Christ wants us to open the door to the ‘inn’ of our hearts to God’s mercy that we might sow peace
By Bishop Richard F. Stika
The dust has far from settled from a political election that reveals how truly divided we have become as a nation.
While we all pray for peace and unity, the spiritual distress that our country is undergoing requires far more than political solutions. For as St. Paul reminds us, our struggle is not against human forces, but with the rulers of darkness and evil (Ephesians 6:12).
This is why I urge everyone to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet every day, a most powerful prayer that takes only minutes to pray. For it is an illusion as old as Babel to think we can be builders of a just society according to earthly blueprints and action alone. Instead, we must be the bearers and sowers of what is of heaven.
As the great Pope of Divine Mercy, St. John Paul II, reminds us, “The world does not need more social reformers. It needs saints!” Lest we think there is no way we can become one, remember that saints are simply sinners who have embraced God’s mercy. And the one who has been forgiven much, loves much (cf. Luke 7:47). To the degree we accept God’s mercy is the degree to which we can love. God’s mercy is the key to what ails our country!
As such, I wish to offer for your Advent reflection and your Christmas joy a reflection I gave in St. Louis on Oct. 22 at a symposium on the Divine Mercy. In this Advent season may the expectation and hope of our hearts be fixed on what is from above, and may you be richly blessed this Christmas.
Sense of entitlement
When I think of Divine Mercy, I think of entitlement. I know how strange, and maybe even wrong, that sounds, for we live in a time where many have an over-inflated sense of entitlement. And the complaint made of those with such unrealistic expectations goes something like this—“They want everything but they don’t want to work for it!”
Spiritually speaking, though, having a strong sense of entitlement is healthy, and is in fact essential to both our personal salvation and our evangelization efforts. But don’t take my word for it, for Jesus stresses this very point in speaking to St. Faustina, his apostle of mercy, telling her that:
“The greater the sinner, the greater the right He has to My mercy” (n. 723).
We should want and expect God’s mercy. We should expect everything from God though we did not work for it, for it is Christ’s work of salvation. He is the one who suffered His Passion and Cross for us—not just for some, but for the love of all of us. And as love is never satisfied until it rests in the bosom of the one that is loved, so Christ is not satisfied until He rests in our hearts. Love is never about minimum limits, but always asks, “What more can I do?”
Here I recall the words that Jesus spoke to Sister Josefa Menendez, a mystic of the Church who died in 1923, who authored the popular book, “The Way of Divine Love.”
Jesus said to her, “It gives me rest to forgive.” So if it gives Him rest to exercise His mercy, Jesus reminds St. Faustina what great sorrow it gives Him when we don’t accept the gift of His mercy:
“The flames of mercy are burning me. I desire to pour them out upon human souls. Oh, what pain they cause Me when they do not want to accept them!” (n. 1074)
For this reason, Jesus encourages her to promote the message of Divine Mercy:
“Encourage souls to place great trust in My fathomless mercy. Let the weak, sinful soul have no fear to approach Me, for even if it had more sins than there are grains of sand in the world, all would be drowned in the immeasurable depths of My mercy” (n. 1059).
Jubilee of Mercy
Those of us familiar with St. Faustina and the message of Divine Mercy had particular reason to rejoice when Pope Francis announced an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy last year, which concludes with our celebration of Christ the King on Nov. 20. In the papal document titled, “The Face of Mercy,” in which the Jubilee was formally announced, Pope Francis describes mercy as “The bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness” (n. 2).
He further emphasizes that “Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive” (n. 3).
This is the “Great Invitation” of Divine Mercy. Jesus asks only that we trust in His love and mercy for us, and in turn be merciful to others. He thirsts for us that we might receive the ocean of His mercy and in turn be its conduit, its channel, to others.
That is why Pope Francis challenges all of us to “constantly contemplate the mystery of mercy,” for “it is a wellspring of joy, serenity and peace. Our salvation,” he says, “depends on it” (n. 2).
Contemplating the mysteries with icons
When I contemplate the mysteries of our faith, I find icons particularly helpful. Icons are called “the Gospel in line and color,” and while they may appear somewhat amateurish by the standards of Western art, their two-dimensional and odd linear perspective actually serve to pull us into the mystery we contemplate.
In speaking of icons, it is important to point out that the words “icon” and “image” mean the same thing. So when Scripture says that we are created in the image of God, it is also correct to say that each of us is an icon of God. We are all flesh and blood icons of God. This is why what we do to our neighbor we do to God.
