What is Divine Mercy?
Divine Mercy in Scripture
Based on Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Rich in Mercy (Dives in Misericordia)
At the very beginning of the New Testament, two voices resound in St. Luke's gospel in unique harmony concerning the mercy of God — a harmony which forcefully echoes the whole Old Testament tradition. Mary, entering the house of Zechariah, magnifies the Lord with all her soul for "His mercy," which "from generation to generation" is bestowed on those who fear Him.
A little later, as she recalls the election of Israel, she proclaims the mercy which He who has chosen her holds "in remembrance" from all time (60). Afterwards, in the same house, when John the Baptist is born, his father Zechariah blesses the God of Israel and glorifies Him for performing the mercy promised to our fathers and for remembering His holy covenant (61).
In the teaching of Christ Himself, this image inherited from the Old Testament becomes at the same time simpler and more profound. This is perhaps most evident in the parable of the prodigal son (62). Although the word "mercy" does not appear, it nevertheless expresses the essence of the divine mercy in a particularly clear way.
This is due not so much to the terminology, as in the Old Testament books, as to the analogy that enables us to understand more fully the very mystery of mercy, as a profound drama played out between the father's love and the prodigality and sin of the son. That son, who receives from the father the portion of the inheritance that is due to him and leaves home to squander it in a far country "in loose living," in a certain sense is the man of every period, beginning with the one who was the first to lose the inheritance of grace and original justice.
The parable indirectly touches upon every breach of the covenant of love, every loss of grace, every sin.
The analogy at this point is very wide-ranging. The parable indirectly touches upon every breach of the covenant of love, every loss of grace, every sin. In this analogy there is less emphasis than in the prophetic tradition on the unfaithfulness of the whole people of Israel, although the analogy of the prodigal son may extend to this also.
"When he had spent everything," the son "began to be in need," especially as "a great famine arose in that country" to which he had gone after leaving his father's house. And in this situation "he would gladly have fed on" anything, even "the pods that the swine ate," the swine that he herded for "one of the citizens of that country." But even this was refused him.
The analogy turns clearly towards man's interior. The inheritance that the son had received from his father was a quantity of material goods, but more important than these goods was his dignity as a son in his father's house.
The situation in which he found himself when he lost the material goods should have made him aware of the loss of that dignity. He had not thought about it previously, when he had asked his father to give him the part of the inheritance that was due to him, in order to go away.
He seems not to be conscious of it even now, when he says to himself: "How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger." He measures himself by the standard of the goods that he has lost, that he no longer "possesses," while the hired servants of his father's house "possess" them.
These words express above all his attitude to material goods; nevertheless under their surface is concealed the tragedy of lost dignity, the awareness of squandered sonship. It is at this point that he makes the decision: "I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.'"(63)
These are words that reveal more deeply the essential problem. Through the complex material situation in which the prodigal son found himself because of his folly, because of sin, the sense of lost dignity had matured.
When he decides to return to his father's house, to ask his father to be received — no longer by virtue of his right as a son, but as an employee — at first sight he seems to be acting by reason of the hunger and poverty that he had fallen into; this motive, however, is permeated by an awareness of a deeper loss: to be a hired servant in his own father's house is certainly a great humiliation and source of shame.
Nevertheless, the prodigal son is ready to undergo that humiliation and shame. He realizes that he no longer has any right except to be an employee in his father's house. His decision is taken in full consciousness of what he has deserved and of what he can still have a right to in accordance with the norms of justice.
Precisely this reasoning demonstrates that, at the center of the prodigal son's consciousness, the sense of lost dignity is emerging, the sense of that dignity that springs from the relationship of the son with the father. And it is with this decision that he sets out.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the term "justice" is not used even once; just as in the original text the term "mercy" is not used either. Nevertheless, the relationship between justice and love, that is manifested as mercy, is inscribed with great exactness in the content of the Gospel parable.
It becomes more evident that love is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the precise norm of justice — precise and often too narrow. The prodigal son, having wasted the property he received from his father, deserves — after his return — to earn his living by working in his father's house as a hired servant and possibly, little by little, to build up a certain provision of material goods, though perhaps never as much as the amount he had squandered.
This would be demanded by the order of justice, especially as the son had not only squandered the part of the inheritance belonging to him but had also hurt and offended his father by his whole conduct. Since this conduct had in his own eyes deprived him of his dignity as a son, it could not be a matter of indifference to his father. It was bound to make him suffer. It was also bound to implicate him in some way.
