Today we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. If you have listened carefully to the prayers and readings, you will realize why the Second Sunday of Easter has that title. The opening prayer addresses the Father as “God of Mercy.” In the Psalm we repeated several times, “His mercy endures forever.” Besides mentioning the word, our readings illustrate mercy in action. But before going into the Scripture lessons, we need to ask this question: What does “mercy” mean?
To understanding the meaning of mercy, it will help if we examine its etymology. Our English word, mercy, goes back to the Latin: misericordia, which is composed of two words. “Cordia” is familiar to us from such words as “cardiologist” and “cardiac.” It means heart. The first part, “miseri” refers to suffering. Mercy, then, means to have a heart for those who suffer or, more precisely, to have a heart willing to suffer for others.
Today’s readings reveal that kind of heart in Christ and in his followers. When Jesus appeared to his disciples that first Easter, he said, “Peace be with you.” As you can imagine, that greeting meant more than “hello” or “good morning.” Jesus, in fact, desired to communicate to them something of great value. The peace which Jesus won for us had cost him his blood, his very life. What that peace involved, Jesus tells us clearly: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them…” To his apostles Jesus communicates the Holy Spirit with the power to free men from their sins. That freedom or absolution comes through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
From the Acts of the Apostles we glimpse mercy in action. The early Christians were so filled with the Holy Spirit that “no one claimed any of his possessions as his own.” Rather, they “distributed to each according to his need.” It was not Karl Marx who invented the principle: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Marx lifted it from the New Testament, but made the mistake of thinking that it could happen by political coercion. His followers created a human inferno, but their failure should not cause us to reject the ideal. Part of mercy involves the effort to provide every human being with access to this world’s blessings.
The reading from Acts, then, calls our attention to the corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless and so on. St. John’s letter, on the other hand, focuses on what are called the spiritual works of mercy such as: convert the sinner, counsel the doubtful and bear wrongs patiently. By doing those things we fulfill Christ’s commandments and help to extend his victory. “Whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.”
Ultimately mercy results not so much from human effort as from God’s free gift. As Shakespeare said, “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” During this time of Easter, we ask God to open our hearts so that we might receive into our hearts his Mercy – his Holy Spirit.