Mercy pours forth, in compassion and help

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Our Lady of Mercy: Sept. 24, 2011
Isa 61: 1-3, 10-11; Luke 1:46-55; Eph 2:4-10, 13; John 19:25-30, 32-34

For the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., on their feast day.

“And then there were two,” St. Augustine wrote. He was commenting upon the passage in the Gospel of John, chapter 8, when the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery to Jesus and made her stand in the middle. And they asked him whether she should be stoned, in accordance with the Law of Moses. And then, after he responded, they went away one by one, until he was left alone with the woman before him. “And so there were two left— relicti sunt duo, misera et misericordia—the miserable and the merciful.”

St. Thomas Aquinas observes that “a person is said to be merciful [misericors], as being, so to speak, sorrowful at heart [miserum cor]; being affected with sorrow at the misery of another as though it were his own.” (ST I, 21, 3) Misera et misericordia: the sorrow of the one, as a whole, prompts an empathetic sorrow of heart in the other—an affective response of pity, compassion, mercy. And this affective response then leads to an effective one: “Hence it follows,” he writes, “that he endeavors to dispel the misery of this other, as if it were his.” The effective action of mercy to relieve, strengthen, heal, the misery that is seen in the other.

And so, St. Thomas says, we can appropriately attribute mercy to God. For, though he draws back from affirming that God, in his divine nature “sorrows… over the misery of others” as human beings do, which comes through a sort of defect or weakness in our nature—nevertheless God is infinitely equipped to dispel that misery, to heal that defect, through the communicating of his perfections in his infinite goodness. And so how appropriate that the mercy of God is so often affirmed throughout the Old Testament—as in that great repeated refrain of Psalm 136, “His mercy”—his chesed in Hebrew, misericordia eius in the Vulgate—”His mercy endures forever.”

But if St. Thomas hesitates to affirm the vulnerability of sorrow of heart in the divine nature, we have no such hesitation when it comes to the Word made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ. For when he assumed the fullness of our human nature, he was made like us in all things but sin. Quite unable to be pierced in his divine nature, he took on a heart that could be pierced—so that it could be pierced with the compassionate sorrow of mercy, again and again, throughout his earthly life; so that it could be pierced by the soldier’s lance as he hung upon the cross; so that he might pour forth the blood and water, and his infinite grace, which is that great storehouse by which he can heal and relieve the great misery of the world.

And so there are two: misera et misericordia.

But there is another standing by his cross, as we hear again in the Gospel reading: the Virgin Mary, our Blessed Mother. Long before, she knew the mercy of the Lord, as she sang in her Magnificat. For she knew the great things that the Almighty had done for her, in the weakness of her humble humanity; and which he had done for her People for so many generations. She sang of it; she trusted in it; she commended this great mercy to others.

And she showed mercy herself. So many times when we see her in Scripture she is responding to others’ needs: to the need of Elizabeth in her pregnancy, such that Mary made that journey in haste to be with her and assist her (Luke 1:39-56); to the need of the bride and groom in Cana, when they ran out of wine and she pointed out this need to her Son (John 2:1-11).

And now, once again, she accompanies this divine Son in his great Passion, in his misery and sorrow. Her presence at the foot of the cross is itself an act of mercy: certainly the affective aspect of it, as she shared in his sorrow within her own heart, as we recalled last week under her title of Our Lady of Sorrows. And yet also effective. What could she do to relieve or heal his suffering? She could accompany him—”comforting the afflicted,” one of the seven spiritual works of mercy—offering him the warm love of her motherly presence; and keeping before his eyes this most beautiful, immaculate creature that he had made—clothed with a robe of salvation, wrapped in a mantle of justice, adorned with a diadem, bedecked with jewels.

In the movie The Passion of the Christ, we can note that, several times when she makes direct contact with him as he walks the Way of his Passion, he has collapsed upon the ground through his exertion and suffering. And her contact has the effect of strengthening him to stand back up and press forward in his salvific action. “See, mother, I make all things new!” he is depicted as saying at one point (cf. Rev. 21:5). And why not? For when he looks at her, he sees the beauty that he made in her; and he sees the beauty of what he is making in this act he is accomplishing, this Passion he is undergoing, as he redeems the world. And so her mercy toward him is not only affective but also effective, even toward our Lord: this mercy of our Mother of Mercy, at the foot of the cross.

And so there are two: misera et misericordia.

And yet, again, there are not only two, for there are others besides her at the foot of the cross. There is also St. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved; and there is St. Mary Magdalene. And both of these know in their own ways the mercy that our Lord has given to them over the course of years. We know that St. Mary Magdalene had had seven demons cast out of her (Luke 8:2): she knew the Lord’s mercy. And about St. John—though Scripture may not connect these dots explicitly—we know the mercy that he needed to receive, together with his brother: needing to be healed of vain ambition (Mark 10:35-41), and of a furious rage (Luke 9:51-56), and surely of many other things. They had received that mercy so many times—and now, there they were, with our Mother of Mercy, at the foot of our Lord’s cross.

And perhaps we note especially in their case the risk that they are taking by being there—the sacrifice that they potentially are making—so that they also may be close to this great fountain of mercy, and perhaps, in their own way, to offer mercy to him. But such is the call of mercy upon them: to respond to the one who has shown them mercy. With sacrifice, with risk, paying the price, accepting the danger, to be there at the foot of his cross.

How fitting that, when our Lord looked and saw these two, characterized by mercy—our Lady and, in this case, St. John—whom he loved and yet whom he knew had needs that would have to be met in the future—that he would give them to each other. So that each could show mercy to the other and receive it in turn. So it is that, to all the faithful, our Lady is given as a mother—as one from whom we receive mercy in this earthly life as well.

To receive mercy; to be affected by mercy, so that we perceive the other’s need and respond to it affectively in others; to be supplied, by natural means and by grace, by which we can also respond to it effectively, to strengthen and heal that need in others; even sacrificially, making the great gift of ourselves, taking that risk. This is certainly something that was seen some eight hundred years ago, in the calling of those Mercedarians, under St. Peter Nolasco and the others, as they in particular perceived the need to reach out in help to those Christians being held, kidnapped and in danger of losing their faith. And so they strove—in prayer, in their efforts of ransom, and even, if necessary, to exchange themselves into the captives’ place—this was the call of mercy upon them.

And it is the call of mercy upon us, who also have received that mercy, in so many ways we know so well; who have had our hearts softened and sensitized to the needs of others; who have been supplied with the supernatural means to reach out and touch out those sources of sorrow; and who are called to do so, even at cost to ourselves.

And so there are two: misera et misericordia. Our Lord, in his infinite mercy upon the cross; our Lady, the Mother of Mercy, beside him; and each of us, also called to be there with them. Called into a family of mercy, to stay with them always, to join with them in that work: for the sake of the Kingdom, of making all things new.

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