An icon is not just a picture that reminds people of holy things. It is more than art—it is an encounter with the reality that it depicts. Each encounter with our neighbor, then, is an encounter with God. This is the underlining theology of icons, which is why we also kiss and venerate them.
As I prepared for this presentation, and contemplated its title—”The Mercy of God Invites Us”—I came across an icon of the resurrected Christ with Mary Magdalene. While there are many such icons that depict the Resurrection, this one particularly struck me.
Because there is no shortage of excellent commentaries on the beautiful image of the Divine Mercy that Jesus asked St. Faustina to have painted, I decided that I would instead speak to this icon in reflecting on how “The Mercy of God Invites Us.”
The Gospel of John,
This icon gives beautiful image to what St. John records in the 20th chapter of his Gospel. As we contemplate this scene in the garden of the resurrection, the risen Lord has already asked Mary Magdalene, “Woman, why are you weeping?”(v. 13). And because in her grief she did not recognize Him, St. John explains that, “She thought it was the gardener” (v. 15), an important detail.
But captured in this icon is the precise moment when the eyes of Jesus and Mary Magdalene find one another. On hearing her name pronounced by Jesus (v. 16), she turns and recognizes her risen Lord. And it is also at this very moment when Jesus beholds for the first time all the redeemed in His mercy, represented in the person of Mary Magdalene. What an absolutely incredible moment this is. To contemplate in this icon the merciful and loving gaze of Jesus beholding Mary Magdalene, is to contemplate His gaze upon each one of us.
The pierced side of Christ
Notice that while the wounds in Christ’s hands and feet are minimized, the exposed wound in his side is much more pronounced. This calls to mind another garden experience—that in the Garden of Eden. In contemplating this icon we again hear the words of the first gardener, Adam, who, upon awakening from his deep sleep during which God had removed one of his ribs and created woman, exclaims:
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken” (Genesis 2:23).
Christ is the new Adam, the new gardener, and it is the first day of a new creation. On this Easter morning, Jesus beholds all of us, created anew by His passion and cross. And because of the wound that opened His side, He can now say of us, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” The exposed wound seen in this icon also reminds me of Jesus’ words to St. Faustina:
“On the cross, the fountain of My mercy was opened wide by the lance for all souls—no one have I excluded” (n. 1182).
But when I might think of the ecstatic words of Adam upon beholding the one he would call Eve, they don’t seem to connect at all with the almost stern and harsh words of Jesus to Mary Magdalene—“Stop holding onto to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (v. 17). I believe that Jesus’ words, though, can be understood as meaning that He is ascending to where the heavenly wedding banquet has been prepared, to where the eternal embrace of the heavenly bridegroom awaits all of us.
Gold and red
The colors in this icon speak to this as well, I believe. Jesus is a beautiful translucent and radiant gold, symbolizing His divine nature, almost matching the golden sky in the background that announces the sunrise of a new creation. The use of this color gives vivid image to the words of the Psalmist, who describes the sun “like a bridegroom coming from his tent” (19:5 Revised Grail Psalms).
On my Chancery staff, I am blessed to have several Scripture scholars who have reminded me that in the Old Testament, one of the main expressions of mercy has a very covenant and nuptial meaning. Christ reveals himself as our Bridegroom, and mercy is His wedding invitation.
Here we are speaking of the heavenly wedding banquet, and yet we find Mary Magdalene is cloaked, not in a white garment, but almost entirely in a bold red garment. But in icons, clothing is an expression of one’s identity. Kneeling before her redeemer, Mary Magdalene is clothed in what Adam and Eve lost – the robe of glory. Only God could clothe anew fallen man and woman, and it is by the shedding of blood. So her red garment is a sign of her redemption, a proclamation of the resurrection, and her wedding garment.
A garden transformed
By the first tree the robe of glory was lost. But by the cross, this tree that was once the source of death has now pushed through the rocky grave as the source of new life.
Behind Mary we see the once barren earth beginning to show its green growth. Beneath the feet of Mary Magdalene and Christ, the ground is fully greened. Here again, my Scripture scholars in the Chancery remind me of the words in the Song of Songs:
“All green is our bed…. My lover has come down to his garden, to the beds of spice, to browse in the garden…” (Songs 1:16, 6:2B).
