People tend to think that mercy means non-judgment – that mercy is the opposite of justice. If that is so, why bother with Lent? Why should I suffer, and why should I repent of my sins, if God doesn’t really care if I’m a bad person? Why should I try hard if God loves me regardless? It seems like Jesus suffered so that we wouldn’t have to; Jesus was good so we wouldn’t have to be.
But this confuses three related but distinct things: mercy, clemency, and unconditional love. God is all three – but they are different.
Clemency means relenting in punishment. Clemency is when you know someone’s committed a crime, they’ve been convicted, and you decide not to punish them. God is clement. He does not punish all our crimes. He does not, in this sense, give us the justice we deserve – or else he would never have come to suffer for us, the just for the unjust (1 Peter 3:8). “God commends His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
Mercy is connected to clemency, but mercy is not clemency. Mercy is more like compassion. Compassion comes from the Latin for “suffer with.” Mercy comes from the Latin “misericordia,” a heart for misery. Mercy’s heart goes out to people. Already this is more than clemency. Clemency lets things go. Mercy lets nothing go. Clemency might be described as not caring – God doesn’t care that we have sinned, it doesn’t matter – but mercy is caring. God does care.
In Greek, mercy (the eleison we sing at Mass) is connected to almsgiving (elemosyne). Mercy gives alms. Mercy reaches out to help.
The Middle Ages saw in the Good Samaritan a classic image of Jesus himself. The Good Samaritan is merciful. He is clement, too, I suppose: when he sees the man bleeding on the side of the road, he doesn’t say, “you deserved it for walking in this dangerous place.” There is clemency there. But clemency alone would lead him to walk away. Non- judgmentalism goes nowhere near so far as mercy.
Mercy pours oil and wine on our wounds, puts us on his donkey, and takes us to the inn. Mercy heals. Mercy is generous. The God who is mercy is a God overflowing with goodness, pouring out his goodness – his oil and wine – on those who suffer.
The mercy of Lent comes out in the Lenten Prefaces at Mass. “By your gracious gift each year your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure, so that, more eagerly intent on prayer and on the works of charity, and participating in the mysteries by which they have been reborn, they may be led to the fullness of grace.”
“You have given your children a sacred time for the renewing and purifying of their hearts, that, freed from disordered affections, they may so deal with the things of this passing world as to hold rather to the things that eternally endure.”
In these prayers, we see Lent as a gift, a reason to give God thanks. Lent is a gift because it is a time of healing. It is a time where we learn to pray better, to live more spiritual lives, to enter more deeply into the mysteries of Christ.
And it is a gift because sin is bad for us. God is clement, he overlooks our sins – but overlooking them doesn’t help us anymore than the bleeding man was helped by the priests who passed by on the other side of the road. Yes, he overlooks our sins – but he does far more. He heals us.
Because sin is sickness. Sin is the absence of love. Sin is the absence of God. We do not want to be left in our sins. We want to be healed.
Lent is a place for discovering that the mercy of God is not to leave us in our sins, but to pour oil and wine on our wounds, so that we can become better. It is a time to discover that penitence is not merely sadness, but a road to happiness. Like a retreat, Lent is a time of joy, because Lent is a time of walking more closely with the happy God.
“But God, who is rich in mercy, for His great love with which He loved us (even when we were dead in sins) has made us alive together with Christ (by grace you are saved), and has raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:4-7).
Where is God’s mercy in your Lenten penances?