Opening the Word: Imitate Christ’s mercy

Pope Francis in a recent homily remarked that “Jesus’ invitation to mercy is intended to draw us into a deeper imitation of God our Father: Be merciful, as your Father is merciful.”

This basic insight into mercy has been contemplated for centuries. Mercy, wrote St. Ambrose in the fourth century, “is a good thing, for it makes men perfect, in that it imitates the perfect Father. Nothing graces the Christian soul so much as mercy.”

The words “mercy” and “merciful” appear around 150 times in Scripture. Hesed, or tender mercy, is God’s greatest characteristic in the Old Testament. For example, Moses was told that the Lord is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex 34:6). King David, who knew something about sin and justice, wrote, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Ps 51:3). This mercy is boundless and undeserved compassion; in the New Testament it is called agape, which is pure love.

To be merciful is to love with the heart of God, which is why Jesus, in the Beatitudes, stated, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7). To be blessed is to share in the very life of God, and God is perfect love and unfathomable mercy. St. Peter, in today’s Epistle, also connects the two, writing, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope ...”

Mercy, of course, does not ignore sin; on the contrary, mercy addresses and overcomes sin. The Son, by becoming man and being willing to die for the sins of the world, exhibited mercy in a most remarkable manner. Our new birth to a real and living hope, remarked Peter, is “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you ...”

We show mercy to others, not by ignoring or downplaying their sins, but by loving them and helping them to embrace God’s gift of forgiveness.

Fourteen years ago this month, Pope John Paul II officially established this Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday, recognizing the private revelations given by Jesus to St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-38). The Polish nun saw two rays of light shining from the heart of Christ, which, he explained to her, “represent blood and water.” John Paul II reflected upon her visions, writing: “Blood and water! We immediately think of the testimony given by the Evangelist John, who, when a solider on Calvary pierced Christ’s side with his spear, sees blood and water flowing from it (cf. Jn 19:34). Moreover, if the blood recalls the sacrifice of the cross and the gift of the Eucharist, the water, in Johannine symbolism, represents not only baptism but also the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 3:5; 4:14; 7:37-39).”

Pope John Paul II emphasized that the divine mercy is radically demonstrated in God’s sacrificial self-gift, flowing from the heart of the Father, who is “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4). In his 1980 encyclical Dives in Misericordia (“On the Mercy of God”), John Paul II wrote that Jesus Christ not only spoke of mercy, “but above all, he himself makes it incarnate and personifies it. He himself, in a certain sense, is mercy” (No. 2). And we, in turn, are to be witnesses to that mercy, in word and deed.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.