Rich in Mercy
We recently celebrated the feast of the Incarnation, of God choosing to become human in Jesus. For us, unlike for the secular world, Christmas doesn’t stop December 26 when the decorations come down, when you can no longer find Christmas music on the radio and when tired fir trees line the streets for recycling pickup.
For Catholics the Christmas season extends our contemplation of the mystery of God’s love incarnate in the innocent Child to the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which this year was January 10. This extended celebration is meant to remind us that our God continues to be gracious and to draw near to us in Jesus. God’s tender heart in Jesus is still evident in the ordinariness in our lives, among the people we meet, and in acts that are loving, forgiving and merciful.
On December 8, Pope Francis opened the Holy Door in St. Peter’s in Rome, which now becomes the Door of Mercy “through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons and instills hope” (Misericordiae Vultus, par. 3). This call to mercy prompts us to reflect both on the times others have been merciful to us and when we have been merciful to others. In doing so, we can begin to touch and be touched by the infinite mercy that God offers to us.
The Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, are full of references to mercy, to God’s “lovingkindness” (Hebrew chesed). The various prayers in both the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours frequently include a recognition of our need of and desire for God’s mercy, the mercy of others, and our own willingness to accept gently our failed and frail selves. To be merciful, it takes a tender heart.
Back in high school, many of us studied The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. This section from Act 4, Scene 1 prompts reflection as Portia reminds Sherlock who wants, in justice, his pound of flesh:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice …,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy …
Our world today, in its polarization and need to assign blame, often misses the quality of mercy. Mercy recognizes that there is right and wrong, and then lovingly acknowledges that we are imperfect people who struggle to make sense out of life in an imperfect world. Rigidity and a stony heart make for pain and exclusion. Mercy takes a tender heart.
Mercy, when aligned with justice, allows for circumstances to be considered and then invites us to examine what we did and what the consequences are. Mercy gives the space and the time to engage in an examination of conscience. It does not judge a person’s intentions while at the same time recognizes that certain actions call for certain consequences. In all this, the merciful recognize that “there, but for the grace of God, go I …”
Pope Francis is dedicating a year to reminding us that the lovingkindness of God does not exclude. God continues to gather in the lost sheep, the prodigal sons and daughters, as well as all who are faithful. Mercy means redemption is available for all. We can deny the gift, avoid the gift, give the gift back, but it is always there, within reach held by a loving God. We are rich in mercy.