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Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Sweaty and Dirty Fingers of Jesus - For Divine Mercy Sunday

In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II dubbed the Sunday in the Octave of Easter “Divine Mercy Sunday.” The feast is named on account of the visions of Jesus that were given to his fellow Pole, St. Maria Faustina Kowalska. Fourteen times, St. Faustina says, Jesus requested a feast of Divine Mercy on precisely the Sunday following Easter. Some sixty years after Faustina’s death, the Pope instituted the feast.

But what exactly is the Church celebrating when it commemorates divine mercy? Are we sure we know what forgiveness and mercy are? In the creed, we mention “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” We ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We go to confession. But the words “mercy” and “forgiveness” have become so common we’re sometimes unable to attend to their essential meaning. They’ve become  Christian platitudes.

When we hear the word “mercy,” we assume it means something like the psychological decision to “forgive and forget.” It’s something that takes place in the mind. Indeed, the person doesn’t need to be standing in front of you in order for you to forgive them. But how useful is that conception, really?

A few weeks ago, when Pope Francis asked the world to join him in prayer for a world suffering under the grip of this new coronavirus, he directed our attention to the image of Jesus sleeping in the storm-tossed boat (Mk 4). “Do you not care if we die?” the Apostles yelled at him. It is a powerful scene. It is a scene that is often invoked in times of crisis, a powerful reminder of the peace Jesus offers: “Why are you afraid?” 

But we often neglect to reflect on what Jesus and the apostles were actually up to that night. Why were they in the boat in the first place? Jesus had the apostles travel with him across the lake where, after this stormy night, they reached the opposite shore in the morning. Upon arriving, he delivered a man there from a legion of devils (Mk 5:1-20). But then, oddly enough, Jesus and the apostles got straight back into the boat and returned to the side of the lake they’d come from (Mk 5:21). 

Now Jesus could have healed this man from a distance. He healed the centurion’s servant that way ― “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” (Lk 7:6). What this means, then, is that the entire purpose of that terrifying night time voyage was to encounter this single man in need of God’s healing presence. [1]

And we should notice that, as Jesus was climbing back into the boat to return to the other side, he turned to the man and said one last thing: “Go home to your friends. Tell them how much the Lord has done for you. Tell them how he has had mercy on you” (Mk 5:19).

“Tell them how he has had mercy on you.” We should allow Jesus’ words and actions here to rewrite our conception of mercy a bit. Mercy is not something that only takes place in our heads, something we can do without getting dirty. Jesus put the apostles through a treacherous journey in order to be physically present with this man, in order to have mercy on him. More than that, though, mercy does not necessarily have to be about forgiving someone who has wronged you. It can also be about drawing near to someone who has been beaten by the world, someone who is “living near the tombs,” like this Gerasene demoniac that Jesus healed (Mk 5:3). To draw near to them, to enter into their pain and accompany them toward someplace new is an act of profound mercy, even if no sin has been present.

We have seen that the entire purpose of the apostles' stormy voyage was to bring the merciful and healing presence of God to just one man. But this is just a microcosm of Jesus’ whole life. Indeed, the entire project of Jesus’ terrifying earthly “voyage” – his Incarnation – is to encounter you with his merciful presence, and to encounter you in person. The Incarnation is God’s grand insistence that mercy is best delivered not from afar, but up close. The Incarnation is God’s grand affirmation that your trauma is worth visiting in person, that your sins ought to be healed by his presence and not simply by declaring them forgiven and forgotten.

It is Divine Mercy Sunday. We should remember that God could have had mercy upon us in any number of ways. A teacher of mine liked to say that God could have declared us forgiven via a loudspeaker from the moon: “I’m OK; you’re OK!” But that’s not who God is.

The great affirmation of Christianity is that “God has visited his people” (Lk 7:16). And God has visited them in order to hear us confess sins with his own ears, to cast out our demons with his own mouth, to look at our pain with his own eyes, to wipe away our tears with his own fingers. And he has done this, not metaphorically, but literally ― with sweaty and dirty fingers. The living God has run his fingers through your misery. Indeed, it is in the sweaty and dirty fingers of Jesus that one begins to see what it means to truly forgive someone. It is in the sweaty and dirty fingers of Jesus that one gets a glimpse of the nature of the God who would not heal us without also holding us. And it is in the sweaty and dirty fingers of Jesus that one can begin to see most vividly the true nature of mercy. 

[1] See F.X. Durrwell, In the Redeeming Christ, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963), 127-128.

~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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