Joy and Hope
April 5, 2008
Incomprehensible ways of God’s mercy should startle, surprise us
As many of you may already know about me, I was sent away to study social work at Columbia University in New York City during the early years of my priesthood. It was a wonderful gift of time and study for which I will be ever grateful to Bishop William Johnson, the first bishop of Orange, who trusted this young Hispanic priest to make the most of that experience.
I learned a lot from the time at Columbia but I also took the time to enjoy the cultural richness of New York City. I used to frequently visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the rooms in the museum that I visited without fail was the Medieval room. It was filled with beautiful, sublime religious works mostly from the Medieval and Gothic traditions of the Catholic Church in Europe. Among these were many tapestries from that period. I was reminded of one of these tapestries as I prepared to celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday at Divine Mercy Church in Sacramento.
The tapestry portrayed the divine virtues in allegorical forms. On the bottom left hand side of the tapestry was presented the figure of sinner fallen into a state of debauchery. Unbeknown to him was the angel of justice looking down at him with a stern righteous glare and wielding a sword ready to strike quick punishment on this wayward soul. Coming between this angel and the sinner was the angel of mercy holding back the righteous arm of justice.
This allegory of mercy captures much of the unexplainable and perhaps in some measure incomprehensible ways of God’s mercy. In a phrase, it is the love we do not deserve given to us unreservedly. God’s divine mercy is what the repentant American songwriter, John Newton, called “Amazing Grace.” “Amazing grace! How the sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”
We all should be amazed by mercy. God’s divine mercy should startle us and surprise us. For awhile some years back there was a tendency to rewrite this beautiful, soulful hymn. Many were uncomfortable with the word “wretch”. It was considered inappropriate, demeaning, not therapeutically helpful. The word “wretch” has found its way back into the song not only to be true to the intention of the author. Grace is only amazing if we understand that we do not deserve it. Singing “a wretch like me” reminds us that we do not deserve this precious gift.
We have heard about this kind of amazement from the resurrection accounts of these past Sundays during the Easter season (e.g. John 20: 19-31). The disciples are stunned when the risen Jesus comes into their midst. Despite their best attempts to hide behind locked doors the Lord Jesus appears to them and they rejoice. In the Gospel from the Second Sunday of Easter we heard about the doubting Thomas. There is a beautiful painting by the Italian renaissance painter, Caravaggio, where the fingers of Thomas’s hand are probing the wounded side of Jesus while his eyes well up with tears of amazement as his his lips tremble with the words, “My Lord and My God!” That is the image of “amazing grace,” amazing divine mercy.
As we consider these beautiful tender moments between the risen Christ and his disciples during the Easter season, we should note a small but important detail. It is the wounds of Jesus, the wounds on the glorified body of Jesus that move the disciples to rejoice and later move the doubting Thomas to make a profound profession of faith.
Think about this. Imagine this Gospel scene. The glorified body of Jesus bore the marks of the nails on his hands and his feet as well as pierced side. One might have imagined that wounds would have vanished from a glorified body or that they would have been healed without a scar. This is not how Jesus presents himself. He carries the signs of our humanity with him into glory. More than just a reminder of our sins they are the proof of his great mercy. This is what moves the disciples to rejoice and Thomas to believe.
Many of us can fall into the assumption that once Jesus was raised from the dead that he was finished with the human side of the job and went back to being only divine. We can easily think that the Incarnation was over. We diminish our faith by such thinking and deny ourselves the true meaning of Christian hope. We would fail to see the amazing mercy of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The enduring wounds of Jesus show us how enduring and endearing is his loving mercy. Our own humanity is lifted up from the darkness of the tomb by the raising of Jesus, body and soul, God and man, from death to glory.
As those first disciples we should continue rejoicing that our humanity has been saved and glorified by the risen Jesus, who became one like us so that we could be one with him, one like him. It is because of the abiding, enduring mercy of the Incarnation that what we do with human signs, words, and gestures in the Eucharist is charged with the divine mercy of the risen Jesus. His wounds still heal us and save us.
That is why the early Christian community “devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.” (Acts 2: 42-47) Through the preaching, prayer, communal life, and Eucharist they continued to share in the experience of the risen Christ. They experienced Christ. They experience his mercy. It is this experience that moved them to rejoice and believe in Jesus as their Lord and their God.
May we be so amazed at the mercy of God revealed by the wounded, glorified Christ. May we always believe and sing rejoicing that such amazing grace has saved a wretch like me.