In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI gave us "a mandate" to "go forth and be witnesses of God's mercy, a source of hope for every person and for the whole world."
Mercy Insights for Holy Week
By David Came (Mar 25, 2013)
As we enter Holy Week, we can recall Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's insights into the person of Jesus as our crucified and risen Lord in his second volume of Jesus of Nazareth, published in 2011. These include insights on Divine Mercy, such as the costly nature of our redemption ("true mercy," not "cheap grace") through the death of God's own Son and how Jesus' saving of the good thief shows "God's mercy can reach us even in our final moments."
The full title of Benedict's book is Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two: Holy Week — From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (Ignatius Press).
In his book, Benedict — a brilliant theologian — draws upon the best of biblical scholarship and his deep faith in Jesus to help us better understand the significance of the Lord's final days, as well as His Resurrection and Ascension. (The Ascension is covered in the epilogue.)
Let's turn now to Benedict's insights on God's mercy.
The Washing of the Feet: 'Immersed in the Lord's Mercy'
After Jesus washes the feet of His disciples during the Last Supper, the Holy Father points out that the Lord says to them, "You are clean," with the exception of Judas the betrayer (Jn 13:10), underscoring that purity is His gift to the disciples. "It is the God who comes down to us who makes us clean. Purity is a gift," Benedict says.
Yet a few verses later in John's Gospel, Jesus calls the disciples to follow His example of service by washing one another's feet (see Jn 13:14-15). Then, Jesus goes so far as to give them the "new commandment" of love: "I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another" (Jn 13:34).
Benedict then poses the question of whether this radical call to love and service could be "defined as a form of extreme moral effort" on our part, in seeming contradiction to God's gift of purity mentioned earlier.
Ever the teacher, Benedict answers his question, "No, the newness of the new commandment cannot consist in the highest moral attainment. ... The newness can come only from the gift of being-with and being-in Christ." The answer, then, is that we must be with and in Christ, who is the source of our purity of heart, of any goodness or holiness we may possess.
So where exactly does God's mercy come into the picture?
Benedict makes the application to the Lord's mercy in his conclusion to this section on the washing of the feet:
It all depends on our "I" being absorbed into His ("It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" — Gal 2:20). ... We must let ourselves be immersed in the Lord's mercy, then our "hearts," too, will discover the right path. The "new commandment" is not simply a new and higher demand: it is linked to the newness of Jesus Christ — to growing immersion in Him.
Benedict is saying that the only way to fulfill the Lord's new commandment of love and His call to service is by allowing ourselves to be immersed in His mercy. Only then will our hearts discover the right path. Our sheer moral effort will never be enough. Benedict also stresses how our link to the "newness" of the Lord should lead to our "growing immersion" in Him — pointing to our need as disciples to be immersed in Him and His mercy time and again.
So, this Holy Thursday, during the washing of the feet in our parishes, let's ask the Lord for the gift of His purity and then ask Him to immerse us in His mercy. As His disciples, let's repeat this petition from the heart every time the Lord calls us to love and serve others — instead of turning to our own willpower. One handy way to pray for this immersion in the Lord's mercy is to recite three times this prayer that He gave St. Faustina:
O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fount of mercy for us, I trust in You (Diary of St. Faustina, 84).
The Last Supper ... the Cross: 'True Mercy.' Not 'Cheap Grace'
In his chapter on the Last Supper, Benedict talks about how Jesus anticipates and enters into the reality of His death on the Cross when He institutes the Eucharist: "His life will be taken from Him on the Cross, but here He is already laying it down. He transforms His violent death into a free act of self-giving for others."
Benedict then reflects on how Jesus' obedience in offering Himself to the Father for our sake "counts as true mercy," not "cheap grace." It shows that God takes seriously our repeated disobedience, our sins:
God cannot simply ignore man's disobedience and all the evil of history; He cannot treat it as if it were inconsequential or meaningless. Such "mercy," such "unconditional forgiveness" would be that "cheap grace" to which Dietrich Bonhoeffer rightly objected in the face of the appalling evil encountered in his day. That which is wrong, the reality of evil, cannot simply be ignored; it cannot just be left to stand. It must be dealt with; it must be overcome. Only this counts as true mercy. And the fact that God now confronts evil Himself, because men are incapable of doing so — therein lies the "unconditional" goodness of God, which can never be opposed to truth or the justice that goes with it.
Notice how the "true mercy" Benedict describes can be defined as Divine Mercy, as "God now confronts evil Himself, because men are incapable of doing so." Further, it's significant that the Pope places Divine Mercy right at the heart of the paschal mystery, the death of Jesus on the Cross. This is reminiscent of his main insight on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2008 when he declared, "Mercy is the central nucleus of the Gospel message."
Divine Mercy, then, is true mercy that exposes the lie of cheap grace, which trivializes sin. In talking about "cheap grace," the Holy Father mentions Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a courageous Lutheran German theologian who opposed the Nazis during World War II and was executed by them. In his classic on the Christian life, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer writes, "Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ."
