As the Year of Mercy nears completion, I find myself bewildered by mercy’s many faces. I have listened to nearly a year’s worth of homilies and proclamations exhorting me to a life of mercy. If mercy is love, as I have heard repeatedly, one would think its renewal should address that which destroys love. But oddly missing has been mercy’s nemesis, sin, and the Catholic moral teaching that aims at its demise. Such teaching should be seen as a source of mercy. But with sin unacknowledged, Catholic morality has instead become the unbearable burden that mercy mitigates.
Solving this contradiction requires a clear definition so that mercy is not associated with the realm of good feelings. I believe that Mercy can best be understood in the context of man’s ultimate destination. In his Theology of the Body, John Paul II identifies that destination. That ultimate goal (call it heaven or salvation) is not a place but a relationship. The model for that relationship is that of husband and wife rather than parent and child. In a spousal relationship between husband and wife, each gives completely the gift of themselves and receives completely the gift of the other. Theology of the Body asserts that every man is born to participate not as a child but as a spousal partner in the Trinitarian relationship that is God himself. Man’s destination is total communion with God. The means of that communion is the total gift of self.
The Concept of Gift Helps Us Understand Mercy
Since gift defines communion, our understanding of mercy begins with understanding the concept of gift. Mary, mother of Jesus, shows us gift in its purest sense. Long before the cross, at the wedding of Cana, Mary gives us the gift of Jesus. I think we sometimes miss that the same grace that allowed Mary to accept the baby Jesus was also required to let him go. Mary was “full of grace” and to be full of grace is to be in communion with God. At Cana, Mary was a mature middle-aged woman who, filled with grace, could see as God could see, with total love. When Mary asked Jesus to perform the miracle at Cana, she knew she was giving him away, that his private life with her was about to end so that his public life could begin. She knew that she was sending innocence to the slaughter, not because she could see the future, but because she could see the present. In that present she saw men who were lost and broken. Jesus sees this also and tells her, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come” (Jn 2:4).
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Perhaps we can see Jesus, the son, better if we rephrase this in a more familiar way: “Mom, you don’t have to do this.” And he would have meant it because she didn’t have to. But she did it anyway. Because she was human, just as we are, the choice was hers. She gave all that she had at heart rending cost, because, as one full of grace, she could see beyond her own desire into the broken hearts of men. Mary was the widow who gave her last mite. She gave because she could see that we needed him more than she did. The miracle at Cana was not just water turned into wine but the mother’s gift that turned son into savior.
In her gift of self and compassion for the other, Mary’s gift is the model for all gifts. For us to give as Mary did requires both self-knowledge and knowledge of the other’s need. An unobstructed vision of the other begins with seeing our own self. In the account of the adulteress who faced stoning from an angry mob, what Jesus writes in the sand is an act of mercy directed not at the accused woman but at her accusers. Jesus leads them to a self-knowledge that bridges the divide between the hypocrite and the harlot. In seeing their sins they see themselves in the woman they wish to stone. But there is more to see.
Jesus tells us: “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly…” (Mt 7:5). But what will we see? In seeing our sin, we will see the selfish desires that stand between us and the gift freely given. But, more importantly, shorn of our own desire to take rather than to give, we will begin to see what I believe Mary saw at the foot the cross. Mary certainly saw and lived the torment of her son on the cross, but Mary saw more than this. I think she saw the brokenness of those who crucified him. In seeing those broken souls, she suffered as a mother would whose children had chosen blindness, a blindness that darkened the light right before them. We need to see the other, through grace, as I believe Mary did. Then we can begin to give the gift they need.
While recognizing another’s need is necessary for communion, the other must also see his need and freely accept the gift. The humble tax collector opens himself to a gift offered while the proud Pharisee declares no gift is needed. Just as the giver must see through his own sin to truly give, the recipient must see his own sin to truly receive. He must see a hole in his being that requires filling. The good thief on Calvary saw himself incomplete and saw Jesus as the gift that would complete him. The bad thief, in not seeing his sin, could only see Jesus as an imposture to be mocked. Whether giving or receiving, communion begins with the self-knowledge of one’s own sin.
No Mercy Before the Fall
Because sin, in its very nature, hinders gift giving, it renders impossible the communion of Man and God. This is the problem that mercy addresses. To better see this let us return to Eden, as does John Paul II in the Theology of the Body, to understand the meaning of communion before the fall. In the beginning, God gave all he had to Adam and Eve. In creating them in his own image, he created a man and woman who could live the same life of gift that God himself lives in his Trinitarian relationship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In Eden before the fall, Adam and Eve participated in the life of love that God himself lives. They lived in full communion with God, giving all they were and receiving all that God is. In such a relationship there is no mercy, because in a world of perfect love mercy is inconceivable. Mercy only has meaning in a fallen world.
