Thursday, April 4, 2013

Mercy and Truth

Second Sunday of Sunday Year C
Divine Mercy Sunday

In recent years, we have seen the establishment of a special kind of tribunal. Unlike the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal of the post WWII Europe which was punitive in nature, this one serves to be conciliatory. Starting with South Africa in the post-apartheid years, truth and reconciliation commissions have been set up around the globe, invariably tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoings by the state or individuals, in the hope of resolving conflict left over from the past. The rationale behind such commissions was that by providing a platform to bring to light the truth about human rights violations and atrocities, it would serve as a means of healing the wounds of history. The essence of the process is to put the need to achieve reconciliation of past wrongs above the desire for punitive action against individuals. "We needed to acknowledge that we had a horrendous past," said the South African Truth Commission chairman, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. "We needed to look the beast in the eye, so that the past wouldn't hold us hostage anymore."

Today, the Risen Lord breaks through the walls of fear, shame, isolation, disappointment and failure to help us “look the beast in the eye, so that the past wouldn’t hold us hostage anymore”. Jesus appears to the disciples holding mercy in one hand, and truth in the other. This calls to mind a passage taken from the psalms. “Mercy and truth are met together” (Psalm 85:10). Mercy and truth—what a strange pair. We commonly believe that mercy entails relaxation, bending or burying the truth. The oft repeated cliché, ‘to forgive is to forget’ reflects this understanding. On the other hand, absolute Truth, is seen as harsh, judgmental, intolerant and the cause of conflict. Thus, it would appear that mercy and truth are incompatible. Today’s gospel exposes the error of this myth. Both mercy and truth are linked together numerous times in the Bible. Ultimately, both characterises the nature of God. God is a God of Truth and Justice, thus He cannot overlook sin. But He is equally a God of Love, whose overwhelming mercy has provided a way of salvation. As Pope Francis reminds us, “God never tires in forgiving us.  Never! It is we who get tired to ask for his forgiveness.”  

What Jesus did and what he said to his disciples after his resurrection stands out prominently. He returns to the very people who had abandoned him to the injustices of a kangaroo court, a summary trial and the indignity and pain of the cross. He returns to the very people who were responsible, directly and indirectly for the wounds which he now displays to them, one of whom betrayed him, another denied him not once but twice, and they all deserted him, like craven cowards and were now skulking behind closed doors. We would have understood perfectly had he been thoroughly miffed with them and spoken dismissively and even derisively of them. Well, what happens? It would have been startling to have called them his disciples after what they had done. And quite mind-boggling even to have called them friends and even reward them with the two fold gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gift of the power to forgive sins. Now that really is quite unbelievable. But the truth is – it did happen!

Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Jesus came not to bring judgment and call down God’s wrath on them. But neither did Jesus pretend that they had done no wrong. After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side which had been pierced as he hung dying. He did not sweep the Truth under the cover of false mercy. Rather, Jesus showed them the Truth of their actions, of their sinfulness, of their betrayal, of their lack of faith, by revealing these to them. This revelation was not an act of retribution, it was an act of mercy. He could have chosen to disguise his wounds and cover them up under the folds of his robes, but he realised that only the Truth will set them free, that only Truth could be a prerequisite of true peace. Peace that is attained under the cover of a lie, is never true peace – it is just a cowardly avoidance of conflict (which is sometimes necessary if there is to be growth); it is the tolerance of error and sin. True peace is never just the absence of conflict, the absence of poverty, the absence of inequality or discrimination, or the absence of troubles. For us Christians, peace is always about the presence of Christ.

Christ is our peace, He who came to reveal the truth about God, the truth about us, and the truth about sin. Christ is our peace, he who came to atone for our sins and to manifest the mercy of God to humanity who had been lost to sinfulness. Christ is our peace, a peace that comes through unconditional forgiveness, a forgiveness that invites us in turn to offer forgiveness to others. Christ is our peace, a peace that reconciles us to him and to the Father. Christ is our peace, a peace that comes from true repentance, a repentance which is a result of knowledge of the truth. Without the truth, reconciliation would not be possible.

On this Second Sunday of Easter, where we have gathered to celebrate the immense ocean of God’s mercy, we are reminded of the true essence of that mercy. Mercy is not pity in the sense that our culture understands pity. It is not feeling sorry for someone, nor is it preoccupation with pain. To reduce mercy to pity and pitiful feelings is to exile mercy altogether from our lives. The word ‘pity’ has evolved to mean something very different from mercy. Pity connotes condescension, and this condescension, in turn, implies separateness. “I feel sorry for you (because you are so different from me).” Pity regards the object as not only suffering, but weak or inferior. What passes as pity in today’s culture is often merely disguised gloating.   But, mercy means compassion. Compassion, from the Latin derivate ‘cum patior’ (to suffer with), is a participation in the sufferings of the other. Thus compassion, or mercy, is to suffer with, to undergo with, to share solidarity with. Compassion, one may say, works from a strength born of awareness of shared weakness, and not from someone else’s weakness, and from the awareness of the mutuality of us all.

If mercy is about compassion, mutuality, and ultimately the welfare or salvation of the other, then it must be intimately linked to Truth. It was mercy that drove Christ to confront our sinfulness and our blindness. It was on the cross that the Truth of Christ’s mercy was revealed in all its depth and glory– that sin is the real cause of Jesus’ death on the cross, and in return for what our sin had done to him, Christ had only mercy to offer us – “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Christ is the personification of the depths of Divine mercy.  This is the wonder of the cross, that here we see the fullest measure of Truth and the fullest measure of mercy at the same time in the same place and all because of the same Saviour. At the cross, we see Truth and Mercy meet.

The mission of the Church and of every Christian today is to bear witness to that same truth and not allow it to be hidden under the cover of false mercy, known by its modern incarnation: ‘political correctness’.  Truth must be faced and dealt with. Truth cannot be changed, hidden, ran from, or ignored. We cannot disguise the truth about sin just by giving it some toothless euphemism. For some, truth is . . . “I’ve had an abortion.” “I was unfaithful to my wife.” “I’ve been on drugs.” “I’ve embezzled from my employer.” The hard, cold facts stare you in the face, and nothing can change them. Oh yes, we know the truth . . . about ourselves and about everybody else (we think). But the real truth is this: we are united with each other in our sinfulness. As St Paul reminds us, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” But don’t stop here. Mercy is not far away, for mercy and truth travel together. But the greater truth, the truth proclaimed by this Sunday’s celebration: because we are all sinners, therefore we are also recipients of God’s mercy and His saving grace.

There is probably none who understands truth and mercy better than Desmond Tutu and his good friend, Nelson Mandela. When Nelson Mandela left prison after 27 years, he could have called for vengeance, retribution against the Whites, he did not, he called for forgiveness. He called upon his old friend Desmond Tutu and asked him to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The rules were simple: the perpetrators had to tell the truth, the whole truth, and their victims were given the opportunity to forgive, to show mercy.

This Sunday, we mark Divine Mercy Sunday, when we embrace the power and beauty of God’s forgiveness and mercy. It is the Sunday in which we remind ourselves of God’s tender mercies – when we strive, more than ever, to let Him break through the locked doors of our hearts. But in order for him to do that, we must face the truth about our sinfulness. We need to “look the beast in the eye, so that the past wouldn’t hold us hostage anymore”. Christ has left the tomb. If we choose to, so can we. We can step out of the tomb of selfishness and sin.  We can feel the healing light of God’s care. We can take that second chance. God’s mercy, Divine Mercy, assures it.  The Sacrament of Penance enables it. We can be made new.

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