Do we fully appreciate Benedict's key insight here, drawing upon the thought of Bonhoeffer? Our sins are real, ugly, and death-dealing. God takes them seriously. There is no such thing as "cheap grace." In fact, our sins cost the death of God's only Son. The Cross is a perpetual reminder of this sobering reality whenever we are tempted to rationalize or trivialize our sins. All of this is precisely why we should be so grateful for Divine Mercy. God saved us because we were incapable of doing it ourselves.
Let's be mindful of this truly awesome reality when we celebrate the Lord's Supper this Holy Thursday and then during the solemn commemoration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday. As a daily reminder during Holy Week, let's take time simply to gaze upon our crucified Savior on the crucifix in our homes. As we gaze, we can pray, as we do for the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, "This is the wood of the cross, on which hung the Savior of the world. Come, let us worship."
Peter Relies on His Own Resources, Not 'the Lord's Mercy'
What about the role of Peter and his actions during the Lord's final days? What can we learn from him in reflecting on the Lord's Passion?
In a penetrating analysis of the Apostle Peter's character, Benedict delves into the Gospel accounts to get to the root of Peter's main sin, his prevailing fault. It's more than simply cowardice in denying the Lord. The heart of the matter is that he is "relying on his own resources" and seeking "victory without the Cross":
[During the Last Supper] Peter does not hear the prophecy of the Resurrection. He only registers the reference to death and dispersal, and this prompts him to declare his unshakable courage and his radical fidelity to Jesus. Because he wants to bypass the Cross, he cannot accept the saying about the Resurrection, and as we saw in the earlier episode at Caesarea Philippi, he would like the victory without the Cross. He is relying on his own resources.
Benedict than draws out the lesson for the rest of us — a lesson that ultimately points to our need for "the Lord's mercy, the love of the Crucified One":
Who could deny that [Peter's] approach illustrates the constant temptation for Christians, indeed, for the Church: to seek victory without the Cross? Thus it is that his weakness, his threefold denial, has to be held up to him. No one is strong enough to travel the entire path of salvation unaided. All have sinned, all need the Lord's mercy, the love of the Crucified One (cf. Rom 3:23-24)
So what about you? Are you seeking victory in your life without the Cross? Are you relying on your own resources, instead of the Lord's mercy?
Examine your life in this regard, especially as you hear the account of Peter's denial in the reading of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday.
Speaking for myself, I have tended to rely too much on my own strength to get my work done as an editor and writer — instead of turning to the Lord frequently for grace and mercy.
That has started to change — even if only in fits and starts — since I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease two years ago. This progressive, chronic neurological disorder now forces me to face my physical limitations in accomplishing what used to be simple tasks.
These now range from putting on my socks and tying my shoelaces every morning to finishing this story on my computer at work. For instance, in the case of this story, my fingers fumble more at the computer keyboard as I type, and I struggle to maintain my posture at my desk.
With these sorts of challenges, I either give in to impatience and anger, or I turn to the Lord in prayer and ask for the grace and mercy to carry the cross of my chronic illness.
So I realize now more than ever that true victory can only come when I embrace the crosses in my life, which include having Parkinson's Disease.
'God's Mercy Can Reach Us Even in Our Final Moments'
Finally, Benedict touches on God's mercy in reflecting on Jesus' saving of the good thief as the Lord hangs on the Cross. Only Luke's Gospel gives us the account of how this condemned criminal, who is crucified with the Lord, cries out, "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingly power" (Lk 23:42). And Jesus answers him, "Today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Lk 23:43).
Benedict describes the good thief as an example of just how far Divine Mercy reaches in order to save sinners:
[I]n the history of Christian devotion, the good thief has become an image of hope — an image of the consoling certainty that God's mercy can reach us even in our final moments, that even after a misspent life, the plea for His gracious favor is not made in vain.
Interestingly, there are some passages in the Diary of St. Faustina that echo the Gospel and reinforce Benedict's key insight here. For example, in one passage, St. Faustina describes how God grants final grace even to a soul that is "hardened and despairing":
Jesus calls to the soul ... but the soul remains deaf and blind, hardened and despairing. Then the mercy of God begins to exert itself, and without any cooperation from the soul, God grants it final grace. If this too is spurned, God will leave the soul in this self-chosen disposition for eternity. The grace emerges from the merciful Heart of Jesus and gives the soul a special light by means of which the soul begins to understand God's effort, but conversion depends on its own will. The soul knows that this, for her, is final grace, and should it show even a flicker of good will, the mercy of God will accomplish the rest (Diary, 1486).
Did you catch that? God's mercy reaches so far that it will accomplish the rest if the soul shows even a flicker of good will. We can't begin to fathom how merciful God is toward sinners.
With God's unfathomable mercy in mind, let's bring to the foot of the Cross on Good Friday all sinners who are most in need of Divine Mercy — especially unrepentant sinners. As we do, let's begin the first day of the Divine Mercy Novena in preparation for the Feast of Mercy. Fittingly, the intention is for all mankind, especially all sinners.
David Came is executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass. He is the author of Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate.