This weekend’s beatification of Pope John Paul II means that the spotlight will shine even brighter on Divine Mercy Sunday this year. While a few liturgical purists criticized the late pontiff for injecting such “Polish piety” into the liturgical calendar so close to Easter, it seems to me that divine mercy is at the heart of the Easter message.
If this intuition isn’t obvious, perhaps it’s because we’re in the habit of selling mercy short. And if we fail to grasp how beautiful, how shocking, how dazzling mercy is, perhaps this is because we’re inclined to confuse it with a legal acquittal or a God who shrugs his shoulders and says “Whatever” to our sins. Mercy, it seems to me, is much, much more than that.
We often say we’re sorry, usually without much thought, and in reply we usually hear, “That’s OK,” “Don’t worry about it,” “No problem.” Rarely, if we knock over someone’s coffee cup or show up late for a meeting do we hear in reply, “I forgive you.”
Perhaps it’s best that such weighty words are not expended on social trivialities, but we shouldn’t so disassociate forgiveness from apologies that we begin to think that when confronted with our sins God just mutters “No problem” and gets on with running divine errands.
To say “I forgive you” requires an acknowledgment of self (I) and other (you), of a distance between them and the overcoming of that distance. The sentence “I forgive you” contains an active verb, an agent who reaches across that distance; it is no mere passive live-and-let-live. The outstretched finger of Michelangelo’s fresco of the creation of Adam could be a fitting image of forgiveness as well as creation.
And perhaps mercy and creation aren’t really that different. At the Holy Thursday liturgy I attended last week the Kyrie eléison was particularly moving, with several female voices from the choir filling the church with piercing beauty. And I thought how wonderful that was, what a fitting metaphor for all that happens in the Paschal mystery: the Kyrie is a plea for mercy—Lord, have mercy—and underneath it is our sin. But what happens to our sin when confronted with God’s mercy? It is transformed, turned from something wretched and ugly into a new and dazzling creation, into music.
In fact, it is only because we face sin in all its wretchedness that we are able to experience mercy. Perhaps here we hit upon why mercy is underappreciated in our day: because we have lost a sense of sin. We miss out on mercy not because of the heinousness of our sins—no sin is too great for God’s mercy—but because of our indifference toward them. Most of us are not great sinners—not Stalin or Henry VIII or Josef Mengele—but pitifully mediocre ones, which means our great temptation is to shrug our shoulders at our faults, mutter “whatever”—and forgo mercy.
Remember the priest’s prayer before giving absolution: “May God grant you pardon and peace.” A pardon is quite different from a “not guilty” verdict. Pardon acknowledges guilt; it implies that a conviction has already occurred, sentence has been passed—and lifted. Pardon comes only after a guilty plea, and this makes mercy a little frightening, even shocking. In our own legal system, pardons come from the executive; they represent a power outside the judicial system, a last appeal when all attempts to justify ourselves through the courts have failed.
We might imagine the good thief at Christ’s side: a life of petty delinquency and failure, unremarkable larceny, and nowhere else to go, no other appeal to make, and then—paradise. If we can imagine the good thief crying so hard he laughs, laughing so hard he cries, crying and laughing so hard he is weak and lightheaded and every millimeter of his flesh trembles with shock and joy—then we might have the first inkling of what is meant by mercy.
At the Easter Vigil, as the dawn from on high has begun to pierce the darkness of the tomb and all that has been dissolves in the tears and laughter of the Resurrection we sing of a new creation, words that should shock—O felix culpa—a paradoxical hymn made possible by mercy.
O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the death of Christ!
O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!