In New York City, the area in our country that has been hit the hardest by the Coronavirus, each evening at 7:00pm, a citywide round of applause commences. Windows open, balconies fill, and people go out to their front stoop, clapping – or banging pots and pans – for the tireless, selfless work of first responders and healthcare workers on the front lines of the crisis. There was a popular hashtag – #clapbecausewecare that encouraged this gesture, but those who are doing it are doing it freely because they recognize the works of mercy all around them. Mercy is a response to our need that is disproportionate to what we deserve. To experience mercy fills us with wonder and awe because it is unexpected according to a human criteria. It is “above and beyond” the call of duty, that is, what is owed to us in justice. The experience of mercy provokes the question “why?”, because the one who offers mercy makes himself vulnerable, giving of himself, risking his life and livelihood, without counting the cost. The one who recognizes mercy knows that he has been loved. To be loved in this gratuitous way fills us with an “indescribable and glorious joy”. I think New Yorkers recognize that it is only because of this mercy that they can live – that they can go on living. The witness of the first responders gives them hope.
In this Divine Mercy Sunday, we see in the Gospel, Jesus’ first response to the sin and the betrayal of the disciples. One can imagine the shame and the guilt the disciples were feeling for having abandoned Jesus – for denying that they even knew him. By this time they had heard rumors that some of the disciples had seen him alive. They were told that Jesus would come to meet them. Not only were they afraid for their own lives from the Jewish authorities because they were associates of Jesus, a blasphemer and convicted criminal, but there must have been a certain apprehension in their hearts about what Jesus would say to them upon his return. They knew what they deserved. Their situation and the fact of their betrayal, something they swore they would never do, made them acutely aware of their own weakness. When Jesus breaks in unexpectedly, his response is even more unexpected. Jesus doesn’t ask, “Why did you betray me?” He doesn’t say, “I told you so. Why didn’t you believe me?” He doesn’t chastise them for their sins, ignorance, and failings but offers them peace. “Peace be with you.” He shows them his hands and side – not only demonstrating that the same man who died on the cross is now alive – but to show them that our sins do not keep him from us. Mercy does not forget sin or ignore sin – as if it didn’t exist – but bears the sin, draws near, and accompanies the sinner. This is cause for rejoicing.
The only way to be merciful – to be an instrument of mercy – is to depend on God’s grace. Jesus breathes on the disciples and invites them to receive the Holy Spirit. We are sinners in need of mercy. Without this recognition, we cannot approach another with compassion. We react, instead, with presumption, condemnation, and even aggression. The experience of having received mercy changes the way we look at ourselves and others. We see that any coherence in the moral life is a grace. The apostles can be ministers of mercy because they have experienced the mercy of the Lord. The experience of mercy is the source of Christian charity. Loving and sharing and caring for the needy is not a law imposed but the fruit of an encounter with a surprising mercy – something that springs up from the heart of someone who has been given new life. That person as well, realizing that mercy and the life of charity is a grace, must stay close to the source of grace and continuously ask for it. That is why we see the Christian community characterized in the reading from Acts as “devoting themselves to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.” Charity cannot be lived apart from a life of prayer and communion with the Lord in the Eucharist. Without a life a prayer and Christian companionship rooted in the Eucharist, charity devolves into a project or program of our own making and a form of moralism or legalism no different than that practiced by the Pharisees. Without our adherence to the source of mercy, our “goodness” (and the way we look at others) becomes based on our measure and not the measure of Christ.
This different way of living – this different way of relating to people and to things – in a non-possessive way – to have the sincerity of heart to know that one’s life and the life of each person is a gift – is what draws people to Christ. This is what people saw in the community of the first Christians, and it is the same today. Seeing and experiencing this “other worldly” way of living in which divine mercy is lived in concrete ways is how people come to believe in the resurrection of Jesus – that he is alive today. Jesus comes to us today through a human encounter with someone touched by his mercy and love. This is the way the Lord intends it – the method he chooses. We see this not only in the way Jesus instituted the sacrament of confession, but in his comment to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen [me]” – (i.e., physically seen me) “and have believed.” Thomas should have come to believe through the faces of his friends overcome with joy. The change on their faces – this new way of looking at him – is the sign of Christ’s presence – the sign that Jesus is alive.
May we take time everyday – alone or in solidarity with our neighbors – to recognize the signs of God’s mercy in our life. Even in the midst of our own weakness and vulnerability – even in the face of death – Christ breaks in to show us his mercy. Not because we alone need it, but the world needs it – that those reborn through his great mercy may be a living hope for others. May we be moved by Christ’s first response to our sin and let his mercy define us. If that happens, there will always be a reason to cheer and rejoice.