You encounter someone whose actions you judge as inconsiderate, hurtful, brusk, and dismissive. What do you do? ….hold onto that thought. We’ll come back to it.
Today’s gospel has a month of Sundays worth of content about which one could preach. But I want to focus on these few, rich, amazing words: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
In the Book of Genesis, God breathed the spirit/ruah which hovered over the void, over the nothingness, and breathed life into the universe – the act of Divine Creation. And it is not simply this creation of things that populate and make up the world – galaxies, stars, planets and more. It is the creation of life. Take a moment later today and read Psalm 104. The writer offers a tour of the universe and the created world which he experiences. You can hear the awe and wonder in the verses. Then he simply adds: “Send forth your spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the earth” (v.30). The whole world is enlivened by the breath of God.
The same creative, enlivening action described in Genesis 2:7, “then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” By the breath of God Adam is created. All of this with the Divine breath sending the Spirit into the world with mission, with purpose, carrying life that is able to renew the face of the earth.
In today’s gospel Jesus breathes that same Divine and Holy Spirit out into the world, into his disciples so that they can be sent on the enlivening mission to the ends of the earth – sent, just as the Father sent Jesus into the world. I could take all of Sunday and not unpack all that is implied in that simple verse. But I can be attentive to one thing. We are sent that we might become the bearers of Divine Mercy to the world. Here in the shadow of Good Friday when Divine Mercy was upon the cross – portrayed, betrayed and displayed – we celebrate this Sunday so as to remind ourselves that we are called to live a life grounded in Mercy, overflowing in Mercy, and pour that Mercy into this world – into our homes, our neighborhoods, and parishes. Quite the mission assignment!
Before we can be part of the story of God’s merciful love for the human race, we need to have some knowledge of what “Divine Mercy” actually means. The phrase presents us with a semantic problem right from the start. After all, the word “mercy” in contemporary English has a very restricted meaning. It is usually used to refer to an act of pardon, as in “Let me off, judge; have mercy!” or “He threw himself on the mercy of the court.” In the Scripture mercy means more than just the cancellation of punishment, far more than that.
In the New Testament Greek, the word that is usually translated as “mercy” is eleos. It can also be translated as loving kindness or tender compassion. The Greek word comes from a root word meaning oil that is poured out. Thus, when the Church sings in her liturgy the Greek words Kyrie Eleison and Christie Eleison, she is praying that the merciful love of God will be poured out upon her children, like holy oil from above. According to the ancient Fathers of the Church, the Church herself was born from the wounded side of Christ, when out of His heart there poured out blood and water, symbolic of all the graces of the two chief Sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist (Jn 19:34). In short, eleos is God’s love poured out upon His people.
In the Old Testament, there are two principal Hebrew words that we usually translate as mercy. Today we can chat about one of them: the word hesed, which means “steadfast love, covenant love.” Someone who has the attribute of hesed is someone you can always count on, someone who never lets you down. The word hesed is often used in Hebrew in connection with other words which bring out its meaning, such as hesed–emet (steadfast, dependable love), hesed–sedekah (righteous, holy love) and hesed–yesua (rescuing, saving love).
As I mentioned, mercy/hesed offers far more than being let off the hook by an impersonal judge who does not know you at all. Divine Mercy is to know God’s promise so beautifully described in Is 54:10: “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love [hesed] shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord who has compassion [rahamim] on you.” Rahamim is the other word for Mercy.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Divine Mercy: steadfast, dependable, holy, rescuing love. Empowered by the creative, enlivening Holy Spirit.
We celebrate this Sunday so as to remind ourselves that we are called to live a life grounded in Mercy, overflowing in Mercy, and pour that Mercy into this world. It is a tall order, but it begins a step at a time.
Remember that person whose actions you judged as inconsiderate, hurtful, brush, and dismissive? Of course Scripture counsels forgiveness, but in that moment and the moments that follow, how will you be merciful? Think mercifully, act mercifully, and become merciful – one encounter at a time.
In today’s gift of the Word and Eucharist, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Then, as the Father sent Divine Mercy into the world, so too are you sent.