A good definition of “mercy” would be “love’s reaction to suffering”. Mercy is love reaching out to those who are hurting, to those who are in need, to those who are alone.
Other words we might use for mercy are “compassion”, “sympathy”, “pity” and “kindness”.
God is love, and mercy is one of His most beautiful attributes. Out of love, our Heavenly Father stoops down to those who most need His help.
Both the Old and New Testaments are replete with stories of God’s mercy on those who fear Him.
When the flood had devastated the earth, God hung a rainbow in the sky as a promise that He would never destroy His creation. When His people were languishing in slavery, He freed them from the power of the pharaoh. As they wandered through the desert, He fed them with manna from heaven and water from a rock. He led them into the land He had promised them and established them as a great nation as He had promised Abraham. When the people’s hearts strayed from His commandments, He sent prophets to lead them back, promising all the while that He would never fail to forgive them. Finally, in His mercy, He promised to send them a Messiah, a Savior who would conquer all their foes.
The greatest gift of God’s mercy, however, is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. In the man from Nazareth, God Himself comes to earth to share our life, to experience all the trials of human existence that we do. Ultimately, He offers His life, dying on a cross so that our sins may be forgiven. In so doing, God conquers our ancient foe, sin, but even more wondrously by raising Jesus from the dead, He conquers an even more dreaded enemy - death.
Sin offends God. When we break His commandments, we push our Heavenly Father aside. We arrogantly claim that we know better than He does whenever we choose our own will over His. Though God is angered and hurt by our sinful actions, He never lashes out at us. He does not punish and condemn us. Rather, He looks at the pain that sin causes in our life and treats us with mercy, offering us forgiveness and healing.
We see this clearly in today’s gospel. Jesus was hurt that His disciples abandoned Him at His crucifixion. He was hurt that Peter denied knowing Him. Thomas’ doubt must have also disappointed Him greatly. Rather than give up on them, Jesus reaches out to them through the locked doors of their fear and doubt to comfort and encourage them. Out of love, Jesus treats His disciples mercifully, taking pity on their fear and doubt rather than being offended by it.
The same is true for us. Each of us has sinned against God. Some of us may be carrying burdens of guilt and shame for many years over our wrongdoing. No matter what we may have done, no matter how many people we may have hurt, God looks beyond our sinfulness. His first instinct is not to condemn or punish us but to heal and forgive. He wants to relieve us of the shame and guilt we are carrying and to know the joy of His mercy. Because of the abundance of His love, each of us can approach Him with confidence knowing that He will welcome us with open arms.
We experience this mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In today’s gospel, Jesus assures the apostles that “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” This authority to forgive sins has been passed down to bishops and priests and is experienced principally in the Sacrament of Confession. It is not easy to reveal our wrongdoing to another person. It takes a great deal of humility to admit that we have hurt others. However, when we find the courage to do so, we experience freedom from guilt and the power to change our lives. Great peace comes over us when we hear the priest say, “I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It is Jesus working through the priest who makes the forgiveness of our sins possible. We leave the sacrament assured that we have been forgiven.
If it has been a long time since you have gone to confession, please make an opportunity to do so this week. Take advantage of God’s fatherly mercy which He extends to you. Drop the burden you have been carrying and lay claim to His promise of forgiveness. There is no sin that is unforgivable, no wrong that cannot be made right and no wound that cannot be healed through the grace of this powerful sacrament. Its power comes from the blood that Christ spilled on the cross and the promise He made to His apostles after He rose from the dead. And it is made available to us free of charge. We only have to bring a sorrowful heart and a willingness to change. God’s mercy will take care of the rest.