, , ,

Detail from the Ukrainian Catholic Church of Ss Volodymyr and Olha, Chicago, IL

Detail from the Ukrainian Catholic Church of Ss Volodymyr and Olha, Chicago, IL

On this fourth Sunday of Easter we hear in the Introit words of Psalm 33: “The loving-kindness of the Lord filleth the whole world, alleluya: by the word of God the heavens were stablished, alleluya, alleluya.” By this opening text of the Mass the Church bids us rejoice today that the Lord has, by the merits of his passion and by his victory over death, rescued us, his people, from the certain death which is the result of our sin. In the light of the paschal season we are reminded today that, as the Easter Sequence proclaims, Death with life [has] contended: combat strangely ended! Life’s own Champion, slain, yet lives to reign.”

The saving action of Christ, by which he leads us from the clutches of death and returns us to fullness of life in him, is the ultimate sign of the loving-kindness or mercy about which we hear in today’s Introit. Our restoration to life in God—the undoing of the serpent’s guile and the sin of the Garden of Eden—is a fruit of the Father’s love for us; a love seen most perfectly in the passion of his only-begotten Son, by whose death we have life. That mercy is at the heart of the message of the gospel. It is the cause of our joy and our hope, and it is the catalyst for our evangelizing mission, to bring all peoples to know and to love Christ in the communion of his holy Church. With Pope Benedict XVI we can say, “mercy is the central nucleus of the gospel message” (Regina cœli, 30 March, 2008).

The concept of mercy is also one which is very present in the pontificate of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and a particular acknowledgement of this is his recent decision to call an extraordinary jubilee of mercy from the feast of the Immaculate Conception this year until the feast of Christ the King next. In this year dedicated to the Lord’s mercy the Holy Father seeks to encourage us to fix our eyes on the merciful face of the Lord, who looks to us only with love as he creates, redeems, and sanctifies us by our participation in his life through baptism. Indeed the Bull of Indiction by which the jubilee year is announced has the Latin title Misericordiæ vultus (the face of mercy) and begins with these words: “Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy . . . Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him.” (MV 1).

By meditating on the merciful face of Christ, then, the Holy Father encourages us to glimpse the true and complete meaning of mercy. In the person of Christ, as the psalmist reminds us, “mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps. 85:10-11). This means that there can be no division between “mercy” and “truth”; no charity which is not in its essence founded on the life which is demanded of those of us who intimately share the life of Christ, fused to his mystical body in baptism. And so a view of mercy devoid of any objective judgement of sin, and thus avoiding of the revealing light which is cast on our lives by the sacrifice of Christ, is itself a devaluation of the perfect mercy of God and thus of the same sacrifice for sin undertaken by Christ on the cross. Thus we can say that any true desire for mercy on our part must first come from an acknowledgement of our sin, sorrow for our failures, and an honest desire for a true amendment of life.

The Greek mythical tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, performed at the Kennedy Centre this week in an opera by the priest-composer, Claudio Monteverdi, is I am sure well known to many of us. Eurydice, with whom Orpheus (the son of Apollo) falls in love, is killed by a poisonous snake whilst walking in the fields. Overcome with grief, Orpheus travels to the underworld to rescue her from the clutches of death. Having won over Hades and Persephone he is granted permission to lead his love back to life, provided he does not look back at her. In this he fails and, distracted by a sudden noise, he turns and sees Eurydice one last time before she is whisked back to the underworld, away from him for ever. In his disobedience a spirit says to him, “You have broken the law and are unworthy of grace.”

The contrast for us is clear: the Christian God is not as the pagan spirit, whose mercy has what the world of business might call a limited distribution policy. Rather the mercy offered us through the sacrifice of Christ is boundless because it is perfect. So for us to benefit truly from its transforming power—the power to conform us to Christ and his eternal life—we must first acknowledge the enormity of the gift and, so doing, commit ourselves to return to the Lord by true repentance and amendment of life. If, in the light of Christ’s victory, we “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness”, we present to the Lord the wounds caused by our sin and invite him to pour out the balm of his boundless mercy upon them. By this we are healed and restored to life, not simply to our own path, but to the way, the truth, and the life, which is the life of Christ; the eternal life of the Most Blessed Trinity.

The Holy Father describes this process thus: “God goes beyond justice with his mercy and forgiveness. Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous. On the contrary: anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price. However, this is just the beginning of conversion, not its end, because one begins to feel the tenderness and mercy of God.” (MV 21). May we begin again this road to conversion that, led by Christ from the fate we have secured through our sin, we might be enjoy the fruits of his sacrifice and so, for all eternity, contemplate his merciful face and rejoice in the gift of his merciful love.