Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
As the Octave of Easter draws to a close, the Church turns our attention to God’s infinite mercy. This Sunday is called Divine Mercy Sunday, and it recalls for us the truth that on the Cross, Jesus showed supreme mercy, in taking our sins and their consequences on Himself. By rising from the dead, he brought that mercy to fulfillment, by defeating the ultimate consequence of sin, which is death. And so on this day dedicated to our Lord’s mercy, the Church not only wants us to know about that mercy and to practice mercy ourselves, but also to implore God’s mercy.
This pandemic forces us to ask for mercy. We tend, in ordinary circumstances, to think in terms of the spiritual consequences of sin. I need to ask forgiveness so that my eternal reward may be assured. This is all well and good – by all means, we ought to ask forgiveness for our sins with the confident hope that Jesus has opened heaven for us and that He really wants us there with Him for eternity! At the same time, our present circumstances give us reason to look for mercy differently.
A biblical approach to plague or calamity would have us see this pandemic through an uncomfortable lens: chastisement. It’s not a pleasant thought, but let’s explore it for a moment. Every time we see the Israelites facing some plague or disaster (natural, military, or political) it is almost always a consequence of their collective sin. Their response is always to repent of sin and renew their covenant with God. In His turn, God uses the calamity to call Israel back to the right path. The Israelites themselves viewed God’s chastisements as just, as signs of His love. Our modern sensibilities are easily offended by this, but a kinder, gentler God is not the God of the Bible, not the God revealed by Jesus Christ, not the God we believe in.
I am reminded of the scene in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” when one of the Pevensie children asks if Aslan is a safe lion. The response C.S. Lewis gives is that Aslan is kind and loving, but not at all safe. He is a lion capable of all the lion behavior that make lions lions. But he is good. Aslan, of course, is a figure for Christ. Jesus is good – we see His goodness on display constantly throughout the Gospels. If we try to make Jesus safe, we end up taking away from him (and from our faith) the awesome, raw, intense power and glory that allows Him to crush and conquer the gates of hell and the devil himself. A safe Jesus cannot crash through those gates, nor does a safe Jesus do battle to rescue His beloved Bride, the Church.
Chastisement then, is a call back to the right path. I do not here mean to suggest that the pandemic is God punishing us and that’s the end of the story – coronavirus is all our fault…no! Rather I want us to see the simple truth that we do not live perfectly. As individuals, there are elements of our lives that God wants to correct. As a society, there are edges that have become rough, and in this pandemic, God will smooth them out. We will become aware of what we truly need, we will be more attentive to the needs of others, we will be reawakened to the power of God’s mercy in the world.
Today we ask for God’s mercy to be poured out. We beg merciful deliverance from this pandemic. And we ask for the grace to become instruments of mercy in this time, recognizing the heroic, inspiring examples we see all around us. Men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to care for the sick and suffering (they are kind, but they are not safe!). Teachers who are going above and beyond the call of duty to help their students continue to learn. Employers who are giving their workers flexible work-from-home hours so they can care for their children. Neighbors who daily check in on their elderly neighbors. Communities coming together from safe distances to share love and affection (as Fr Tim and I received last week with our drive-by Easter parade). In a time of chastisement, we see people taking the right path, the path of goodness and mercy. It is not always a safe path, but it is the path of love that Jesus walked to Calvary, and it is the path on which He calls us to follow now.