It is the broken relationship of Man and God that defines mercy. First and foremost, mercy is an invitation to renew that relationship, to enter again into a communion lost. In a world of broken relationships, a world where gifts are neither freely given nor freely received, the love we can no longer fully see or understand manifests itself as mercy. Mercy summons all to return to Eden. It is nothing less than the full pursuit of a lover for his lost beloved. Mercy is the story of God and Man in time.
Mercy can only happen in time, because it is a call to change, to reverse course and to put away all that prevents communion. In other words, it is a call to repent. Time itself is God’s mercy. The change required to restore the communion of Man and God can only happen in time with our consent. Mercy invites us to a wedding feast where we are not guests but the bridal partner. We must freely accept both the invitation and the wedding garment offered by the wedding’s master. However, the master fits us to the garment rather than the garment to us. Our acceptance of the invitation to the wedding and the consequent fitting to the wedding garment is repentance. Repentance is not sackcloth, ashes and bad feelings over sins committed. Repentance is to change, to accept mercy’s invitation, to reject sin, and to accept the grace that changes us. Only in seeing that the wedding garment will not fit, in seeing that our sin renders the wedding impossible, can we accept the change required of us.
Because sin makes communion impossible, mercy and repentance are inextricably linked. They are a gift offered and a gift received. Mercy’s invitation begins but must not end with forgiveness. Forgiveness frees a man to look at himself, to gain the self-knowledge gift requires, and to see his sin for what it is.
Mercy Requires the Admonition: “Go and Sin No More”
In seeing this, we see that there is no real mercy in the statement, “You are forgiven” without the admonishment “go and sin no more.” There is no invitation in such “mercy” because there is neither a wedding nor a response required. Mercy declares a broken relationship open for renewal. Renewal is the purpose of mercy, not forgiveness. Rather than an arbitrary rule broken, one that can simply be acknowledged and then dismissed, sin is the very reason the relationship is broken. It is the self-possessing “mine” that precludes the communion of two wills into one. Sin is everything we hold onto that hinders the free gift of self. We cannot kill, commit adultery, steal, lie about neighbors, or covet their goods and spouses and expect to enter in communion with another, because these are all takings and only gift can bring about communion. Most importantly we can only have one true God, because that one God made us free to choose or reject him. All other gods, whether goods, sex, or idols own us. We cannot give what we do not own. And without a gift to give, there is neither love nor communion.
Because sin precludes the gift freely given, true mercy cannot leave the sinner in sin but must offer him a path to communion. Mercy must go beyond forgiveness and offer a way home. Catholic moral teaching is the sinner’s guide to returning home. Its very essence is to establish right relationships between men and between Man and God. To repent is to change. The Church shows us how to change. It does not test us with arbitrary rules but guides us toward the communion of heaven. Because the very nature of sin is to blind the sinner, the Church helps us to become what we cannot see. When we do see we will see that the Church is mercy itself.
Mercy, repentance and time are an indivisible trinity of grace. Together they allow the redemption of Man and lead us to the greater communion of Man and God. Removing any of the three renders the remaining two meaningless and obscures our vision of the ecstasy to which we are called. When it is no longer seen as a means to a greater end, mercy becomes its own end. With our destination lost, we will forgive without admonishing. Forgiveness will no longer begin with self-reflection but no reflection at all. That sin is the enemy of communion will be forgotten and the need for repentance rejected. Time will no longer be an act of mercy but something we simply pass through on a way to a heaven of our own imagining. In our willful blindness, sin will no longer be seen as a foe to be fought and conquered. We will weave it into the fabric of our lives thinking it isn’t really there. We will no longer understand the gift we are called to give nor the one we are meant to receive.
Mercy is the love that conquers sin. We cannot conquer what we refuse to see. In thinking we can ignore sin we reduce mercy, along with love, to good feelings mutually shared. It becomes cheap mercy, a counterfeit that replaces God’s true mercy given to us in the Church along with its sacraments, its doctrine and its magisterium. With mercy cheapened the sun of the ultimate communion of God and Man will fall before the candle of our own good feelings.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Le Christ et la femme adultère,” was painted by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727–1804) in 1750-53.