And yet, after all, it was his own son who was involved, and such a relationship could never be altered or destroyed by any sort of behavior. The prodigal son is aware of this and it is precisely this awareness that shows him clearly the dignity which he has lost and which makes him honestly evaluate the position that he could still expect in his father's house.
This exact picture of the prodigal son's state of mind enables us to understand exactly what the mercy of God consists in. There is no doubt that in this simple but penetrating analogy the figure of the father reveals to us God as Father. The conduct of the father in the parable and his whole behavior, which manifests his internal attitude, enables us to rediscover the individual threads of the Old Testament vision of mercy in a synthesis which is totally new, full of simplicity and depth.
The father of the prodigal son is faithful to his fatherhood, faithful to the love that he had always lavished on his son. This fidelity is expressed in the parable not only by his immediate readiness to welcome him home when he returns after having squandered his inheritance; it is expressed even more fully by that joy, that merrymaking for the squanderer after his return, merrymaking which is so generous that it provokes the opposition and hatred of the elder brother, who had never gone far away from his father and had never abandoned the home.
The father's fidelity to himself — a trait already known by the Old Testament term hesed — is at the same time expressed in a manner particularly charged with affection. We read, in fact, that when the father saw the prodigal son returning home "he had compassion, ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him."(64) He certainly does this under the influence of a deep affection, and this also explains his generosity towards his son, that generosity which so angers the elder son.
Nevertheless, the causes of this emotion are to be sought at a deeper level. Notice, the father is aware that a fundamental good has been saved: the good of his son's humanity. Although the son has squandered the inheritance, nevertheless his humanity is saved.
"It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found."
Indeed, it has been, in a way, found again. The father's words to the elder son reveal this: "It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found."(65)
In the same chapter fifteen of Luke's gospel, we read the parable of the sheep that was found (66) and then the parable of the coin that was found. (67) Each time there is an emphasis on the same joy that is present in the case of the prodigal son. The father's fidelity to himself is totally concentrated upon the humanity of the lost son, upon his dignity.
This explains above all his joyous emotion at the moment of the son's return home. Going on, one can therefore say that the love for the son, the love that springs from the very essence of fatherhood, in a way obliges the father to be concerned about his son's dignity. This concern is the measure of his love, the love of which Saint Paul was to write: "Love is patient and kind... love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful...but rejoices in the right...hopes all things, endures all things" and "love never ends."(68)
This love is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin.
Mercy — as Christ has presented it in the parable of the prodigal son — has the interior form of the love that in the New Testament is called "agape". This love is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin.
When this happens, the person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but rather found again and "restored to value." The father first and foremost expresses to him his joy that he has been "found again" and that he has "returned to life.
This joy indicates a good that has remained intact: even if he is a prodigal, a son does not cease to be truly his father's son; it also indicates a good that has been found again, which in the case of the prodigal son was his return to the truth about himself. What took place in the relationship between the father and the son in Christ's parable is not to be evaluated "from the outside." Our prejudices about mercy are mostly the result of appraising them only from the outside.
At times it happens that by following this method of evaluation we see in mercy above all a relationship of inequality between the one offering it and the one receiving it. And, in consequence, we are quick to deduce that mercy belittles the receiver, that it offends the dignity of man.
The parable of the prodigal son shows that the reality is different: the relationship of mercy is based on the common experience of that good which is man, on the common experience of the dignity that is proper to him. This common experience makes the prodigal son begin to see himself and his actions in their full truth (this vision in truth is a genuine form of humility); on the other hand, for this very reason he becomes a particular good for his father: the father sees so clearly the good which has been achieved thanks to a mysterious radiation of truth and love, that he seems to forget all the evil which the son had committed.
Conversion is the most concrete expression of the working of love and of the presence of mercy in the human world.
The parable of the prodigal son expresses in a simple but profound way the reality of conversion. Conversion is the most concrete expression of the
working of love and of the presence of mercy in the human world.
The true and proper meaning of mercy does not consist only in looking, however penetratingly and compassionately, at moral, physical or material evil: mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man. Understood in this way, mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of His mission.
His disciples and followers understood and practiced mercy in the same way. Mercy never ceased to reveal itself, in their hearts and in their actions, as an especially creative proof of the love which does not allow itself to be "conquered by evil," but overcomes "evil with good."(69) The genuine face of mercy has to be ever revealed anew. In spite of many prejudices, mercy seems particularly necessary for our times.
