DIVINE MERCY SUNDAY – for all Christians

The name, ‘Divine Mercy Sunday’, was given to the Second Sunday of Easter in the millennium year by Pope John Paul II who wrote just before he died: “As a gift to humanity which sometimes seems bewildered and overwhelmed by the power of evil, selfishness, and fear, the Risen Lord offers His love that pardons, reconciles, and reopens hearts to love.  It is love that converts hearts and gives peace.  How much the world needs to understand and accept Divine Mercy!”  And whilst it is a devotion that originates in the Roman Catholic Church it is, indeed, a devotion that would benefit all Christians.

Mercy is a free gift of God, a consequence of His compassion.  For as God is moved in the depths of His Being as He looks upon His creation, so His response is to show us His mercy – His forgiveness.  To offer His reconciling love that longs to draw all things into His Divine heart.  Just as God is All-powerful, so He is also All-merciful.  As the Qu’ran observes in the opening of each chapter (except one):  ‘In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.’  Whatever the religion, all proclaim that the heart of God is full of mercy because of His compassion towards us.

In the Old Testament one of the words used to express God’s mercy is the Hebrew word rachamim: which means tender, compassionate love, a love that springs from pity.  Someone who has rachamim is someone who feels for your plight and is moved with compassion to help you.  In the Book of Exodus Moses is commanded by God to erect a ‘Seat of Mercy’ on top of the Ark of the Covenant which was placed in the Holy of Holies in the heart of the Jerusalem Temple.  And it was on this Mercy Seat that the cloud of the Divine Presence rested and from where God dispensed mercy to the people when the blood of the atonement was sprinkled there.

In his Letter to the Ephesians, S. Paul wrote: ‘God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.’ (Eph.2:4/5)

And Mary was able to sing in her Magnificat:

“He protects Israel, His servant,
remembering His mercy,
the mercy promised to our forebears,
to Abraham and his children for ever.”

Jesus in His teaching tells us that: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.’ (Matt.5:7)  Not that they will be happy, or feel better about themselves (‘though they might experience both), but that they might experience the compassionate gaze of God upon them, a gaze which opens up an inner fountain of joy.  It is how to share in the reign of God.

Mercy and forgiveness are enduring themes in the works of Shakespeare:  As he wrote in the Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.
It is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest.  It becomes the thronèd monarch better than his crown. … It is an attribute to God himself.”

He presents mercy as a quality that is valuable to the most powerful and strongest people in society.  Sweet mercy’, he wrote, ’is nobility’s true badge.’ (Titus Andronicus)  He believed that the exercise of mercy would enable leaders to be most God-like, for God’s love reaches down to us in our needs.  As S. John Chrysostom said: “Mercy imitates God and disappoints Satan.”  And some years later S. Isaac of Nineveh reflected: Do you wish to commune with God in your mind?  Strive to be merciful…  A man should first of all begin to be merciful in the measure that our heavenly Father is merciful.”

Of course, showing mercy is not always easy.  St. Thomas Aquinas said of this virtue that it concerns “the compassion in our hearts for another person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help them.”  Consequently we’re encouraged to practice the seven Corporal Works of Mercy. To: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the sick and those in prison, and bury the dead.  These are what we are to practice in order to exercise mercy.

Jeremy Taylor, Chaplain to Charles I and known for his writings about Holy Living, said that: “No obligation to justice does force a man to be cruel, or to use the sharpest sentence.  A just man does justice to every man and to everything; and then, if he be also wise, he knows there is a debt of mercy and compassion due to the infirmities of man’s nature; and that is to be paid; and he that is cruel and ungentle to a sinning person, and does the worst to him, is in his debt and is unjust.”

Much later on the Russian Orthodox priest, St. John of Kronstadt, said that “Your Lord is a God of mercy and bountifulness: be a source of mercy and bountifulness to your neighbours.  If you will be such, you will find salvation yourself with everlasting glory.”

