This Sunday, by decree of St. John Paul II, is Divine Mercy Sunday. It is obviously a time to think about God’s mercy. But let us truly think about it. Let us think especially about why this, of all Sundays, should be the celebration of mercy.
This Sunday used to be called “Low Sunday,” or “Sunday of putting off the White” (garments): both references to it being the end of the Easter octave. In short, this new feast urges us to think of mercy in terms of Easter, as the culmination of Easter. It is not a Friday feast, not particularly focused on Christ’s death. It is a resurrection feast. Indeed, this is the rare feast that does not get its own readings: the readings are unchanged from when this was merely the octave of Easter – indeed, basically the same as they were even before Vatican II.
Divine Mercy Sunday does not replace the old Octave of Easter, it is just a new name for the old celebration. Why?
The readings are (and always have been) heavy on John. The first reading is from Acts, but the second is from the First Letter of John, and the Gospel is John.
The Gospel is Doubting Thomas. First Jesus brings peace and the mission of reconciliation to the Apostles, on Easter Sunday. But Thomas is not there on Easter, so the next Sunday, Jesus appears again, for Thomas. Divine Mercy Sunday is first of all Doubting Thomas Sunday.
Thomas says, “Unless I see . . . and put my fingers . . . I will not believe.” When Jesus appears he says, “Do not be unbelieving, but believe,” and then “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” John concludes, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples . . . . But these are written that you may come to believe.”
A lot of “believing”!
And in the Epistle, John says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God.” “Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” Believe! Like Paul, but in his own key, John is very insistent on salvation by faith.
We always do well to return to John’s Prologue, which also culminates in a call to faith:
“Whoever received him, he gave them power to become children of God:
to those who believe in his name, who are born,
not from [their] blood, nor from the will of the flesh, nor from the will of man,
but from God.”
How do we become children of God? By faith: “to those who believe in his name.” (Through Baptism, yes – but we forget that when we have our children baptized, the priest asks, “what do you ask of the Church,” and the answer is, “faith!”)
John adds an explanation. We are not children of God by human nature (not by our bloodright), and we who are in the flesh certainly can’t “will” ourselves to be sons of God. No, “the will of man” cannot reach to this. Jesus gives us a rebirth we cannot possibly attain by mere act of will: we are born “from God.”
And so, says John, the “power to become children of God” is given “to those who believe in his name”: who trust in Jesus (Jesus I trust in you!) to do what we cannot do.
This is Jesus’s double mercy to Thomas: to reach out to him to nurture faith, and then by that faith to give him new life.
It is his mercy to the Apostles. On Easter, and again on Thomas’s Sunday, John says they were hiding: “the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews.” But Jesus gives them his peace, breathes his life into them, gives them new birth in his Spirit and so says, “I send you” – and in Acts we find that now “With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”
It is only his mercy, only their trust in him, that takes them from fear to powerful witness. They believe in his name, and he gives them his peace: there is no other way.
And through them he extends his mercy to us. Through their preaching: “these are written that you may come to believe,” says one of the Apostles, “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.” And through the sacraments that he gives to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.”
This is the mercy of Easter, the mercy of rebirth in Christ, the mercy of rebirth through faith.
Where is Jesus calling us to trust more deeply in the power of his resurrection?