How transforming mercy is, as evidenced by an earlier event involving Mary Magdalene. In this icon we again hear the words that Christ spoke of her after she had entered the Pharisee’s house where Jesus was a guest. Kneeling at His feet, she broke an expensive alabaster jar of ointment and anointed Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair and kissing them. And what did Jesus say of her? He said of her actions, “I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Luke 7:47). If we are to love as Jesus loves us, we must accept His mercy. And this is a most essential point to becoming the saints we are called to be. To the degree we embrace Divine Mercy, is the degree with which we are able to love.
The Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea
It also is true that to receive God’s mercy we must be willing to give it as well. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The word “as” is key to living the gift of God’s mercy in its fullness. Think of the difference between two bodies of water in the Holy Land. The Sea of Galilee receives its waters from the north and gives outlet to it in the form of the Jordan River. The Jordan’s waters are considered life-giving—fruit trees line its banks and the nearby fields are irrigated by it. But though the Dead Sea receives these life-giving waters, it has no outlet, and thus its name describes its condition. So it is in receiving the gifts of God, and particularly that of His mercy. If we do not give as a gift what we receive from God, then our lives become sterile and even dead to God’s grace.
Witnesses to God’s mercy
We must be Mercy’s herald. Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the resurrection and is the apostle to the apostles. She is the first announcer of the resurrection, the first to proclaim, “I have seen the Lord” (v. 18). She is the first to have beheld the merciful eye of Jesus, and thus to announce His great love for us. And we, too, must be the heralds of the invitation of God as Jesus emphasizes to St. Faustina:
“Tell sinners that I am always waiting for them, that I listen intently to the beating of their heart…. When will it beat for me?” (n. 1728)
So many today are in a desperate search for the peace that their hearts are without, for peace in their marriages, in their families, in their country and in the world. But Jesus reminds St. Faustina that, “Mankind will not have peace until it turns to the Fount of My Mercy” (n. 699).
The gaze of mercy
Sometimes, we must be mercy’s herald from the cross of our sufferings. Speaking to St. Faustina about the Divine Mercy image He asked to have painted, Jesus says to her:
“My gaze from this image is like my gaze from the cross” (n. 326).
What does Jesus’ gaze from the cross say to us? Of course this is going to be very personal to each one of us individually. But we can also again hear His words, ever ancient and ever new, today, and every day, and we can ask ourselves, what does our gaze say to those we meet?
Does our gaze say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?” Our Lord forgives us. He stands up for us before His Father. Do we do the same for others? Do we have a compassionate heart, ever ready to forgive? Do we have merciful eyes?
Does our gaze say, “This day you will be with me in Paradise”? Do we look upon others as our brothers and sisters whom God has created to live with Him forever, together with us? Can we forgive the thieves in our lives even when they are not sorry for their actions? Can we desire that those who have robbed us of our peace, our hope, our children’s innocence be converted and be welcomed into heaven? Are we willing to die to ourselves that we might bring them home—to our heavenly home?
Mother of mercy
And let us not forget to implore the help of Mary, she who the Church calls the mother of mercy. The Religious Sisters of Mercy have a picture at their motherhouse in Alma, Mich., that depicts a sobbing St. Peter being comforted by Mary. In the Blessed Mother’s hands, she holds her son’s crown of thorns. Though tears flow down her cheek, her gaze towards St. Peter is the same gaze Jesus gave him after he denied him three times. When we find it difficult to look upon others with the eyes of mercy, let us be quick to ask for the Blessed Mother’s help.
The king of kings
Recalling that we all are icons of God, I am mindful of a very powerful scene from the 1920 silent film The King of Kings. In this scene, Christ comes into view carrying His cross with a crowd of people crying out as He passes before it. As He disappears from view, the crowd’s mourning suddenly turns to anger as the two thieves come into view carrying their own crosses behind Christ. In striking contrast to their earlier demeanor, this same group of people begin hurling insults at the two thieves and throw rocks and garbage at them.
This scene is a powerful reminder of how we must all be the face, and the heart of Jesus, who is our mercy, to not only those we feel are deserving of His mercy, but especially those who the world feel are not.
At every Mass, we hear the words inviting us to communion with our eucharistic Lord:
“Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”
We are all invited to mercy’s wedding banquet. What a blessing it will be if those seated around us are there because one day in their past they encountered the love and mercy of Christ in us. ■