Mercy Revealed in the Cross and Resurrection
The messianic message of Christ and His activity among people end with the cross and resurrection. We have to penetrate deeply into this final event-which especially in the language of the Council is defined as the Mysterium Paschale — if we wish to express in depth the truth about mercy, as it has been revealed in depth in the history of our salvation.
At this point of our considerations, we shall have to draw closer still to the content of the encyclical Redemptor hominis. If, in fact, the reality of the Redemption, in its human dimension, reveals the unheard — of greatness of man, qui talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem, (70) at the same time the divine dimension of the redemption enables us, I would say, in the most empirical and "historical" way, to uncover the depth of that love which does not recoil before the extraordinary sacrifice of the Son, in order to satisfy the fidelity of the Creator and Father towards human beings, created in His image and chosen from "the beginning," in this Son, for grace and glory.
The events of Good Friday and, even before that, in prayer in Gethsemane, introduce a fundamental change into the whole course of the revelation of love and mercy in the messianic mission of Christ. The one who "went about doing good and healing"(71) and "curing every sickness and disease"(72) now Himself seems to merit the greatest mercy and to appeal for mercy, when He is arrested, abused, condemned, scourged, crowned with thorns, when He is nailed to the cross and dies amidst agonizing torments.(73)
It is then that He particularly deserves mercy from the people to whom He has done good, and He does not receive it. Even those who are closest to Him cannot protect Him and snatch Him from the hands of His oppressors. At this final stage of His messianic activity the words which the prophets, especially Isaiah, uttered concerning the Servant of Yahweh are fulfilled in Christ: "Through his stripes we are healed."(74)
Christ, as the man who suffers really and in a terrible way in the Garden of Olives and on Calvary, addresses Himself to the Father — that Father whose love He has preached to people, to whose mercy He has borne witness through all of His activity. But He is not spared — not even He — the terrible suffering of death on the cross: For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin,"(75)
St. Paul will write, summing up in a few words the whole depth of the cross and at the same time the divine dimension of the reality of the Redemption. Indeed this Redemption is the ultimate and definitive revelation of the holiness of God, who is the absolute fullness of perfection: fullness of justice and of love, since justice is based on love, flows from it and tends towards it.
In the passion and death of Christ-in the fact that the Father did not spare His own Son, but "for our sake made him sin"(76) — absolute justice is expressed, for Christ undergoes the passion and cross because of the sins of humanity. This constitutes even a "superabundance" of justice, for the sins of man are "compensated for" by the sacrifice of the Man-God.
Nevertheless, this justice, which is properly justice "to God's measure," springs completely from love: from the love of the Father and of the Son, and completely bears fruit in love. Precisely for this reason the divine justice revealed in the cross of Christ is "to God's measure," because it springs from love and is accomplished in love, producing fruits of salvation.
Redemption involves the revelation of mercy in its fullness.
The divine dimension of redemption is put into effect not only by bringing justice to bear upon sin, but also by restoring to love that creative power in man thanks also which he once more has access to the fullness of life and holiness that come from God. In this way, redemption involves the revelation of mercy in its fullness.
The Paschal Mystery is the culmination of this revealing and effecting of mercy, which is able to justify man, to restore justice in the sense of that salvific order which God willed from the beginning in man and, through man, in the world. The suffering Christ speaks in a special way to man, and not only to the believer.
The non-believer also will be able to discover in Him the eloquence of solidarity with the human lot, as also the harmonious fullness of a disinterested dedication to the cause of man, to truth and to love. And yet the divine dimension of the Paschal Mystery goes still deeper. The cross on Calvary, the cross upon which Christ conducts His final dialogue with the Father, emerges from the very heart of the love that man, created in the image and likeness of God, has been given as a gift, according to God's eternal plan.
God, as Christ has revealed Him, does not merely remain closely linked with the world as the Creator and the ultimate source of existence. He is also Father: He is linked to man, whom He called to existence in the visible world, by a bond still more intimate than that of creation. It is love which not only creates the good but also grants participation in the very life of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For he who loves desires to give himself.
The cross of Christ on Calvary stands beside the path of that admirable commercium, of that wonderful self-communication of God to man, which also includes the call to man to share in the divine life by giving himself, and with himself the whole visible world, to God, and like an adopted son to become a sharer in the truth and love which is in God and proceeds from God.
