This was written at my colleague’s insistence for Divine Mercy Sunday. He said something about my needing to speak up and that he likes the way I teach, so then it was off to the races. A clear audio version is posted below with the written version to follow. Enjoy!
Reflection for Divine Mercy Sunday by T. Orlando
Whenever there is a word that is used with frequency in our faith tradition, I like to take a moment to pause and figure out exactly what that word means. I do this with a lot of redundant words in Christianity when I teach, such as with sin, heaven/hell, grace, gospel, etc but today’s inquiry belongs to that of mercy. Now, before we go down this rabbit hole it’s also wise to remember that knowing the meaning of a word means you can adjust your desire for whatever the word represents, such as how knowing more about mercy increases your desire for it whereas knowing more about sin lessens your desire for it.
Now with mercy I felt immediately compelled to go straight to the Hebrew, Old Testament roots knowing full well this word shows up with frequency there. Before anyone can balk at why it’s necessary to have a blast in the past with etymology, or the study of the history of words, it’s worth remembering that mercy shows up in several Old Testament books of all kinds from Genesis to the Psalms to the major and minor Prophets. And that this Old Testament understanding contributed to the Greek use (eleos) in the NT for mercy & what St. Jerome used in the Vulgate bible (misericordia).
But before we get into those definitions and how those are wrapped around the understanding of Jesus’ mercy in the NT, taking a blast to the past is the first step.
Now, there are a few Hebrew words used for translations of mercy, but the one that caught my attention is that of hesed. Hesed is a Hebrew word that shows up in the books of Genesis and the Psalms and the Prophets and on and on.. and is more often used as a description of God’s character, and how God behaves towards humankind.
Now, remembering that translation can be difficult because … translation is never word for word, and can get caught up in many misunderstandings. But a good way to approach understanding a word with so much nuance is akin to looking through a prism or holding a cut diamond up to the light – as you turn the gem it reveals multiple sides of itself and above all, sparkles in the light and illuminates a vision not previously seen.
Now it’s completely legit to suggest that hesed can be understood as steadfast love or loving -kindness or covenant loyalty but the nuance of this word that really caught my eye was the covenant loyalty infused into the word, or the love-loyalty that God shows to his people no matter what, and no matter how far astray the people go. If there is one thing the Israelites are notorious for throughout the Old Testament it is failing to be be faithful to God, and yet this is always paired with how God does not give up on us or break His covenant with us no matter how many times we don’t hold up our end of the bargain. This understanding of God’s love as steadfast, through thick or thin, ride or die is a call to remember that no person is so far gone that they cannot ask God for mercy. One need not be overwhelmed by how much darkness or sadness or loss has seized them, but remember that there is something greater than anything that threatens the health and destiny of our souls, and that is God’s hesed mercy. A perpetual, unbreakable love that reveals the loyalty of God to his creatures in a bond that is woven into the very understanding of covenant itself. This is how God is revealing his character as a partner with us, and it’s easy to see why that seems like a partnership anyone reasonable could agree to. God is being so transparent here in telling us about himself, there is no bait and switch here, and being faithful to that bond with God can only beckon goodness into a life. Remember that after nearly every instance the Israelites turn away from that bond, comes a story of its epic repairing, until we get to Jesus, who is the very remedy Himself to any broken bond with God.
This is where the NT understanding of mercy comes into play, lest we be especially reminded of how much of mercy is a focal point in the Beatitudes where the Greek use of eleos for mercy is understood as the opposition to the desire for revenge and cruelty. So when Jesus says “Blessed be the merciful.. For they shall be shown mercy…” this is a reminder that human beings are capable of extending the same kind of mercy to each other as God extends to us. This creates a cyclical exchange of mercy between God and humankind, and as it is lived out in the Christian life, becomes a breaker of bonds to darkness. Entering this cycle reconnects a person to God and creates a true and lived reality where those who have received mercy are more inclined to give mercy. Being able to recognize and sympathize with those who need mercy is a Christlike characteristic that any disciple of Jesus can adopt in their life. All someone has to do is simply ask God for mercy for themselves first and foremost, and then stand back to receive what can then be given to others. Jesus really made it that simple.
You add all this to how St. Jerome’s use of the Latin misericordia for mercy to translate the Vulgate Bible understood mercy as “the heart of God touching our misery” and it really starts to become too much to bear it’s so beautiful. All of these definitions point to how God wants to have no barriers with us when it comes to Himself, that He wants us to experience Him directly through his divine mercy.
Covenant-love, Lovingkindness, Reconnection to God through Jesus, Steadfast Love, Mercy over Vengeance, Love-Loyalty… all of these nuances of Divine Mercy are above all meant remind us that God does not, has not, and will not give up on us, no matter how bleak things may seem, no matter how astray we may have gone. All we have to do is ask to receive divine mercy, and it will be given, no matter what, without a doubt. If that truth does not awaken every person to just how endlessly loving our God is, and how such an understanding of love Himself is worthy of worship and enjoyment and celebration, that no one and nothing is beyond hope, then I hope they wake up soon. Just think how transformed humanity could be through Christian discipleship if we lived with a belief and understanding of divine mercy in the marrow of our bones and unleashed that in the world.
Ahava, Love – Gabriel Wolff
Psalm 6:4 (NABRE)
My soul too is shuddering greatly—
and you, Lord, how long…?
Psalm 6:4 (KJV)
Return, O Lord, deliver my soul:
Oh save me for thy mercies’ sake.
Psalm 6:4 MSG
Break in, God, and break up this fight;
if you love me at all, get me out of here
Hebrew Art: Gabriel Wolff
Title Image: For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt
Image in Audio-Video: Chesed (Grace)