For more than 400 years, William Shakespeare has marveled those who read and see his plays with his masterful turns of phrase and depth of thought. As I am preparing for this Sunday, the 2nd Sunday of Easter, his words in the mouth of Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” (Act 4, Scene 1), came to mind:
The quality of mercy
is not strain’d.
It droppeth as the
gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.
It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives
and him that takes.
Mercy will be on all of our minds as we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. This celebration for the universal church began in 2000 on the occasion of the canonization of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, who died in 1938 and whose writings inspired the Divine Mercy devotion promoted by St. John Paul II: “Jesus, I trust in You.”
Mercy is the core virtue preached by Pope Francis, whose papal motto has the words Miserando atque eligendo, meaning lowly but chosen; literally in Latin ‘by having mercy, by choosing him.” Of all the attributes that describe our loving God, it is mercy that runs through the pages of sacred Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. God’s grace shows itself in His mercy, and we are humbly called to receive this precious gift.
As the bard of Avon tells us, those with mercy in their hearts and in their actions are twice blessed. Those to whom they show mercy receive a touch that can come only from God’s grace, and the merciful one grows in grace. Surely this prompted Jesus to preach “blessed are they who show mercy; mercy shall be theirs.” (Mt. 5:7)
Scripture scholars remind us that it is not so much that God waits to find those who are merciful and then picks them out to receive His mercy. Rather it is the opposite. Our experience of God’s mercy, much like the Prodigal Son’s unearned experience of a loving, gracious, and merciful Father, moves our hearts to share that mercy with others. I heard Divine Mercy described this way: It is the merciful love of God for us and the desire to let that love and mercy flow through our hearts toward those in need of it.
Getting ready for the solemnity, I went back and re-read the second encyclical of St. John Paul II, “Dives in Misericordia.” Written in 1980, this document takes its title from St. Paul’s words in Ephesians: “God, who is rich in mercy, [and] because of the great love he had for us … brought us to life with Christ,” (Eph 2:4, 5b). I was struck again by St. John Paul II describing one of the Hebrew words for mercy or loving kindness, hesed, as the Father’s fidelity to Himself.
Like a loving parent who loves the child in good times and in bad, God our Father will always be true to His own nature and never fail to show us His mercy. Faithful to Himself, He shows mercy to all.
The Gospels and Church writers show what a great effect mercy has on the soul. The gift leads the soul to conversion to Christ. It is no accident that Jesus says often to the person touched by His mercy, “Go and sin no more.”
The writers also remind us that mercy can never be forced on us. Our freedom remains intact. Augustine said it well in one of his sermons: “The One who created you without you does not justify you without you” (Sermon 169). Mercy is not strain’d or forced. It must be freely received.
This Easter season is about learning how to receive a gift! This Sunday we receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. It is not forced. It works powerfully in our souls. It is especially in the sacrament of reconciliation that we are touched by this forgiving power. Then, we begin to see it at work in the gentle way we treat others in our care. Mercy is twice blessed:
“It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz