Love and Mercy

The quality of mercy
Fr Anthony Kelly CSsR

Fr Anthony Kelly CSsR

Tony Kelly, a priest of the Redemptorist Order. Doctoral and post-doctoral studies in Rome, Toronto and Paris

In the context of ordinary communication, talk of mercy is a foreign language.  In the world of mass media, spiteful gossip, vindictiveness, revenge, and ruthless exposure of wrongs seem to set the tone.  Claiming victim-status is a well-practiced ploy so that the victim, in turn, becomes pitiless and shows no mercy. In social discourse, there must be no talk of mercy for the guilty.  It would seem like a perversion of justice and a lack of transparency in the cut and dried world of legal calculation.  Discussion shrinks and hardens to accusation, suspicion and resentment.  Police, prison officers, lawyers and judges, all make sure that the penal system keeps smoothly working. 

In the real world of justice, mercy is not only a foreign word, but also a dangerous idea, suggesting mindless indulgence and a soft option.  The fear is that society would collapse if there were no laws, no enforcement agencies, and no courts to decide matters dispassionately and resolve conflict.  But mercy, far from being a mindless or a soft option, makes demands. Pope Francis’ promotion of the Jubilee Year of Mercy invites us all to look more honestly and deeply at the world and our role in shaping it.  If mercy is to mean a something in this respect, four questions must be faced.

The first and radical of these asks what we believe about God.  How difficult it would to think about mercy if we thought of God as non-existent or as far removed from this human world.  Such a remote God might be thought of as always sitting in judgment on us, and out to get us in our every manifestation of weakness and failure.  A moment’s thought shows how blasphemous that would be.  Scripture and tradition witness to the sheer love of God that has called the world and each one of us into existence.  The Father has so loved us and our world as to give his beloved Son in order to show us his true face through Jesus’ words of forgiveness and works of healing.  While the Son died on the cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). His death led to the joy of the resurrection in which we all can now share.  Against that background of self-giving love for all, Jesus tells us, “Be merciful as your heavenly Father in merciful” (Luke 6:36).  He taught his followers to pray that demanding prayer, “Father forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.  God is, indeed, “the Father of mercies” (2 Corinthians 1:3, just as the children of God are called to be agents of mercy for others.

A second question stirs: why does the very idea of mercy seems so strangely out of place in the real world of management and control? A culture that has taught us never to admit failure or guilt and to hide behind a carefully cultivated image of competence and success, has no room for mercy.  As a result, we bear the burden of living with this oppressive lie. Each one must keep up the pretence of being blameless.  We never dare to admit the coldness of our hearts, and the seven deadly sins that swarm there—pride, covetous, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth.  The more loving and holy the saints, the more ready they are to confess their sins and admit their need for God’s mercy.  To the degree we become frozen in our delusions of innocence, we become incapable of admitting any wrong-doing.  Mercy becomes a word in a foreign language and suggests an other-worldly attitude, irrelevant to real life.

Thirdly, mercy makes demands. For Christians, to receive mercy means becoming merciful: “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). There is no hint of manipulating God and leaving our world and our hearts unchanged: “blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).  Surrendering to the loving mercy of God means becoming a source of mercy to others.  In other words, mercy received must be mercy given; it must result in mercy shown to others.  In the spiritual and corporal “works of mercy”—all the way from praying for others, Instructing and counselling them when needed, visiting the sick, helping the poor and welcoming the stranger, and being a peacemaker.  Without doing mercy we cannot receive it, and expect to belong to the kingdom of God.

There is a fourth point.  As the saying goes, “the truth hurts”.  It does—especially when it appears that we are less than the self-image we have carefully constructed.  Selfishness, a hard-hearted rejection of others, jealously and spite—all  make us spiritually ugly.  Being found out, therefore, is humbling.  Although that truth hurts, in world of God-given mercy, the whole truth for oneself and others is a source of healing and hope.  In that world, we are all more than our failures.  The love and mercy of God is the whole truth, leading us on, offering new life. St Paul can even boast of his weaknesses “so that the power of Christ may dwell in me…for whenever I am weak then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

To conclude: in the beginning, there is not only an original gift of existence, but also, if this gift is to be recognised and exercised, there is an unconditional forgiving on God’s part is implied. All are confronted with the agony of life in this world with its deaths, extinctions, violence and evolutionary dead ends: “.. the whole of creation has been has been groaning In labour pains until now” (Rom 8:23).  Within the agony and struggle inscribed in nature itself and exhibited in human history , we can turn to the mysterious image of “the Lamb that was slaughtered before the foundation of the world” (see Rev 13:8, 5:6, 7-8, 11-12; 7:13-17; 12:11). This image suggests that there is a primordial self-sacrificing divine love which is intrinsic to creation and providence. Without such a perspective, human and evolutionary history could lead to a blank wall of hopelessness.

