In the Postcommunion prayer for this Sunday, the priest asks God that our reception of the Eucharist may “prepare us for Thine everlasting mercy.” When our Protestant friends hear this kind of talk in the Catholic liturgy, they become worried. They fear that if we take this text too seriously, that means there is something we can do that merits (earns) God’s mercy. This is obviously not true, since the very concept of mercy implies that you do not deserve what is given. If we look at the other prayers of today’s Mass, we can avoid this error, and learn how we prepare for God’s mercy.
The prayers of the Third Sunday after Pentecost are focused on mercy and penance, and how important both are towards living a good Christian life. At times “penance” takes on a rather negative implication according to modern minds. When they think of penance, they think of monks whipping themselves or wearing hair shirts. Some think of people living under incredibly austere diets as a way of punishing themselves for their sins. Sadly, the true meaning of metanoia (penance) is lost. At the heart of metanoia is changing the heart. When the heart is changed, there is a sincere effort to amend your life from your sins. The emphasis is on sincere far more than effort. Repenting of a sin does not mean you will never commit the same sin again. It only means that you do not desire to.
While it may seem tough to believe, I think everyone has a bit of metanoia in their life, even those outside the Church. As St. Paul reminds us, the law is written on the hearts of even non-Christians. (Romans 2:14-15) Since the heart knows what is and is not sin (even if just faintly) there’s always that nagging feeling that what we are doing is wrong, and that when we do wrong, we should seek forgiveness. Sadly, one of the greatest dangers of the world today is that the world tries its best to tell you that you shouldn’t seek forgiveness for these actions. They aren’t sins, and who are we to judge others expressing themselves?
When they aren’t trying to get people to forget the need for conversion, they are meting out punishments so severe that the concept of Christian mercy seems impossible. How often do we hear that such and such should be put to death for their crimes without even giving thought to the gravity of crime or if the death would actually solve anything? How many people’s lives have been ruined by public opinion for the most minor of transgressions? How often does our society idolize the ruthless businessman who is taught to ignore any human aspect of his business, and simply focus on “what the market will do” as if the market is some impersonal force? When we see these small injustices everyday constantly, it can be a little hard to fathom a God who stands not only ready to forgive, but to forgive no matter how many times it is asked.
Crazy as it may sound; this is precisely what the Gospel tells us. The Gospel informs us that there is nothing celebrated in heaven more than one person who makes the choice to amend their life. They rejoice because all of society is centered on telling them to repress that desire. Sadly, this line of thinking finds its way even within the Church. Under the guise of “mercy”, sinners are being told that their sins aren’t really sins after all. Since we must be a compassionate church, and compassion is taken to mean ignore and overlook their sins. This is ultimately the spirit behind giving communion to those who persist in living in a marriage not lawful in the eyes of the Church. They are using the guise of mercy to tell people not to change their life. Yet in spite of all of these factors, the call to conversion still resonates within the heart of man, and it only need be acted upon.
When it is acted upon, we find that God is always willing to respond to it. No matter how bad or how frequent our sins, if we resolve to avoid them in the future, God forgives them. From the beginning, God called us to be different from the world. How can that call resonate if God isn’t also different from the world, in that He always offers forgiveness? That is something we should always remember. God’s mercy is always greater than our sins. Not only is he willing to forgive all of these sins, He makes it possible so that those sins will no longer hold us in bondage. When God forgives us, He doesn’t just fill out some paperwork and move us into the “forgiven” side of the ledger. He forgives us, and changes us. He takes that desire to amend our lives and makes it possible with grace.
This is what the Postcommunion prayer means when it talks about preparing ourselves for God’s mercy. We cannot earn any of this, but we can and must acknowledge that we need mercy. Once we acknowledge that, God will hear that acknowledgement and respond. Due to having a desire to change one’s life, it then becomes possible to actually amend your life when God responds. Without that desire, God’s mercy doesn’t mean much to us. It will always be offered, but without that spirit, who is there to accept it?