ODAY brings an end to the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, which began last December on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Announced by the bull of Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, this jubilee has provided the Church with an opportunity to reflect deeply on the richness, power, and incomprehensibility of God’s mercy.
Today also concludes this Triptych on Mercy, a threefold reflection on mercy that I began two Sundays ago (see Part I and Part II).
We have already considered “The Meaning of Mercy” and “The Need for Mercy.” This final reflection takes as its theme “The Beauty of Mercy.”
There are leaders in our world today who talk a great deal about mercy. In some cases, though, it would appear that these leaders do not know what mercy really is. In speaking about mercy, they give the impression that sin really isn’t so bad or really doesn’t matter. They give the impression that mercy does away with the distinctions between right & wrong, good & evil.
That is not mercy.
Mercy does not dismiss sin; it does not minimize sin; it does not overlook sin. Rather, true mercy assumes sin. That is to say, the experience of true mercy is always in response to sin, to the brokenness of our fallen world. This becomes especially clear when one considers that it is a work of mercy to “admonish the sinner.”
Mercy is not a stance of passivity or indifference to the nature of sin; it is, rather, a profound sensitivity to the damage sin does. Mercy assumes sin and desires to do something concrete to heal it. Mercy is the visible form of love for sinners.
This is “the beauty of mercy.” To say that sin does not matter is too easy. It’s flimsy, and there is no beauty to it. But real mercy, which takes sin as a starting point, is deeply beautiful precisely because it wrestles with the darkness and dirtiness of sin.
Consider these words from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “God proves His love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). There is great richness and beauty in these words. The Lord does not wait for all the messiness of sin to get cleaned up before He comes to save us. The Lord doesn’t pretend that sin doesn’t exist in order to save us. Rather, the Lord steps right into the middle of our mess, and it is there that He brings us His mercy.
If anything should be clear to us from reading the Gospels, it is this: Christ is not indifferent to sin. Think about the story of the adulterous woman, who is about to be stoned to death by the religious authorities who caught her in the act. The Lord comes along and intervenes, famously challenging the crowd to let the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone. This is a masterful approach, as Jesus appeals to the virtue of justice in order to set Himself up for an act of great mercy toward the woman being condemned.
The Lord looks at everyone in the scene and sees sinners. He acknowledges that everyone wielding a stone is a sinner. He also acknowledges that the woman, herself, is a sinner. Only after this acknowledgment of sin does the Lord turn the tables toward mercy.
He lets the woman walk away unharmed, challenging her to go and sin no more. In perhaps an even greater act of mercy, Jesus lets the religious authorities in the crowd drop their stones and walk away. This is true mercy, and it is beautiful.
The scene would be so much less beautiful, so much less compelling, if Jesus had walked up to the crowd and said, “Don’t worry about it. Everything’s cool. She didn’t really do anything that bad. You’re okay and I’m okay.” The beauty of mercy comes from confronting sin head on.
This understanding comes through clearly in a line that appears near the end of the Roman Canon. In this prayer, the priest says:
Admit us, we beseech you, into their company, not weighing our merits, but granting us Your pardon.
This line is a humble, earnest prayer for God’s mercy, asking to be brought at last to heaven. What this prayer asks is phenomenal. It asks that we be admitted to the company of the saints, not because of our merits—not because of how great we are or anything good we have done. It asks, rather, that we be admitted to heaven because of God’s goodness.
This is the beauty of Divine Mercy. The hesed of the Lord—His loving-kindness, His Divine Mercy—is not dependent on our goodness. Nor is it a reward for our good deeds. It is free; it is unearned; it is unconditional.
God’s mercy is deeply meaningful, critically necessary, and extravagantly beautiful.
Part 1 • The Meaning of Mercy
Part 2 • The Need for Mercy
Part 3 • The Beauty of Mercy