Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Love's Second Name

Last Easter the six-year-old son of one of our friends asked him, “Why did Jesus die on the cross, Daddy? Couldn't he save himself?” Eduardo answered that, yes, he could have, but he wanted to sacrifice himself so that we would be forgiven all our sins. Ruben pondered this a minute, then exclaimed, “Wow, Daddy, Jesus was brave! He was like a soldier who dives on top of a grenade to save his buddies!”

Neither mystics nor theologians ever plumb the depths of this mystery of mercy. Like Ruben, they come by some of their best insights through analogy. Sometimes, though, one of those insights, with help from on high, strikes humankind’s inner eye and causes us all to see the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection in a new way. St. Faustina Kowalska’s visions and messages revealing Christ once again as Divine Mercy are one of those helps.

See pamphlet here.
Too often “divine mercy” is reduced to popular practice: Divine Mercy Sunday—April 15 this year. (Wouldn’t that be a switch for tax day?) with the corresponding novena and chaplet. How many of us have read John Paul II’s letter on The Mercy of God? How many of us think each day of ways we can pour out on others the mercy we ourselves have received? How often is a lack of mercy and justice the subject of personal confession, either at the end of the day, or in a family setting, or in a celebration of the sacrament of Penance? Is there ever anyone or any group of people from whom we withhold compassionate understanding or forgiveness? How can we be blessed into becoming merciful people who are then capable of once again obtaining mercy? (Mt. 5:7) In her blog this week, NCR columnist Isabella R. Moyer invites us to ask ourselves if we are persons and a people of mercy.

Numbers 7 and 8 of The Mercy of God (Dives in misericordia) touch especially on the aspects of mercy that rise to the top of the churn at this time of year: mercy revealed in the cross and resurrection. In connecting it with Christian faith and charity, John Paul II calls mercy “love’s second name.” He boldly asserts that “believing in the crucified Son means…believing that “love is more powerful than any kind of evil….[It] means believing in mercy…an indispensible dimension of love….”

Love’s second name may be mercy, but Christian mercy, also has a name: Jesus, Way, Truth, and Life.

Let’s start with Way. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). What does that mean? Jesus, the God-Man, is the way to rebuilding our right relationship with God. How do we enter into this relationship? By wishing it? By believing that it happens? Paul would answer: “Don’t you know that those of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we were buried with him through our baptism into his death so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory we too might be able to lead a new life” (Rom. 6:3). We walk in Christ, who is our Way to the Father in the Holy Spirit. Thus, grace—God living in us, a gift won for us on the cross and from the empty tomb—is our justification through God’s mercy.

Prodigal Son tile. Church of Santa Maria dei Popoli, Rome.
Truth. In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), this is identified with God, who is always faithful to the covenant he made with his People. More: In his fidelity, he is actually being faithful to himself: God does not go back on his word. Again Paul: “God’s gift and his call are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Paul casts this in terms of our disobedience and God’s mercy to Jew and Gentile alike. In this he echoes what Israel understood in Hebrew: hesed, “faithful mercy.” Jesus, “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3), is the incarnation of this hesed, this Truth, this mercy.

Life. God gives and nurtures life, just like a mother (Is. 49:15), sheltering and forgiving us and tenderly showing us compassion: rahamim, as the ancients would have called it. This life giving mercy springs from God’s heart and fiercely protects us, even to death, from what destroys his life in us. Sound like Anyone we know? Peter confessed to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life” (Jn. 6:68).

The heart is what gives life, and in biblical language, the inner heart is the center of a person’s being, where decisions are made for or against God and neighbor, for life or death. Sanctified, blessed, made holy by grace, the heart makes us dear to God. The sacraments are reservoirs of this grace for the heart; prayer in faith gives us what we need to tap into it.

I spent Holy Week reading a portion of a book I’ve been meditating on for months—The Promise,* by the Church’s first Jewish cardinal, Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris. Like St. Paul, he makes it clear that mercy is made available to us all, Jews and Gentiles, but that we have to be able to accept it. The only way we can do that is by facing our sin. Where do we do that? In the same place where we are forgiven—at the cross. “God has consigned all to disobedience so that he may show mercy to all” (Rom. 11: 32). Lustiger writes:
“Sin is a kind of war, a case of man setting himself up against God. The innocence and righteousness of the Son—Word made flesh, Son of God made man—bring to light the homicidal tendency which dwells in the heart of every man….

“In Christ’s wounds, man can see himself as he is: not in another sinner, but in the Innocent One whom he disfigures. Adam, Man, can contemplate himself in Christ, for in the wounds he inflicts on the Innocent, the Righteous One, he sees his own portrait. In the derision he heaps upon Jesus, he sees his own cruelty. In the apostles’ betrayal, he sees his own cowardice. In Jesus abandoned, he sees his own abandonment of God.

“Paul will say: ‘For our sake he made him to be sin’ (2 Corinthians 5:21)….Only the holiness of the obedient Son reveals the refusal that dwells in every man’s heart; and if he permits sin to be thus revealed, it is in order to make universal forgiveness possible.

Renewal of baptismal promises, Easter liturgy
“…All [human beings] see their own sin revealed, so that all can be forgiven by God and all can receive mercy.”
John Paul points out that justice, or restoration of our relationship with God, is not an evening of the score, but a complete overhaul of the human tendencies that Cardinal Lustiger writes about. Because this justice “springs completely from love,” it recreates us. This is why, in his homily for Holy Saturday, Pope Benedict could describe the Easter sacrament of baptism and our profession of faith in the Risen One, through which this re-creation happens, as a “bridge” connecting us with the light of Jesus, who is “God’s new day.” Jesus, his paschal mystery, and his gift of baptism are the sequel to the creation story we read about in Genesis at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night. If you and I still sin, if sin still plagues our societies, it’s not because grace has failed, but because grace in us and in our world is still writing the end of that sequel.

This justice is effected, brought about, by mercy. You can probably guess what I’m going to say next. By going this route of justice-through-mercy, God has given us a template for social justice, as well. Briefly, John Paul says that contrary to prevailing opinion, mercy is not unilateral. Did you ever teach someone, or do good to someone, maybe participating in a project for a non-profit organization? At the end of the day, did you ever wonder who benefitted more from the experience—the people you set out to help, or you? Jesus experiences the same thing. He considers our acts of mercy, personal or societal, as done to himself (Mt. 25:31ff.). If we can get past the notion that real mercy somehow tips the balance in favor of the one who “receives” it to the detriment of the one who “gives” it, our world might have a shot at restorative justice after all. (See “Weekly PauLine” in the right sidebar.)

If we’ve never made this our prayer before, then now, with the world as it is, would be as good a time as any to start. We can begin by acknowledging to our good God that we don’t know how to pray for ourselves or our world as we should (cf. Rom. 8:26). We can even admit to him, if not to anyone else, that we’re not all too sure that mercy can lead us to justice. But we don’t want to stop there. Whether we decide to pray with the chaplet to Divine Mercy, or from our hearts to pray in some other way, we can ask God to enlighten and guide us and turn our hearts toward his vision for us, since “nothing is impossible with God” (Lk. 1:36).

* Jean-Marie Lustiger, The Promise (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), p. 86.

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