The 'Picture' of the Merciful Christ

The following article by Blessed Michael Sopocko was first published in the Spring 1958 issue of the Marian Helpers Bulletin. Blessed Michael was the confessor and spiritual director of St. Faustina.

Note from the 1958 Bulletin Editor: The significance of the following article consists in the fact that it gives an interpretation of the picture [the image] of the Divine Mercy based on the teaching of the Church. Whereas private revelations may be an occasion of many salutary devotions, these devotions are never accepted by the Church unless they can be deduced from the doctrine of the Church.

"Peace be to you... He therefore said to them again... peace be to you." (Jn 20:21) How gracious sound those words of Christ in our hearts. They were uttered by our Beloved King after He won a victory in His battle against Satan and Death and came to announce to His subjects the joyful tidings of His triumph. The Most Merciful Savior proclaimed the manifesto of His peace as He was instituting the Sacrament of Penance, that Sacrament of God's Mercy, which alone gives true peace. This is not a voice from the earth! This is a voice from Heaven! This is the consummation of the angelic proclamation over Bethlehem's manger - "Peace to men of good will." With those words, "Peace be to you," the King of Mercy greeted His followers on the day of His Resurrection as He appeared to them in the Cenacle. This moment in the glorious life of Christ is depicted in that well known picture of the Most Merciful Savior, which is now venerated all over the world. Let us ponder briefly its meaning.

1. The veneration of holy images goes back to early Christian times. The Law of Moses forbade this form of veneration on account of the tendency of the Israelites to idolatry. For this reason, the first Jewish converts to Christianity also abstained from the reverence of images. However, even then St. Luke (according to tradition) painted a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary which from the very beginning enjoyed great veneration. We find in the Roman catacombs images of the Savior as the Good Shepherd, images of God the Father as the Father of mercies receiving the prodigal son into his arms, etc. As the fall of paganism was continuing, the cult of sacred images became more and more universal in the Church. In these images not only Jesus and Mary, but also Saints and various mysteries of faith were represented. Saint Basil the Great (4th century) says that the veneration of sacred images is based on Revelation coming from the Apostolic Tradition.

The Jews and Mohammedans forbade veneration of images altogether. Consequently, in order to prevail upon the Hebrews and Muslims to accept Christianity and to create the political power by establishing the religious unity for all the citizens, the Emperor Leo III the Isaurian issued a decree against the cult of images. The faithful led by St. John Damascene vigorously opposed it which resulted in a great turmoil and prolonged struggle. Pope Gregory II rebuked the Emperor while Pope Gregory III, his successor, excommunicated anyone profaning or destroying sacred images. Despite the action of the Popes the persecution was carried on. Constantine V Copronimos continued the battle with still greater cruelty. Finally, in 787, the Ecumenical Council of Nice declared that although divine worship cannot be given to images, nevertheless they should be shown relative reverence which, in fact, refers to the prototypes, that is, the persons represented in the pictures.

The iconoclasm was renewed by the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Karlstadt destroyed images in Wittenberg while the followers of Zwingli and Calvin did the same thing in Switzerland, France and Holland. That is why the Council of Trent in the 24th session decided that "the cult of images proceeds from the Apostolic Tradition and refers to the prototypes, which represent Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Saints, and that this honor is useful, worthy and pious." It is useful for it is natural to man to look upon a picture and to recall the person represented in it and to render him a deserving honor. It is worthy since the honor is given no to the picture itself, that is, the material out of which the picture is made (cloth, wood, paint), but to the person deserving such veneration, that is good and saintly in man. It is pious because it arouses religious sentiments and induces the faithful to imitation of the virtues of the persons represented in the pictures.

In all times sacred images were venerated in the Church, and its history points out that already in Christian antiquity it pleased God to shower special graces upon the faithful on occasion of the cult of images. In the first centuries of Christianity Syria had a famous statue of the Savior in Paneas. In France the representation of the Blessed Virgin in Reims, in Italy her statue in Loreto, in Switzerland her picture in Einsiedeln, in Poland the picture in Czestochowa, one of the three attributed by tradition to St. Luke, and many others have been famous for centuries on account of the miracles.

2. To such images belongs also the picture of the Most Merciful Savior. It represents Our Lord as He appeared in the Cenacle on the day of His Resurrection and instituted the Sacrament of Penance in the following words: "Peace be to you ... He therefore said to them again, Peace be to you. As the Father has sent me, I also send you." When He said this, He breathed upon them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they shall be forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained." (Jn 20: 19-23)

The picture represents Christ in a walking position clothed in a long white garment, girted with a girdle. The gaze of Our Lord's eyes is somewhat lowered (as on the cross). With His right hand He slightly draws aside the garment in the vicinity of is Heart, from Which spring forth two rays, the red ray on the left (of the person looking at the picture), the pale (color of water) on the right. These rays signify the Blood and Water which flowed from the opened side of Jesus on the cross. From that time on they gush forth from the Divine Heart of the Savior in the form of graces purifying the soul from the stains of sin (in the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance) and of life-giving graces (in the Sacrament of the Altar and all other remaining). They shield the soul from the just anger of the Heavenly Father. Whoever lives in their light, that is, whoever duly avails himself of the benefits of the Christ-instituted Sacraments, particularly the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance (which are symbolized by the pale ray), and that of the Altar (the red ray), him the just hand of God will not touch.

This picture is a perfect illustration of the Holy Gospel for the Low Sunday and a visible commentary on the liturgy of that day. It explains the anthem sung by the Church during Eastertime as the priest sprinkles the congregation with holy water before solemn Mass: "Vidi aquam - I saw water coming forth from the right side of the temple, alleluia: and all to whom it came were saved and said: alleluia, alleluia. Give praise to the Lord, for He is good: for His Mercy endureth for ever." This temple is Christ from Whose open side flows the water of inexhaustible graces purifying the soul from sins in the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance.

The picture explains also the Introit and the Epistle of the Low Sunday Mass. The Introit tells us that man must be born in the waters of Baptism to a new supernatural life, and reborn again by the Sacrament of Penance. The Epistle relates to us the testimony of the Three in heaven (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) and of the three on earth (the spirit, water and blood which left the dead body of Christ on the cross).

Thus, as we gaze upon the picture, we are reminded of Holy Baptism with all its salutary effects, and of the Sacrament of Penance and the words of absolution which proclaim to us God's reconciling Mercy. It also recalls to our mind indulgences which are an extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment, and likewise it reminds us of the Sacrament of Holy Orders instituted during the last Supper and completed by Our Lord after His Resurrection when He appeared to the Apostles in the Cenacle and granted them the power of absolution to be exercised in the Sacrament of Penance.

Therefore, this picture represents to us the deepest mysteries of Easter: imparting to the Apostles the Holy Spirit Who henceforth will operate in the Church, rule it, regenerate sinners to a new life, anoint prophets, and apply the merits of Christ's sufferings and death to individual souls. The picture represents the infinite Divine Mercy and arouses the faithful to its imitation by personal works of mercy. The ejaculatory prayer inserted beneath the picture: "Jesus, I trust in Thee!" - instills into our souls trust in God in difficulties, hope and courage amidst dangers, and renders the soul magnanimous in its service to God.

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During the temporary ban of the Divine Mercy devotion, Bl. Michael Sopocko (St. Faustina's confessor) wrote for our Marian Helpers Bulletin. See his article on the Obligation of Mercy towards our Neighbor from our July-Sept. 1962 Bulletin here.

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