Pope Francis has declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy to begin on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception this December 8th . In Judaism and Christianity, the Jubilee is a special year of remission of sins, forgiving debts, and reconciling broken relationships. It is a year in which the people of God are asked to especially make manifest the mercy of God. So maybe, here at the beginning, it is a good time to think about the meaning of “mercy.”
Merriam-Webster offers that mercy is the “forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power.” Sadly, that is the limit of how many understand God: the grim judge who is holding back power and punishment even though we deserve it. Such an understanding never gives any insight into the nature of God or his divine motivation or desire. But we do know about God’s desire – He desires that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4). And so the people of God have been reflecting on such things for a while.
Hebrew does not have just one word to define mercy, at least not the Mercy of God. There are three Hebrew roots that are frequently translated as “mercy.” The first of these, h̥esed, carries a broad range of meaning. It refers to the kind of love that is mutual and dependable. It both initiates and characterizes the covenant bond between God and the people. This h̥esed always implies action, both on God’s part (Gen 2:12, 14; 2 Sam 22:51) and the part of humans (Josh 2:12, 14; 2 Sam 2:5). It is mutual and it is enduring (Ps 136; Hos 2:20–22; Isa 54:8). The second Hebrew word, rāhamîm is related to the word for “womb” (reh̥em). It designates “womb-love,” the love of mother (and father) for a child – that love that is intrinsic, intuitive, ineffable. The word is used to describe God who has mother-love (Isa 49:15; Jer 31:20) or father-love (Ps 103:13; lsa 63:15–16) for Israel. The “womb-love” of God leads to forgiveness for the wayward children. The third important Hebrew word that is translated “mercy” is h̥n/h̥nan with its derivatives. This word means “grace” or “favor.” It is a free gift; no mutuality is implied or expected.
God’s motivation is that all be saved – and mercy is the means by which he sets out to achieve it. It is rooted in the divine act of creation, the divine womb-love that gives life and desires peace, unity, and richness in life. It is the motivation that is not passive, but acts to send grace into lives to be reformed and renewed – the core of forgiveness. Such actions begin in love and elicit a free response of love. It is the story of the Woman Whose Sins Were Forgiven: “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love.” (Luke 7:47)
There is a lot to think about. It is why Pope Francis wrote, “We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy… the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.” (Misericordiae Vultus, 2)
In short, we are called to show this complex thing called mercy because mercy has first been shown to us. “Pardoning offences becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves. At times how hard it seems to forgive! And yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart. To let go of anger, wrath, violence, and revenge are necessary conditions to living joyfully. Let us therefore heed the Apostle’s exhortation: ‘Do not let the sun go down on your anger.’ (Eph 4:26) Above all, let us listen to the words of Jesus who made mercy an ideal of life and a criterion for the credibility of our faith: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Mt 5:7): the beatitude to which we should particularly aspire in this Holy Year.” (Misericordiae Vultus, 9)