It is precisely beside the path of man's eternal election to the dignity of being an adopted child of God that there stands in history the cross of Christ, the only - begotten Son, who, as "light from light, true God from true God,"(77) came to give the final witness to the wonderful covenant of God with humanity, of God with man - every human being This covenant, as old as man — it goes back to the very mystery of creation — and afterwards many times renewed with one single chosen people, is equally the new and definitive covenant, which was established there on Calvary, and is not limited to a single people, to Israel, but is open to each and every individual.
What else, then, does the cross of Christ say to us, the cross that in a sense is the final word of His messianic message and mission? And yet this is not yet the word of the God of the covenant: that will be pronounced at the dawn when first the women and then the Apostles come to the tomb of the crucified Christ, see the tomb empty and for the first time hear the message: "He is risen."
They will repeat this message to the others and will be witnesses to the risen Christ. Yet, even in this glorification of the Son of God, the cross remains, that cross which — through all the messianic testimony of the Man the Son, who suffered death upon it — speaks and never ceases to speak of God the Father, who is absolutely faithful to His eternal love for man, since He "so loved the world" — therefore man in the world-that "he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."(78)
For mercy is an indispensable dimension of love... Believing in this love means believing in mercy.
Believing in the crucified Son means "seeing the Father,"(79) means believing that love is present in the world and that this love is more powerful than any kind of evil in which individuals, humanity, or the world are involved. Believing in this love means believing in mercy.
For mercy is an indispensable dimension of love; it is as it were love's second name and, at the same time, the specific manner in which love is revealed and effected vis-a-vis the reality of the evil that is in the world, affecting and besieging man, insinuating itself even into his heart and capable of causing him to "perish in Gehenna."(80)
Love More Powerful Than Death, More Powerful Than Sin
The cross of Christ on Calvary is also a witness to the strength of evil against the very Son of God, against the one who, alone among all the sons of men, was by His nature absolutely innocent and free from sin, and whose coming into the world was untainted by the disobedience of Adam and the inheritance of original sin. And here, precisely in Him, in Christ, justice is done to sin at the price of His sacrifice, of His obedience "even to death."(81)
He who was without sin, "God made him sin for our sake."(82) Justice is also brought to bear upon death, which from the beginning of man's history had been allied to sin. Death has justice done to it at the price of the death of the one who was without sin and who alone was able-by means of his own death-to inflict death upon death.(83)
In this way the cross of Christ, on which the Son, consubstantial with the Father, renders full justice to God, is also a radical revelation of mercy, or rather of the love that goes against what constitutes the very root of evil in the history of man: against sin and death.
The cross is the most profound condescension of God to man and to what man — especially in difficult and painful moments — looks on as his unhappy destiny. The cross is like a touch of eternal love upon the most painful wounds of man's earthly existence; it is the total fulfillment of the messianic program that Christ once formulated in the synagogue at Nazareth (84) and then repeated to the messengers sent by John the Baptist.(85)
According to the words once written in the prophecy of Isaiah,(86) this program consisted in the revelation of merciful love for the poor, the suffering and prisoners, for the blind, the oppressed and sinners. In the paschal mystery the limits of the many sided evil in which man becomes a sharer during his earthly existence are surpassed: the cross of Christ, in fact, makes us understand the deepest roots of evil, which are fixed in sin and death; thus the cross becomes an eschatological sign.
Only in the eschatological fulfillment and definitive renewal of the world will love conquer, in all the elect, the deepest sources of evil, bringing as its fully mature fruit the kingdom of life and holiness and glorious immortality. The foundation of this eschatological fulfillment is already contained in the cross of Christ and in His death.
The fact that Christ "was raised the third day"(87) constitutes the final sign of the messianic mission, a sign that perfects the entire revelation of merciful love in a world that is subject to evil. At the same time it constitutes the sign that foretells "a new heaven and a new earth,"(88) when God "will wipe away every tear from their eyes, there will be no more death, or mourning no crying, nor pain, for the former things have passed away."(89)
In the eschatological fulfillment mercy will be revealed as love, while in the temporal phase, in human history, which is at the same time the history of sin and death, love must be revealed above all as mercy and must also be actualized as mercy. Christ's messianic program, the program of mercy, becomes the program of His people, the program of the Church.
At its very center there is always the cross, for it is in the cross that the revelation of merciful love attains its culmination. Until "the former things pass away,"(90) the cross will remain the point of reference for other words too of the Revelation of John: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me."(91)
In a special way, God also reveals His mercy when He invites man to have "mercy" on His only Son, the crucified one. Christ, precisely as the crucified one, is the Word that does not pass away,(92) and He is the one who stands at the door and knocks at the heart of every man,(93) without restricting his freedom, but instead seeking to draw from this very freedom love, which is not only an act of solidarity with the suffering Son of man, but also a kind of "mercy" shown by each one of us to the Son of the eternal Father.
