April 7, 2017

The Face of Mercy / Daniel Conway

Justice and divine mercy meet in the cross of Christ

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins’ ” (Mt 26:26-28).

This Sunday is Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. It’s the last Sunday in Lent, the culmination of six weeks of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in preparation for the joyful celebration of Easter.

Easter can be described as a celebration of the triumph of love and forgiveness over death and vengeance. The immense sacrifice made by Jesus on the cross was an act of divine mercy. Not only did he forgive those who betrayed him and put him to death, he forgave all of us for every sin committed (past, present or future) and he established beyond all doubt that God’s love and mercy are stronger than sin and death.

Mercy is one of the most consistent themes discussed by Pope Francis. In fact, in 2016 we spent an entire year

(The Year of Mercy) exploring this powerful, divine attribute.

Jesus is the face of mercy. He is an icon or sacred image of the Father’s love and forgiveness for all humankind. When we look to Jesus, and when we listen to his words of compassion and hope for even the gravest sinners, we see God and we hear his voice speaking directly to us. God is love, the pope reminds us, and mercy is his unending gift to us, the source of healing, hope and salvation.

But the skeptics among us can’t help but ask, “What about justice? How can an all-merciful God also be the God of justice? Isn’t there a contradiction here?”

No, Pope Francis says without hesitation. “In God, justice is mercy and mercy is justice.” Justice and mercy are not two separate things for God. There is only one thing: To be just with mercy as Jesus was.

Our Lord did not approve of adultery, for example. But he loved and forgave people who committed adultery even as he warned them to sin no more.

Divine justice means speaking the truth in love as Jesus did. He didn’t pretend that serious sins were “no big deal.” But he didn’t shun sinners or act like they were somehow irredeemable. On the contrary, he told us that “the healthy don’t need a doctor, the sick do” (Lk 5:31). The Divine Physician does not minimize or deny the patient’s condition. He heals us by the power of his love and forgiveness, and then challenges us to “sin no more.”

But, the Holy Father continues, “Someone with a casuistic mentality might ask, ‘But what is more important in God? Justice or mercy?’ This, too, is a sick thought, that seeks to go out. … What is more important? They are not two things: it is only one, only one thing. May the Lord help us to understand this [truth about God’s nature], which is not easy, but which will bring us happiness, and will make so many people happy.”

In God, justice and mercy come together to form one divine attribute. Because our vision is limited, we see only black or white (justice or mercy), but God’s vision is much more expansive and multidimensional. God looks at each one of us and sees beneath the surface, beyond our actions and behavior. God sees into our hearts, and while he judges us justly, he also judges us with great compassion and immense healing. God’s justice is merciful, and his mercy is just. This may be hard for us to grasp, but Pope Francis tells us that it is the absolute truth.

“Who am I to judge?” is not a permissive statement. Sin is sin. We help no one by pretending that their sins are not hurtful to themselves or others. But the Lord has commanded us not to judge others because God knows that our vision and understanding are too limited to comprehend the whole truth about divine justice and mercy.

As we conclude this Lenten season and prepare for the Triduum and the coming Easter season, let’s pray for the forgiveness of our sins—as we forgive those who have sinned against us.

(Daniel Conway is a member of The Criterion’s editorial committee.)

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