This original self-giving love of God as constitutive of creation is expressed in several places in the New Testament.  Paul affirms that Christ Jesus emptied himself of “the form of God,” to take on the form of a slave (Phil 2:5-7). In post-Pauline developments, the author of the Letter to the Colossians describes the Christ as “the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation. … He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:15, 17). Similarly, the Letter to the Ephesians proclaims: “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph 1:4).  Then, at the foundation of Johannine Christology is the intimate union between the Logos with God that pre-existed “the beginning” (John 1:1-2).  In his final prayer, the Johannine Jesus prays to his Father that he might return to the glory which was his in God’s presence “before the world existed” (Jn 17:5). And then, completing and intensifying this perspective, is the vision of the slaughtered and risen lamb.  It shines into all the darkness and violence of history, “from the foundation of the world” (Rev 5:6; 13:8). It penetrates even into the evolutionary agōnia of the cosmos.[1] If violence and death are a necessary part of the evolutionary and historical process, so too must forgiveness and mercy counterbalance and situate these inevitably lethal negativities if the Kingdom is to come in conformity with the “for-giving” that is original to creation and the creator. Whatever the sins of the world that have occurred from the beginning of time, they are already washed clean by the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:13-17). From “before the foundation of the world”. There has been the continuing presence of the crucified and risen One: “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17b-18). When this is recognised, history is no longer a dismal obituary.  The special energies of Christian love and hope breathe with the limitless self-sacrificial love on the part of God.  It creates the universe, forms humanity, forgives our sins, brings healing, and promises a transformed wholeness in God “all in all”.

In the light of the God’s self-giving sacrifice in Christ, we “forgive” the universe as it were, as it blindly unfolds through death, tragedy and failures.  By so forgiving the world, we can find ourselves mercifully and hopefully part of it.  Indeed, there is a ‘for-give-ness” that extends even to God and the images we make of the loving and forgiving creator. Certainly, such a God is not the enemy, even if we imagine him as such. God is the world-transcending creator whose ways are ever beyond us, the evidence of which we await in patience.

Lastly, acting mercifully to others is entering into the heart of God and doing what God is doing in the world.  It is like living in the Sacred Heart.  There, each one of us is wrapped in the boundless mercy of God, and empowered to bring that mercy to others. United with Christ in this way, we begin to share in Jesus’ reaction to hatred, violence, and dishonesty.  Sharing in this mercy, we are not destroyed by the evils we encounter either in ourselves or in our world.  Rather than becoming harsh and bitter, we each grow more fully as agents of mercy and forgiveness in the world.  Each Christian life is a heartbeat in the heart of God and a pulse in the circulation of the life of Christ.  The Year of Mercy is a summons into the life of mercy, as it overflows from God, through Christ and into the world.

Let St Paul sum up: ”be kind to one another, tender-hearted and forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). But in God’s world, we can be agree with St Paul, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).

We are all sinners: that stark truth must affect our understanding of the enemies Jesus commands us to love. It seems we are wrong to be fixated in rejecting them. Even if they (whoever they are, may know us quite well) have a visceral detestation of all we prize, or remain glacially indifferent to our very existence and worth. These cannot be simply objects of our hatred and unreserved rejection: they are to be loved if we are to be true children of the Father. Besides, these enemies cannot be totally wrong by being against us.  We can love them for seeing through the hypocrisy and pretentious performance, the mean little bigotries of our days, and the heartless rigidities of attitudes, as well as spineless conformity to the most powerful influences in culture and politics. They are not always wrong nor are we always right, and without blame. Love these enemies and learn from them,  be ready to forgive by adoring the limitless mercy from which all live, and in which the first and final saving truth is to be found.

Kyrie, eleison…; Christe, eleison

[1] Revelation’s presentation of the sheer grace of Jesus death and resurrection “from before all time,” parallels the Pauline understanding of Jesus as the image of an invisible God (Philippi and Colossians), and the Johannine understanding of the eternal union between God and the Logos, could be a significant contribution to Christian ecological thought.

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