Moved by a desire to remind the world of God’s ever-abundant mercy, St. John Paul II declared that the first Sunday after Easter would be known throughout the Roman Church as Divine Mercy Sunday. Even though traditionalists celebrate according to the 1962 calendar, such rules also apply towards us as well. Yet in addition to calling that feast Mercy Sunday, we also continue to refer to it by its traditional name of Low Sunday or Quasimodo Sunday after the first two words of the Introit. While there is often concern of a rupture when the idea of traditionalists celebrating modern practices, that is not the case with our liturgy for Mercy Sunday. I would even go one step further and say that the propers of the Extraordinary Form for Mercy Sunday actually do a better job explaining the centrality of mercy than the Ordinary Form does.
Low Sunday was originally meant as a celebration of the new converts into the Church, who removed their baptismal garments on this day. The day served as a reminder to them and us how to conduct ourselves now that we have been given the great blessing that is the Resurrection. It is with this in mind that the Introit asks the “babes” to desire the spiritual milk without guile, and the Collect asks God’s bounty make it possible to live a life pleasing to him.
I submit to you that the milk without guile is God’s mercy, and His bounty is the infinite treasure house of mercy he wants to dispense to the world. Without that mercy, we are lost. Without that mercy, perfection would be required, and that is perfection that none of us are capable of. Think of a child who disobeys their parents. Do they judge him according to the strict letter of the law and always mete out the maximum punishment? Or do they forgive, and only punish with the aim of restoring and elevating? That is the heart of mercy, and God’s mercy is always beneficial to the soul. We always need to grow in holiness, and His mercy makes it possible.
The first way it makes it possible is by recognizing our humanity, and that the path to perfection is a slow, difficult, and often painful journey. By virtue of our baptism, we have overcome the world, so the epistle tells us. If we remain in holiness, there’s nothing the world can do to rip us from that state. While in that state of holiness, we have the testimony of the water (baptism), the blood (Calvary), and the grace of the spirit that keeps us from sin. In addition to these powerful barriers, we have the active intercession of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Against such a force there is nothing anyone can do to overcome them.
The problem is not with the world, but with us. We often desire to leave that state of our free will. We seek greater comfort, freedom of expression, security, love, a momentary dulling of pain, we sin for these reason and reasons we cannot even explain. What we know is that we are never satisfied. That desire can help us find God, but often it can lead us into a multitude of sins and mistakes.
How the world deals with these sins and how the Christian deals with these sins are often two different things. How many people have been caught up in a political or social media scandal because of their sins or stupid behavior they later regretted? While the world proclaims freedom of expression, when you make a mistake in that expression, the world savages you. How many relationships have been destroyed by photo leaks and sex tapes? How many people have gone into deep depression because of the way the world mocked and objectified their mistakes? For a world that says nobody should judge, society is the harshest executioner of all. Is it any wonder everyone is so depressed, where the slightest indiscretion can destroy not just your immediate present, but your entire future?
In the Gospel we see the sins and shortcomings of Doubting Thomas. I think Thomas gets a bad rap. He wasn’t denying Christ. He may even grant that he could have risen from the dead. But it’s not real to him because he can’t see it. He can’t see its fruit in his life. He can’t see the evidence for it. It isn’t answering the questions he had. He wants more. As a result of this, he gives a rather flippant response that unless he can touch the wounds and stick his hand in the side of Jesus (a rather macabre request), he won’t believe. A better way to say it is he doesn’t believe it will matter to him. Since his request was by all human accounts impossible, what’s he got to lose in saying it?
Isn’t that us, always wanting more? How often do we half-heartedly place absurd restrictions on Christ’s mercy? We say we will accept His mercy if there is a miracle, or we can add this or that stipulation. This doesn’t make us a bad person. Mercy and grace are scary things, because they require us to likewise be merciful and gracious, even when, and especially when, someone else doesn’t deserve it. Faced with that reality, we try to be good followers of Christ, but on our own terms. We tell God when we will believe.
The Gospel presents us with an interesting case study: what would happen if God granted our impossible request? What would we do? In the case of Doubting Thomas, the doubt melts away and he accepts not that Christ has risen from the dead, but that Christ is Lord and God. Once he does so, he’s no doubt realized his folly of negotiating with God, and why that’s such a bad thing. Christ shows mercy by forgiving him of that. He doesn’t punish Thomas for this indiscretion, but forgives him and welcomes him. When the Church is accused of lacking in mercy because we don’t display a welcoming attitude, the critics have a small point. Often we are merciful to others when we give them a list of terms and conditions they can never hope to realistically fulfill, and then use that failure to justify our lack of mercy.
So while we need to be more willing to forgive and accept someone back without needless restrictions, we also need to read the rest of the story. After Christ has forgiven Thomas for his foolishness in bargaining with God, He exhorts Thomas to something better. “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe.” In forgiving Thomas, he is called to leave behind his sinful ways and his pride. Christ’s mercy expects and demands a change in our lives.
I think it is this second reason that John Paul’s desire for greater mercy from the Church has not translated to reality. We do not give out mercy because we are afraid of the consequences of it. We don’t want to tell people they have to amend their ways as a result of this mercy and forgiveness. Doing that means we have to amend our ways as well. How can we tell those divorced Catholics living in a civil marriage they cannot receive communion worthily, when so many of us are not receiving worthily? How can we talk about the sanctity of marriage, when a lot of what we do in the way we live out our lives as Catholics is directly contrary to promoting that institution?
Instead of encouraging change in ourselves and others, we talk about mercy as mere forgive and forget. Once we forgive, everything is out of sight, out of mind, and don’t bother with seeing if anything has changed. I think in the end, that’s the sin of Thomas. Most of all, he wanted to be left to practice the faith on his terms. Christ instead says blessed are those who believe by faith, not by legalistic terms. That includes believing all that is required, especially the full truth about mercy: it must lead to a change in heart to be efficacious. In the case of Thomas, that change of heart was profound. He who demanded miracles be performed for him instead performed miracles. He who wanted to worship on his own terms instead abandoned his friends and family to head to the distant corners of the world preaching the story of how he came to accept God on God’s terms. That conviction and fervor led to him bestowing mercy on others, changing their lives forever.
When we speak of Divine Mercy, this is what we should be aiming for. When we want Divine Mercy to pour forth on the Earth, we aren’t just asking for forgiveness of sins, but rather the transforming of the entire world to the Heart of Jesus, starting with our own hearts of stone. This transformation is the “great joy” the Secret talks about, and let us pray that we never fail in that obligation to share it with the world.