In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we are invited to look at things we know, and know well, things that are familiar, even routine, and to see them in the light of mercy, a light the exposes different shadings from what we may have seen before, highlighting different features of the known, even pointing us in a certain direction that was, heretofore, unseen. This year, then, we look at the great Paschal Triduum in the light of mercy. What do we see?
Tonight, in the washing of the feet, we see that mercy is not just some spiritual goal. Mercy gets its hands dirty. Mercy cares about the whole person, body and soul. Mercy is something we are called to show to one another, and not only in easy, convenient ways, but in ways that others would view as demeaning. Peter objects to the prospect of Jesus washing his feet at first! But, Jesus insists because he wants us to understand how we are to conduct ourselves if we wish to be recognizable as Christians: We must take of our cloak, and any other impediments, get down on our knees, and wash the feet of our fellows. Mercy is not only a noun, but a verb. As Pope Francis likes to say, he renders the word as “mercifying” sometimes to illustrate the fact that mercy is in action.
We should also dwell on Peter’s initial resistance to letting Jesus wash his feet. How often do we resist seeking God’s mercy by trying to find justification for our sins? How often do we minimize our sins because “everybody does it”? How often do we waddle in claims to justice, depriving justice of its own significance and worth by turning it into a cover for our ambitions, when the actual need is for mercy? This is not all personal; there are societal implications as well. The poor people of Puerto Rico are being asked to become more poor so that hedge funds can secure full repayment on their bonds, even when those bonds were purchased at pennies on the dollar. Countless developing countries, unable to navigate the shark-infested waters of globalization, are mired in further debt so that the already-rich can make yet more money. Where is the mercy in this exploitative system? Where is the justice?
Tomorrow, we see the depth and the power of God’s mercy. God’s mercy can go where we can’t; He brings mercy to bear even on the one human realty we can never overcome on our own, death. God enters into death to create the space for His mercy to become active. He not only redeems our sins, he redeems our deaths. And, in so doing, God shows that mercy is complete, it goes all the way, there is nothing that can stop it. In a sinful, hurting world, of which the Cross is the quintessence, God’s mercy intrudes and shows is that suffering is nothing but the beautiful face of love amidst sinful circumstances.
Our culture and society do not do well with suffering. If we can’t alleviate it, we tend to ignore it. The Cross invites us to embrace suffering, not in some psychologically unsound way, but by seeing suffering as an expression of solidarity with each other’s pain and also with the pain of Jesus on the Cross. Last Sunday, we heard the Gospel according to Luke and its beautiful story of good thief, Dismas. “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom,” he says. Really, what else can we ask for? Is there more success, more happiness, more joy, than t be remembered by Jesus? The good thief asks for mercy and God, being true to Himself, always, always forgives.
Finally, with Easter, we are taught something else about mercy: It surprises. On the first Easter, the women approached the tomb and they were not expecting to see the rock rolled away. Even when they found that the tomb was empty, they assumed someone had taken the body, and they wished to find it so that they could do what they had expected to do, care for the dead body. But, God surprised them. And us. He did not stay in the tomb. He did not dwell for long among the dead. What was expected turned out not to be the case. How often do we let our expectations rob us of the hope we are called to hold in our hearts?
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, we saw that mercy surprises. The prodigal is surprised. The older brother is surprised. Only the merciful Father is not exactly surprised: He had been watching and waiting for the return of his wayward son. How often do we behave like the older son, begrudging others their share in the mercy and joy of the Father? How often do we fail to behave like the prodigal, throwing ourselves on God’s mercy? How rarely do we behave like the father, overcoming any resentments or judgments and letting joy and forgiveness overcome us, reestablishing our relationships that had been broken by sin.
Pope Francis, in his General Audience address yesterday, said of the Paschal Triduum “Is all one great mystery of love and mercy: our words are poor and insufficient to express it fully.” How true. There is something inside my heart this morning as we get ready for the Triduum, something bigger than any words I can find. It is inexpressible. It is overwhelming. It is God’s mercy breaking into the world.