In the whole of this messianic program of Christ, in the whole revelation of mercy through the cross, could man's dignity be more highly respected and ennobled, for, in obtaining mercy, He is in a sense the one who at the same time "shows mercy"? In a word, is not this the position of Christ with regard to man when He says: "As you did it to one of the least of these...you did it to me"?(94)
Do not the words of the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,"(95) constitute, in a certain sense, a synthesis of the whole of the Good News, of the whole of the "wonderful exchange" (admirable commercium) contained therein? This exchange is a law of the very plan of salvation, a law which is simple, strong and at the same time "easy."
Demonstrating from the very start what the "human heart" is capable of ("to be merciful"), do not these words from the Sermon on the Mount reveal in the same perspective the deep mystery of God: that inscrutable unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in which love, containing justice, sets in motion mercy, which in its turn reveals the perfection of justice?
The Paschal Mystery is Christ at the summit of the revelation of the inscrutable mystery of God. It is precisely then that the words pronounced in the Upper Room are completely fulfilled: "He who has seen me has seen the Father."(96) In fact, Christ, whom the Father "did not spare"(97) for the sake of man and who in His passion and in the torment of the cross did not obtain human mercy, has revealed in His resurrection the fullness of the love that the Father has for Him and, in Him, for all people. "He is not God of the dead, but of the living."(98)
In His resurrection Christ has revealed the God of merciful love, precisely because He accepted the cross as the way to the resurrection. And it is for this reason that — when we recall the cross of Christ, His passion and death — our faith and hope are centered on the Risen One: on that Christ who "on the evening of that day, the first day of the week, . . .stood among them" in the upper Room, "where the disciples were, ...breathed on them, and said to them: 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'"(99)
Here is the Son of God, who in His resurrection experienced in a radical way mercy shown to Himself, that is to say the love of the Father which is more powerful than death. And it is also the same Christ, the Son of God, who at the end of His messianic mission — and, in a certain sense, even beyond the end — reveals Himself as the inexhaustible source of mercy, of the same love that, in a subsequent perspective of the history of salvation in the Church, is to be everlastingly confirmed as more powerful than sin.
The paschal Christ is the definitive incarnation of mercy, its living sign in salvation history and in eschatology. In the same spirit, the liturgy of Eastertide places on our lips the words of the Psalm: Misericordias Domini in aeternum cantabo.(100)
60. In both places it is a case of hesed, i..e., the fidelity that God manifests to His own love for the people, fidelity to he promises that will find their definitive fulfillment precisely in the motherhood of the Mother of God (cf. Lk. 1:49-54).
61. Cf. Lk. 1:72. Here too it is a case of mercy in the meaning of hesed, insofar as in the following sentences, in which Zechariah speaks of the "tender mercy of our God," there is clearly expressed the second meaning, namely, rahamim (Latin translation: viscera misericordiae), which rather identifies God's mercy with a mother's love.
62. Cf. Lk. 15:14-32.
63. Lk. 15:18-19.
64. Lk. 15:20.
65. Lk. 15:32.
66. Cf. Lk. 15:3-6.
67. Cf. Lk. 15:8-9.
68. 1 Cor. 13:4-8.
69. Cf. Rom. 12:21.
70. Cf. the liturgy of the Easter Vigil: the Exsultet.
71. Acts 10:38.
72. Mt. 9:35.
73. Cf. Mk. 15:37; Jn. 19:30.
74. Is. 53:5
75. 2 Cor. 5:21.
77. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
78. Jn. 3:16.
79. Cf. Jn. 14:9.
80. Mt. 10:28.
81. Phil. 2:8.
82. 2 Cor. 5:21.
83. Cf. 1 Cor. 15:54-55.
84. Cf. Lk. 4:18-21.
85. Cf. Lk. 7:20-23.
86. Cf. Is. 35:5; 61:1-3.
87. 1 Cor. 15:4.
88. Rv. 21:1.
89. Rv. 21:4.
90. Cf. Rv. 21:4.
91. Rv. 3:20.
92. Cf. Mt. 24:35.
93. Cf. Rv. 3:20.
94. Mt. 25:40.
95. Mt. 5:7.
96. Jn. 14:9.
97. Rom. 8:32.
98. Mk. 12:27.
99. Jn. 20:19-23.
100. Ps. 89(88):2.