.
- Without apologising for the truth, we do need to be conscious – in the manner in which we express ourselves – of the hurt that people may be experiencing.
- Finally, as with every issue that divides people, there will be a need for mercy when all of this is over. No moral pronouncement, and likewise no referendum, should ever be about crushing people.
Today, and on a very different note, I want to ask you to join with me during this Mass in praying for the new Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, Father Phonsie Cullinan, who is being ordained as we speak. I would have like to be with him, but I promised him that we would remember him here, and pray that the mercy of God may be always a powerful presence in his life, both for himself and for those to whom he ministers as bishop.
- Bishop Kevin Doran is the Bishop of Elphin
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