“Let them thank the Lord for His mercy, His wonders for the children of men, for He satisfies the thirsty soul, and the hungry He fills with good things.” This is the Communion antiphon for the fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, (this coming Sunday). It is really beautiful, as are all the prayers sprinkled liberally throughout Mass. Better still, these prayers make obvious to us what we believe. We can be quick to add our automatic “amen” to these prayers, but we ought to pay attention to what they teach. In this case we have a prayer of gratitude for the mercy of the Lord, who gives us every good gift. If you think you have heard it before, you may have. Part of it is ‘lifted’ directly from the Magnificat of Mary, (Luke 1:46-55). It tells us about the attitude of mercy which is God’s prevailing expression of love for His people and one for which we really should be grateful.
All of the gospels for the entire fifth week in Ordinary Time revolve around the activity of Jesus in His ministry. In reflecting upon them, there seems to be an overriding theme: Jesus left a wake of healing and love wherever He went. He healed the possessed or physically ill who approached Him no matter what the detractors said. He preached words which set the people free from a bondage to sin and silly rules that misplaced their focus from the spirit of the law to the letter of the law. He challenged a Gentile woman with words that seemed harsh, but in reality were about giving mercy to everyone, even those who do not follow the same customs and beliefs that we do. And He gave food in a miraculous way to those who came to hear Him preach, which was in reality a lesson about the magnificent, unfathomable over-abundance of mercy which the Lord gives.
The truth is that mercy is wonderful when we are receiving it, but it becomes more challenging when we are asked to give it. So often we hear people say things, (or we are the ones saying them), that belie a desire for vengeance. We instinctively want to go for the jugular when we wronged or hurt in any way, or to do so on behalf of loved ones who may have been attacked or wounded. Often we do not see this for what it is which is why it is such a dangerous attitude. We seem to inhale this way of thinking from the attitudes of the society in which we live. We are surrounded by messages which say that retaliation and vengeance are acceptable or that the end justifies the means. This is contrary to the entire message of Jesus which is about the kind of justice and mercy that is above our human inclinations.
Justice and mercy go together. We need both. If we have mercy without justice we would have a big mess, something like ‘anything goes because it is all okay.’ That is not the truth: everything is not okay; there are things which are sinful and are definitely not acceptable. However, justice without mercy would be cruelty and that will not do, either. Therefore we need to find a balance between the two. If we were to truly follow what the Scriptures teach, we would recognize that even if things do not go the way we would like in this life, we must keep our faith in His message that in the end justice is for the Lord to mete out. He will do it. Truly God has more wisdom than we do and He sees the big picture in ways we never could, therefore I am happy to leave the judging part to Him.
We need to take a closer look at mercy, however, because Jesus lived by an attitude of merciful love. He was quick to forgive and slow to condemn, though there were times He made it very clear that certain behaviors were deplorable. In a gospel passage from this week (Mark 7:1-13) the Pharisees were condemning Jesus for letting His followers eat their meals with unwashed hands, thus breaking the Law of Moses. Jesus let them know that they were missing the point. He used the opportunity to teach that it is what comes out of our hearts, our actions, and what comes out of our mouths, our words, which is more important. In short, Jesus was teaching that loving, merciful words and deeds are more important than what our hands look like. He was trying to tell the Pharisees that they had missed the point of the Law. The Law was always about love and mercy; the rules were meant to help the people to be a people of love. It was the spirit of the Law that the Pharisees were missing. (They did not have attitudes of mercy.) Jesus really did care about the Pharisees: He did not want them to be lost, nor did He desire for the people who listened to them to be lost, so He cared enough to challenge them.
Everything Jesus taught and all that He did shows us that we should have attitudes of mercy and love. He never gave the impression that any sin committed was the end of the road for someone. All sin is forgivable; so long as we have sorrow for what we have done and truly desire to change with the help of God’s grace, we are forgiven when we ask for such mercy. The truth is that we are all loved sinners. Therefore, He also taught us to forgive 77 times, or rather, without limit, because that is part of having an attitude of mercy. There is nothing easy about this, but it is what we strive for because it is the attitude of God. Those who desire to grow in holiness desire to grow in this type of loving, merciful attitude. If it informs all we do, then we are growing in holiness. Therefore we need to pray for discernment constantly so as to know the most merciful way to respond in any given situation. This does not mean condoning everything. Remember, mercy and justice have to co-mingle which often requires the wisdom that is a grace from the Holy Spirit.
Let us pray for the attitude of mercy which Jesus teaches us. Since Lent will start shortly we should begin to think about ways we can grow in holiness. Perhaps we can add works of mercy, such as going out of our way to listen to a friend who may be in anguish over something or moving to action to help alleviate their suffering if possible. We can pray to be less quick to judge, less prone to gossip, or less apt to condemn another with our words and deeds. We can make sacrifices by reaching out to people different from ourselves, being merciful in our approach rather than judgmental of diverse ways of doing things. We can work toward justice both in prayer and in action. All authentic prayer leads us outward to action since prayer changes our own hearts during the process.
The bottom line is that we need to pray for an attitude of mercy which becomes our very consciousness so that we act out of it at all times. Mercy is what allows us to reach past the divisions of race, socio-economics, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, and politics. It is what is sorely missing in many areas of society. It has to be something we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us, and the best way to do that is to read the Scriptures, pray, give alms, do penance, and participate in works of mercy. It has to become personal and habitual so that our attitudes last when Lent ends. If we ask to love with the heart of Jesus, and if we say a prayer begging for this, such as my favorite short prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” we will grow in this consciousness because we will recognize that mercy is given to us continually. The more we ask for mercy, the more we realize that we, too, must give what we have received. To paraphrase Jesus: “What you have received, give as a gift.” (Matt.10:8) We have received boundless mercy, therefore we need to ask - no, beg - for this attitude to pervade our hearts and to prevail in the world. An attitude of mercy will bless us with joy, and will touch the world so that we, too, leave a wake of healing, just as Jesus taught all those who wish to be His followers. We cannot expect anyone to want to follow or to be attracted to Jesus if we do not approach them with love. So let us pray that we might help spread the Kingdom through actions that flow from an attitude of mercy.
May we be moved by the mercy of Jesus so we may grow in the knowledge that we are loved sinners! May we ask to have an attitude of mercy and then have the courage to live it! May we be grateful for the gift of mercy we have received from the Lord! May we have insights into what we can do this coming Lent which will help us to grow as disciples of Jesus! And may we recognize Jesus in the faces of all those we meet, especially the stranger, so that we would be moved to an attitude rich in mercy and love! Let us continue to meet in the merciful heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The icons are the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. The first is Christ All Merciful which can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/gallery-views/jesus-gallery/product/34-christ-all-merciful.
The second is called The Virgin of Tenderness of Yaroslavl and it can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/253-the-virgin-of-tenderness-of-yaroslavl. I picked this icon because of the mutual love which is clearly seen between the mother and the Son. It is obvious that she has taken on His attitude of mercy.
The photos are mine. The first is a brown pelican overlooking the Gulf of Mexico in Biloxi, Mississippi. The second was taken in the Black Hills of South Dakota. For me the waterfall is symbolic of the overflowing mercy of God.
Heart Speaks to Heart