But neither being compassionate nor showing mercy is easy, we need help to practice these virtues.  So, for example, one of the great prayer-practices of Buddhism is designed to do just that.  It’s called the metta bhavana and it seeks to develop in the heart of the practitioner benevolence, loving-kindness and good will.  So it’s become known as the ‘Loving-Kindness Meditation’ and concerns offering good-will and mercy to others – especially those we find it hard to love.  And all it consists of is offering, from a centred, still heart-place, three or four simple desires.  Intercessions, if you like.  So, when you find yourself sitting next to that irritating person eating smelly food on the bus, or you’re being disturbed in your prayers by people’s chatter, or you find yourself critically observing the behaviour, or dress, or looks of another, instead of becoming attached to these negative thoughts or even being carried away by them, you direct some simple, Godly phrases to them:

May you be well.
May you be happy.
May you know the mercy of God.

Or you might make that part of your daily prayer practice and formulate your desire into intentions such as:

“May I be freed from anxiety, anger and hatred and be filled with your compassion.”

And pause.

Next, direct the intention towards someone you feel thankful for or someone who has helped you and use the same phrase:

“May … be freed from anxiety, anger and hatred and be filled with your compassion.”

And pause.

Then direct that intention towards people you find hard to like – or even dislike – and, finally, to all living beings: “May … be freed from anxiety, anger and hatred and be filled with your compassion.”

And pause.

It’s all about re-programming our heart.  So don’t rush at it, but take your time and breathe it deeply into the centre of your being.

The plea for Mercy is a constant refrain in our Liturgies:  Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy; Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer; Merciful Father … and so on.   It’s there in nearly every page of the Bible.  And it all begins with me.  Being merciful to myself.

Back in the 1930’s a young Polish nun (St. Maria Faustina Kowalska) received a series of revelations from Jesus which led to the devotion known as Divine Mercy.  And in those revelations Jesus gave her three simple instructions:

Firstly, ask for His Mercy because God wants us to constantly approach Him in prayer, repenting of our sins and asking Him to pour His mercy out upon us and upon the whole world.

Secondly, Jesus reminded her that we should be merciful. As we receive mercy from God so we need to let it flow through us to others.  God wants us to extend love and forgiveness to others just as He does to us.

And lastly to completely trust in Jesus. God wants us to know that the graces of His mercy are dependent upon our trust.  The more we trust Jesus, the more we will receive.

And behind all this is the one thing that matters – to realise ourselves as sinners and to seek God’s mercy.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  Anglicans, of course, do not have to make a personal confession; it is deemed that the general confession and absolution at the Eucharist is sufficient to prepare us to receive the greatest gift of God.  For Anglicans there is a general rule concerning Confession that: all may, none must, some should.

Yet the gospel reading for Divine Mercy/Easter 2 contains the account of Jesus’ appearance to His disciples in the Upper Room on the evening of the Day of Resurrection when He poured on them the gift of the Holy Spirit when he declared: “For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven.” (Jn.20)   We all need to open our hearts to God – and confess that we’ve messed up.  And by that act we enable the grace of Divine Mercy to sweep over us, to cleanse us and renew us.  Would we be helped to see ourselves as God sees us?  Have Anglicans lost something in not realising the value of opening our hearts to Him through the Sacramental presence of another human being, owning our faults and failures and asking for absolution?

Finally there is one prayer that Christians have used to re-programme their hearts – the Jesus Prayer.  It consists of a simple phrase spoken continuously – first on the lips and then, as the prayer deepens, in the heart.  Its origins lie deep in Russia which was taught to ‘a pilgrim’ but this prayer of the heart is rooted in St. Paul’s instruction to the Thessalonians: “Pray without ceasing.” (I Thess.5:17).  It’s the prayer of the Publican who knew himself a sinner; the Blind Man who cried out to Jesus as he passed by: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Or, more simply: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” 

It’s a prayer that is attuned to our breathing.  Breathing in the Divine Name: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” and exhaling our need for His compassion: “have mercy on me”.  It needs to be said slowly and rhythmically for however long you have given yourself to prayer – and then allowed to gently rest in our breathing as we go about the day.

It’s a prayer that starts on the lips but descends into our heart.  The prayer that fulfils the invitation of an Orthodox monk:  “Stand before God with mind in your heart, and go on standing before Him unceasingly until the end of your life.”

This Sunday helps us remember we are sinners seeking mercy; a prodigal coming home; a child turning to the loving gaze of its mother and father.  And asking that our heart might enfold our mind in God’s compassionate mercy.

Lord, have mercy on us as we turn our gaze on you.
May we know your love and be enfolded in your Heart
that we may stand in your presence day by day.  Amen.