This is such a tremendous undertaking, a theme to which I can only ask God's mercy to try and find some feeble words of explanation. A little story comes to mind, it is told about St Ambrose, who was pondering the mystery of the Holy Trinity. So my grandfather told me:
St Ambrose could not grasp the concept of the Holy Trinity, so he went for a walk along the beach and came upon a little boy playing in the sand. He had made a hole and was pouring buckets full of water into this hole. St Ambrose asked him what he was doing, to which the little boy answered, I am going to scoop all the water from this ocean and pour it into this hole in the sand. St Ambrose told him that it was impossible. "Just as impossible as it is for you to understand the Mystery of the Holy Trinity" answered the boy and disappeared.
I would like to start my talk with a few lines of a Christmas Carol:
"When the time began, God was so very far away,
a mighty king, whom men should honour and obey"
In the Old Testament, God was not often revealed as Father. It did not permit familiarity and bonds of love between the divine and the people "So very far away".
To describe mercy in the Old Testament we can read in the Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul II, a rather lengthy footnote on page 60. Our book at hand: "God, the Father of Mercy" touches on the same explanation very briefly on page 50-51.
In the Bible, the words rahamim and rahum (mercy and merciful) are applied to God. They are related to rehem - motherly bosom - a place of care, defence and growth of Life in its first beginnings. These words express all but physical mercy on the part of God, who is love with "bowels of mercy", as if God had inward parts that wrenched with compassion at the sight of creatures' suffering, a profound, spontaneous, inward love, a love charged with the tenderness, sympathy, compassion, indulgence and forgiveness that bind a mother and her children.
Besides being expressed in anthropomorphic symbols and metaphors, the notion of the divine mercy is also clothed in symbols inspired by nature. God is called the sun (Ps 84:11), a rock (Deut 32:15) and fire (Deut 4:24). The divine protection is compared to an eagle's for her eaglets: As an eagle stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, The Lord alone guided them. (Deut 32:11-12)
Here we have the answer to the feminist idea that God is female. He is Father and Creator, the male gender, but He has all the female qualities, which are so often lacking in certain female hearts: gentleness, compassion, meekness, motherly care etc. Psalm 49 is a good example. Does a mother forget .......
Although we have heard that God was not often regarded as Father, we read in Exodus 34, just after Moses had been given the second set of stone tablets with the commandments, God himself declared before Moses: "I the Lord am a God who is full of compassion and pity, who is not easily angered and who shows great love and faithfulness. I keep my promise for thousands of generations and forgive evil and sin." (Ex. 34:6)
When we speak of the Mercy of God in the Old Testament, we see that many Prophets speak of it. So King Solomon in Kings 1,8:22 onwards; "He prayed at the opening of the temple he had built, imploring God to hear the prayers of all who come to worship and be merciful to them".
The same prayer is still said at the opening and dedication of a new Church today.
Then there is the prophet Mica, (7:18-20) After reminding us that all God wants of us, is to live justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with our God. He goes on to proclaim that God is forgiving our sins, that He will not stay angry, but will take pleasure in showing us his constant love: That He will be merciful once more: That He will show His faithfulness and constant love to His people.
Mercy is not just an attribute of God the Father, but it is his very nature. It seems to me, that God could not "Live with Himself (for want of a better expression)! by being a mighty King, whom men should honour and obey". As the carol continues:
"But we went astray and God said: My people need a friend."
His greatest act of mercy is the incarnation. He sent us Jesus. In the Encyclical on The Mercy of God by our Pope John Paul II, we read on page 8:
In this way, in Christ and through Christ, God also becomes especially visible in his mercy; that is to say, there is emphasised that attribute of the divinity which the Old Testament, using various concepts and terms, already defined as "mercy". Christ confers on the whole of the Old Testament tradition about God's mercy a definitive meaning. Not only does he speak of it and explain it by the use of comparisons and parables, but above all he himself makes it incarnate and personifies. He himself, in a certain sense, is mercy. To the person who sees it in him - and finds it in him - God becomes "visible" in a particular way as the Father "who is rich in mercy".
In John's Gospel, (3:16) we read that the Incarnation of the Word is not only a work of the Charity of God, but also the supreme revelation of the divine mercy became a person. (God, the Father of Mercy, p.52)
Jesus Christ, the Only begotten son, who is in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18) the visible image of the invisible God (Col 1:15) is in his person, in his words, in his actions, and in his attitudes, the merciful face of the Father "rich in mercy" (Eph 2:4). His event, from his birth to his resurrection, is the most complete account of the mercy of God who is Trinity. He sees, speaks, acts, heals, moved by pity and mercy toward the numberless needy, disinherited, and sick of every kind and every place, who hasten to him: the blind, the crippled, paralytics, sinners, the poor, children, women, foreigners, the possessed, lepers, enemies.
Mercy is more important than sacrifice.
There are so many examples and parables of God's mercy in the Gospels, especially in Luke's Gospel. When John's disciples asked Jesus if he was the Messiah, Jesus did not answer yes or no. He told them what was happening. The blind see, the lame walk (as we have just read). He never asked the poor and needy for a sacrifice. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, in human terms, it was all his fault. He left home, a comfortable existence, a loving and caring father. He squandered all his money and his heritage until he was totally broken. But his Father looked out for him, ran towards him, embraced him, dressed him in finest clothes (not hand-me-downs) put a ring on his finger - you are not worthless you are my equal, and gave him a party like never before. No questions asked, no guilt trip, just unconditional love.
For a while sometime ago, I was working with a SVP Parish Group. Every so often, we hear people say (and I was confronted with it myself, when I and my family were in need of assistance) I don't want - or, how can you accept - charity. I think it is in our culture to be too discerning. Is the unfortunate situation my/their fault? Is there a stigma attached? What will others say? I come from a country where this attitude was and still is almost a national pride.
But what do we find in God's mercy? Loving acceptance of our faults, our guilt, once confessed, never being brought to mind. As someone once said: When we confess our sins, God will throw them in the deepest ocean and He will put out a sign which reads in big letters NO FISHING!! "This brings us to the great act of mercy, giving us the Sacraments. The resurrection is the pinnacle, the high point of the revelation of divine mercy. It is the gift of the Son to the merciful Father in the embrace of love of the Holy Spirit. Out of Love the Father sends the Son into the world. It is out of love that Christ offers Himself to the Father for the redemption of sinful humanity. It is out of love that the risen Christ bestows the Holy Spirit on His Church: Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.
The final act of the risen Christ, was to bestow upon his disciples the divine power to forgive sins. To believe in God is to believe in mercy." (From God the Father of Mercy).
I think one of our most serious sins is just this, not to accept, not to believe in the mercy of God. If we do not forgive ourselves or others, we refuse to accept God's mercy. Is that the reason why, in the Gloria of the Mass, we say "You take away the sin of the world ......"
I have just learned of a very sad example of ignorance of God's mercy in my family back home. It is now 56 years ago that my eldest sister, now 75 years old, gave birth to a child out of wedlock. The father of the child accepted paternity. My sister never married, she blamed herself to this day for her sin. But now, after all this time somebody comes up with the idea, that he, the father, probably never had a blood test. (We hear so much about DNA). Can you imagine into which hell my sister has been plunged again?
To come to a conclusion - I want to look at the prayer of St Francis. Every sentence of it can be rephrased into two words:
In the way of discussion, we might give testimony of our own experience of the Mercy of God.
Contact: Jack Smith: phone 61-2-62583824 fax 61-2-62583151 firstname.lastname@example.org