March 18, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Mercy is the key to understanding the Lord’s passion

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

During this Holy Year of Mercy, our observance of the final week of Lent beginning with Passion Sunday and continuing through the Easter Triduum (from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday through Evening Prayer on Easter Sunday) may be experienced differently. Whereas the passion of our Lord is traditionally a time of sober reflection on the suffering endured by Jesus as an expiation for human sin (the sin of the world), this jubilee year invites us to see Christ’s passion and death from the perspective of God’s love and forgiveness as the pathway to joy.

I don’t mean to suggest that the cruel torture that Jesus experienced can be minimized, or that our sin and guilt are any less responsible for what he suffered. But I believe that the key to understanding this horrible story lies in the simple words uttered by our Lord shortly before he died: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). These incredible words of love and forgiveness—spoken at a time of intense, wholly unjustified agony—are the source of great comfort (even joy) to those of us who are called to be missionaries of mercy to others, especially to our enemies.

These words of mercy spoken by the crucified Jesus at his most vulnerable moment reveal the depth of God’s love and forgiveness. Who would blame him if he had uttered a violent curse? Or if he had held us responsible and demanded that we be punished? Instead, he forgives us all, especially those who treated him most cruelly and those who abandoned him when he needed their love and support most intensely. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

If we read the story of the Lord’s passion and death from the point of view of these brief words of forgiveness, the mystery of our faith takes on a whole new meaning. Mercy is the key to understanding the mission of Jesus. He does not minimize the terrible reality of sin and evil in the world. He does not brush it aside as if it were of no consequence. He experiences it fully in all its horror—up to and including the moment of death—and then asks the Father to be merciful.

Jesus had already taught his disciples (us) to ask the Father to forgive our sins as we forgive the sins committed against us by others. He had already said that our forgiveness should know no bounds, that we should forgive often (70 times 7!). Now he shows us just how far we must go in reflecting God’s mercy. We must forgive the worst sins imaginable, the sins that cause immeasurable pain and suffering, and the sins that in the eyes of the world are unforgivable. No hatred. No vengeance. No retribution. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

I call this the key to understanding the Lord’s passion and death because it shows us most clearly why Jesus suffered and died for us. He did it to show that no sin is greater than God’s love and forgiveness. He did it to show us the face of God, and to erase forever our strange notion that God is an angry, vengeful punisher who rejects sinners and denies his grace to those who stray from the right path.

No. As Pope Francis teaches, the name of God is mercy. God is love, not vengeance. He is forgiveness, not retribution. And no place is this truth more eloquently told than in Jesus’ words on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

I don’t think Jesus makes excuses for his murderers. What has been done to him is pure evil, and evil has consequences that cannot be overlooked.

What Jesus does is pray for mercy. He begs the Father to forgive the unforgivable sins committed against God and all humanity. He refuses to give in to the devil’s final temptation—to curse his enemies and exact the kind of cruel punishment that, in the eyes of the world, would fit this heinous crime.

In “Misericordiae Vultus” (“The Face of Mercy”), Pope Francis defines mercy as “the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness” (#2). Nowhere is this bridge seen more powerfully than in the prayer of Jesus for mercy at the height of his passion.

As we enter into this Holy Week, let’s keep in mind the depths of God’s mercy and the lengths to which he will go to show us how much he loves us and forgives us for our sins. May you have a blessed Triduum. †

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