Several years ago, the Catholic Church designated the Sunday after Easter as “Divine Mercy Sunday.” That raises two very important questions — what exactly is “mercy” anyway, and what does it have to do with the Easter season?
Mercy is not just pity. Neither is it simply sparing someone the punishment that they deserve. No, mercy can be defined as love’s response to suffering. When mercy encounters suffering, it ultimately seeks to alleviate it. God the Father is so “rich in mercy” (Ephesian 2:4) that Paul calls him “the Father of all mercies and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3).
Jesus is the perfect human image of the Father’s mercy. When he meets those suffering from hunger, he feeds them. When he encounters people suffering from physical sickness, he heals them. But true mercy is not superficial, but truly radical. And Jesus recognizes that the deepest suffering in human life, the root cause of all other suffering, is sin. Sin debases us, robbing us of our dignity, weakening and even rupturing our connection with the source of our life, namely, God, our loving Father. Sin, then, is not just a transgression of some arbitrary law. No, it creates a wound in us that can fester and, if left unattended, corrupt us entirely. It gives the Prince of Darkness a foothold in our hearts which he then tries to use to gain complete control of our lives. True mercy seeks to alleviate this deeper suffering that can potentially lead to eternal suffering.
It was to address this most profound of all wounds that Jesus gave up his life. And the risen Christ instituted the sacrament of penance to apply the medicine of mercy, won on Calvary, to each individual sinner at the moment of their deepest need.
Wait a minute. So Jesus, not the Church, established this sacrament? Where does the Bible say he did that? Right there, in John’s gospel, on Easter Sunday afternoon. Despite the locked doors, he stands amidst the apostles and says “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus is the original “apostle” of the Father – the word means “one who is sent.” As he was sent on a mission of mercy, so he sends out his “apostles” on the same mission. He breathes on them and says “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound.” (John 20:19-22).