Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Thomas Sunday - Mercy Sunday


POOR THOMAS, WE HAVE TO GIVE HIM A BREAK. The "Doubting Thomas" label we've burdened him with all these centuries is unfortunate and unfair. He's not a doubter nearly so much as the premier Easter-Believer. The thieves on the cross mocked Jesus; they were doubters. And the temple officials and  the people who "wagged their heads" as they walked beneath the cross; they were doubters. Thomas isn't like that.

Too often when we look at these gospel accounts we jump  to what we think is the theological meaning, missing the human event totally. We're spiritually poorer when we do that. The apostles were gathered after the resurrection, and Jesus appeared to them wondrously, through locked doors. They notified Thomas, who just couldn't believe it - not unlike any of us who would be confused and fearful were we given news that the loved one we'd just buried had been seen alive.

But Thomas was with the others a week later as Jesus appeared again. He was very kind, inviting Thomas to come near, not just to see but to touch. And out of that experience Thomas spoke the most important words, indeed, the essential words, "My Lord and my God."

Isn't this us today? We often say, "I don't know what to believe anymore." We listen to one news channel where we hear one thing, then we listen to another, only to hear the exact opposite. In a debate we hear one politician state the facts, only to hear those facts contradicted by a politician from the other party.  We read an article by the authority on this or that subject and then read another article, also by an authority, take an opposing view. I expect that the locked room into which Jesus passed was a real geographical space, but it is all the more the locked room of heart and mind, filled to overflowing with reports that leave us more confounded, weary and angry than ever.

And in that inner place, Jesus reveals his wounded side, inviting Thomas to examine the wound there, which opens to him and to  us the heart of God. The heart of God being the one sure place. Oh, if only we could live in this Blessed Assurance.

Mercy Sunday

Sometimes Catholics like to decorate things, adding layer upon layer, until the essential thing is cluttered, hidden and no longer accessible. Is that happening here with  this Sunday variously named: Low Sunday, Thomas Sunday, now Mercy Sunday. Mercy Sunday isn't a new devotion. But are we really ready for the religious upheaval that Mercy Sunday is if we go beyond its devotional mantra?

Christians didn't invent the word mercy. The ancient Greeks and Romans were familiar with the word and had their own understandings. Today, our common understanding of the word mercy might mean something like this: I know that the crime committed is terrible and the judge could land the offender in prison for a very long time, but perhaps he/she will be merciful and issue a light sentence. Merciful here means to be lenient. Being merciful in this instance could have nothing to do with the judge's heart. Perhaps the judge is even corrupt, thinking: What might I be able to get in exchange for the light sentence?

The ancient Greek word eleos translates "mercy," but mercy which means kindness or good will towards someone who is broken, needy, desperate, miserable. Mercy sees a suffering or afflicted person and desires and seeks to help. God is merciful to us. We might hear the term Divine Providence, which means that God's hands are opened to us, that God shares with us abundantly, like a good parent who gives it all. Mercy for the Christian refers to the clemency of God who has come to be with us in Jesus Christ, who then dies for us, as a mother would die for her child.

I sat with a group of mothers once, all of whom had sons and daughters who had treated them badly and committed crimes and caused the family great expense, sorrow and inconvenience. I asked the group: "If is true that a mother would offer her life for her child?" They all affirmed, yes, even smiling as they nodded their heads vigorously. Saint Julianna of Norwich calls Jesus our Mother.

To be holy is to be like God, to imitate God as we're able. Perhaps there's no more perfect way of doing this than by imitating God's mercy. Mercy isn't a feeling or an emotion but a response in compassion - an activity which freely offers relief to sufferers.

When St. Isaac the Syrian (7th c) was asked: "What is a heart of mercy?" he replied, "It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for the demons and for all that exists. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person's eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips his heart; as a result of his deep mercy his heart shrinks and cannot bear to hear or look on any injury or the least suffering of anything in creation."

In the icon Saint Isaac appears troubled. Perhaps he is saddened, looking from the heavenlies into our unmerciful world.  The holy saint has taught us here what characterizes the  heart of mercy. Mercy begins in the heart, where sufferers are held close. But while Christianity is a new heart, ("Blessed are the clean of heart," Matthew 5:7),  Jesus teaches it is also new action, ("If you know these things blessed are you if you do them," John 13:17). This might signal the necessity of  charity: the simple and practical loving of others as we find them; yielding self-interest for the good of the other. But mercy demands even more.

The bible uses the word mercy many times, and mercy is called a Christian virtue (goodness-practiced), but it is not valued much today. Mercy seems to be eroding, even in our country which fashions itself to be Christian. The death penalty has been re-instated and well-defended in more than a few states  enjoying enormous, passionate public support. Why haven't Christians undertaken the reform of prisoners as vigorously as they have taken on the education of children?

Why in a Christian country, which consistently refers to itself as the greatest, should so many of the nation's children be suffering what's now being called food insecurity (a lack of consistent access to adequate food)? Or in the developed world, why should there be only three countries with a higher child poverty rate than the United States? Or why should an inmate in our country  leave prison, even after a long incarceration, and still not know how to read? Or why should a soldier returning home, severely damaged by war, need to depend on the kind generosity of an organization like Wounded Warriors for basic assistance? Why do we say there's no money to remedy these problems, while there is always money for the next war?  Some Christians have no interest in these kinds of concerns; they dismiss them as political. Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara (1909-1999)  said, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have  no food, they call me a communist."

 The Mass Preface for the Feast of Christ the King indicates that justice isn't optional for disciples. Some Catholics, of a particular leaning, have already said that the new pope is something of a 1960's leftover with his immediate emphasis on justice for the world's poor.

" that...
he might present to the immensity of your majesty
an eternal and universal kingdom,
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love and peace."

In Matthew 9:13, the Pharisees are disgruntled that Jesus is having dinner with "tax collectors and sinners." But Jesus answers them: "Go and learn what this means,'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'" Maybe Jesus is saying this to our  nation and all the developed world on Mercy Sunday. A weeping heart isn't enough. Charity is needed but not enough. Biblical mercy requires action which relieves,  like Jesus, bending and taking the little girl by the hand and lifting her up, "Little girl, I say to you, arise!" (Mark 5:41)Or as God judges hearts, at least intends to relieve. 

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