Saturday, April 15, 2023

On our response to Divine Mercy: Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter 2023

Icon of St. Martin of Tours gifting half his cloak to a beggar,

My dear brothers and sisters,

Today, the second Sunday of Easter, Holy Mother Church celebrates the feast of Divine Mercy. Considering the age of the Church, this feast, which was instituted only in the year 2000, is a fairly new tradition, and it is celebrated alongside another fairly ancient Christian one, that of Low Sunday. The origin of the name, Low Sunday, is uncertain, and there are two possible interpretations of this term. First, that it refers to the end of the Easter octave; as I indicated to you last week, Easter is celebrated for an octave, i.e. for eight days as if it were a single day. Low Sunday could, therefore, refer to the end of this great feast of Easter – but remember, we are in Eastertide until the great feast of Pentecost. The other possible meaning is that it refers to the day when neophytes who had been baptized at the Easter vigil, would take off the white robes, or albs, that they had been given at their baptism – hence the liturgical name for the day Dominica in albis depositis.

It is a testament to the singularity of purpose of Holy Mother Church that despite this layering, there is still a profound connection between these two commemorations.

As we just saw the white robes given to the neophytes are known as albs. Albs are what ordained ministers are always required to wear prior to donning the stole and their dalamatics, or chasubles. Now, there is a prayer that a minister is required to say prior to donning on every liturgical vestment. In the case of the alb, the white garment that goes over the cassock or the clerical clothes of the minister, the prayer to be said goes as follows:

Dealba me, Domine,

et munda cor meum:

ut in sanguine Agni dealbatus,

gaudiis perfruar sempiteris.

In English, this beautiful prayer reads as follows:

Purify me, Lord,

and cleanse my heart

so that, washed in the Blood of the Lamb,

I may enjoy eternal joys.

What is the connection between this prayer and Divine Mercy Sunday, or simply Divine Mercy? It is this, that I may be able to enjoy eternal joys, that is the remain face to face with God forever, and enjoy the beatific vision, only by being washed in the Blood of the Lamb which will purify me and cleanse my heart. It is an act of Mercy because I, or any other person, being of a sinful nature, do not deserve this gift. It is only through an act of love, an act of mercy that I, or any of us sinful children of Eve, may obtain access to eternal joys. Mercy is, after all, the act of clemency exercised by a judge over those guilty of an offence. Without Divine Mercy all we are entitled to is an eternity in Hell.

The gift of Divine Mercy, however, comes with certain obligations. We, who have benefited from this mercy, a mercy we do not merit, are now obliged to show the same mercy to others. Think of the parable of the unforgiving slave which we can find in the gospel of Matthew18:21-35; pressed to repay his debts, this slave begged for mercy since he could not repay the amount at the time. In response, the king forgave his debt. This lucky man now met a fellow slave who owed him a hundred denarii. The man now demanded payment of the debts his fellow slave owed, and when the colleague could not pay, the first slave had his fellow thrown in prison. When the king found out, he had this first slave turned over to the torturers until he could repay the debt.

The mercy we receive, we are required to show to others in turn.

This cyclical nature of mercy is captured wonderfully in a pithy saying by Saint John Chrysostom: “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.” Show no mercy to others, and we will find no mercy from God. And remember, it is not God who denies us His mercy. God the Father has exercised His mercy by giving us His Son, who rains down His mercies on us. It is we ourselves who have placed barriers against the flow of this mercy from His Sacred Heart.

Chrysostom’s reference to the beggar at the door of the church may not be the best example for the act of mercy, because in our times, we are infected by the pettiness that is the mark of the middle-class mentality - and I refer here not to middle-class as an economic location, given that we are all, myself included, economically middle-class. Our attitude is often to throw some coins in the direction of the beggar and smugly satisfy ourselves with the idea that we are so wonderful. This is not the mercy that Chrysostom would have meant. The mercy he would have meant would have been the acts of complete faith and generosity that marked the early church as described for us today in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.

It is little wonder then, that “every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” where as in our time almost every Easter vigil service, the time when we welcome people into the faith, is empty of those converting to the faith.

We can find another, and may I add, beautiful, insight into the operation of mercy in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Act 4, Scene 1), where Portia, impersonating a lawyer, pleads to the merchant Shylock, who famously, or notoriously, demands as payment a 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.

'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes

The thron├Ęd monarch better than his crown.

His scepter shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptered sway.

It is enthron├Ęd 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. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this:

That in the course of justice none of us

Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render.

I had initially intended to unpack this beautiful reflection line by line but then realised that we would be here even longer than I intend to keep you this morning. So, I will let you hunt for the analysis of this reflection online, and there are many available, and focus on something that struck me when I was preparing for this homily.

It occurred to me that in contemporary India, Goa even, mercy is understood as weakness. This meant that I had hit a brick wall in the development of this homily. And then it hit me! If mercy is misunderstood in contemporary India, it is because, as Shakespeare points out mercy is “mightiest in the mightiest”, and that while mercy is the attribute of God, the king of kings, it is also an attribute of kings.

And that is when I asked myself the question, are we kings? The answer, is of course, a resounding No! Not because we do not have kingdoms, but because we do not handle the power that is given to each one of us, the power to administer justice, as if we were kings. And remember, each of us has been given this power, whether we are parents, who have authority of a king over the family; whether we are professionals, who exercise the magisterial duty of exercising right and just judgement in our service of others. In every action any of us do in the course of our life, regardless of our station in life, we have been given the power to make decisions, decisions that have an element of the dispensation of justice.

In a Christmas sermon way back in the 5th century, Pope Leo the Great counselled; “O Christian, be aware of your nobility - it is God's own nature that you share: do not then, by an ignoble life, fall back into your former baseness.” Every Christian then, regardless of their status at birth, or indeed the status society may ascribe to them is noble and is obliged to live as such. Living in contemporary India, and contemporary Goa, surrounded by a base people who worship power and money, we have, in fact, fallen back into our former baseness. It is little wonder then, that we are not only unable to act like the nobility we are, and temper our justice with mercy; but worse we are unaware of the great mercy that redeemed us.

What are we to do then, on this great feast of Divine Mercy? I would say that we need to commit ourselves to cultivating in ourselves, not the cowardly behaviour of middle-class pettiness, but practices of Christian nobility, nobles who are free to do what is right and noble; nobles who seek to excel in all we do and pursue, and share this excellence with others; nobility whose lives are based on the principle of noblesse oblige, i.e. recognising that our social superiority requires us to fulfil a host of obligations, obligations that include fearlessly fighting the social injustices and the patent crimes that mark the smallest parts of our daily lives.

Allow me to close with an extract from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians (3: 1-4):

you have been raised with Christ, seek [therefore] the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

(A version of this homily was first preached at the 10 am Mass at the parish church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Aldona.)


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