Divine Mercy Sunday [A]
Acts 4:42-47 + 1 Pt 1:3-9 + Jn 20:19-31
April 23, 2017
St. John Paul II died on April 2, 2005. That date was a Saturday, and he died in the evening. The vigil of the Lord’s Day had already begun, and in the year 2005, that particular Sunday was the Sunday following Easter Sunday. When I was growing up, that Sunday was simply called “The Second Sunday of Easter”. Today, that Sunday is called “Divine Mercy Sunday”.
The Sunday after Easter came to be called “Divine Mercy Sunday” because of St. John Paul II. When he was a young man, Karol Wojtyla—that’s the birth name of St. John Paul—learned of the devotion spread by his fellow Pole, Sister Faustina. She died in the year 1938, when Karol was just 18 years old. She died just 31 miles from where Karol Wojtyla was born.
He grew in devotion to Divine Mercy as he served as a priest, then a bishop, then a cardinal, and finally as the Good Shepherd of Jesus’ Church on this earth. He shepherded the Church in deciding to institute the Second Sunday of Easter as the Feast of Divine Mercy. In the year 2000, when Pope John Paul canonized Sister Faustina, he established for the universal Church that the Sunday following Easter would be known and celebrated as Divine Mercy Sunday.
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But why? Why is the Second Sunday of Easter celebrated as Divine Mercy Sunday? Why not celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday on the fifth Sunday of Easter? Or the second Sunday of Lent? Or the twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time? This Sunday’s Scriptures point us in the right direction. Let me offer just two examples: the first from today’s Responsorial Psalm, and the second from today’s Gospel passage.
“Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, His love is everlasting.” This is the refrain for today’s Psalm: it’s Psalm 118, verse 1. This is one of the verses of Scripture that you can end up scratching your head over, if you consult different translations of this verse into English. Even Catholic translations of the Bible aren’t consistent. If you look up this verse in the Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition, the translation you find is this: “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His steadfast love endures for ever.” Then that latter phrase is repeated in the following verses: “Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’ Let the house of Aaron say, ‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’ ” And so on.
But if you turn then to the New Amercian Bible translation on Psalm 118:1, you hear this: “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, His mercy endures forever.” You notice that only the last phrase differs from the former translation. Here, instead of “His steadfast love endures for ever”, this translation says, “His mercy endures forever.” And the New American Bible continues in this line, saying: “Let Israel say: His mercy endures forever. Let the house of Aaron say, His mercy endures forever.”
While the difference between these two translations of Psalm 118:1 is interesting, what’s even more interesting is the translation that we heard just a few minutes ago when the Psalm was proclaimed. For whatever reason, it splits the difference between those translations. The refrain that we heard and repeated was, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, His love is everlasting.” But then in the first verse of today’s Responsorial Psalm, we heard, “Let the house of Israel says, ‘His mercy endures forever.’ Let the house of Aaron say, ‘His mercy endures forever.” And so on. I’m not a Bible scholar, and have no idea why the bishops who put together our Sunday scriptures split the difference on this phrase’s translation. Nonetheless, there’s something for us to stop and ponder here.
God’s mercy is His love. God’s love is His mercy. We might even go so far to say that that’s the message of Divine Mercy Sunday: God’s mercy is His love. God’s love is His mercy.
Now of course, we could split hairs by noting that, “in the beginning”, before Adam and Eve and their Original Sin, there never had been any mercy because there never had been sin. Mercy exists only in the face of sin. From all eternity, before God created anything, there was not mercy, because there was only God Himself. In other words, God the Son was always a good boy—a perfect boy—and never needed to be shown mercy by God the Father. God the Son never broke a window with his baseball, or lied about having finished his chores.
But in creating Adam and Eve, God allowed for the possibility of sin, and it didn’t take long for that possibility to become—not only a reality—but practically speaking the norm of human life. Man, in his relationship with God, hides and lies and tries to evade the truth. Man in his relationship with woman and all his neighbors, acts even worse. In the face of this race of sinners, God the Father had two choices.
Option A: God the Father could have left mankind to wallow in his sins. In this case, every member of the human race would have lived a life in this world marred and scarred by sins of every kind, and when his life on this earth was over, he would immediately descend into the fires first prepared for the fallen angels, and he would immortally spend the rest of his existence in everlasting torment. Thanks be to God that our Father did not choose Option A.
Instead, God the Father chose Option B. In the face the full display of human sin, God the Father chose to display His divine mercy. This Option B is what we call “salvation history”. This history becomes the present when we choose to recognize Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, and accept the vocation He offers us to be members of His Body, the Church. This is what the fifty days of the Easter Season celebrate, and prepare us for, and at the heart of all this… is Divine Mercy.
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So consider today’s Gospel passage. This beautiful passage from the 20th chapter of St. John’s Gospel account reveals the origin of the Sacrament of Confession. One of the most important truths that this passage reveals to us is that it was on the very night of His Resurrection that Jesus gave the Sacrament of Confession to His Church. We Catholics sometimes forget this, and many other Christians never get the chance to learn this.
This timing is definitely not a coincidence. This is a key, providential part of God’s plan of salvation history. The Sacrament of Confession is the Christian’s key to unlocking his potential for holiness, and his potential for sharing his faith in the power of Jesus’ Divine Mercy.
The more often that you yourself receive the Sacrament of Confession, the more you unlock your potential for holiness. At the same time, you remember that when the disciples displayed their confusion about following the hundreds of minute laws that had crept into the practice of their Jewish faith, Jesus gave them a message of great simplicity when He explained that what God wants from His followers can be summed up in two commands: love God, and love your neighbor.
So, if God’s love is His mercy, and if His mercy is His love, what does that tell us about God’s two commands to us? Today’s Scriptures reveal to us that to love God is to accept His divine mercy, and to love our neighbor is to bestow His divine mercy. Think of an image from your studies in science class: the simple electrical circuit. No matter how much juice is running through an electrical circuit, if the circuit is open, you break the flow of electricity and it no longer flows. The open circuit is what happens when we’re willing to accept God’s divine mercy, but not to bestow it on others.
You can think of this in terms of the prayer that Jesus taught us: the Our Father. The Our Father ends with several petitions that we make to the Father. Most of us don’t realize how dangerous one of these petitions is. We beg God the Father, to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. That tiny word “as” is the switch in the circuit: with it we either open or close the circuit of mercy. If we do not forgive those who trespass against us—if we harbor grudges and are unwilling to reconcile with our brother, sister and neighbor—then every time we pray the Our Father, we are begging God not to forgive us. Why would we ask God not to forgive us? It doesn’t make sense? Neither does asking God to show mercy towards us, when we are unable to show mercy to others.
At the conclusion of the Sacrament of Confession, the priest says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good”: the beginning of today’s Psalm refrain. It’s up to the penitent to conclude the verse in both his words and actions: “for His mercy endures forever.”