Divine Mercy Sunday: The Readings

Divine Mercy Sunday: The Readings


This coming Sunday is the Second Sunday of the Octave of Easter, also known as “Divine Mercy Sunday.”  The theme of God’s mercy runs through the readings.

 1. In the First Reading, we see an outpouring of God’s mercy through the hands of the Apostles, who are given a gift of God’s power for the healing of physical illnesses and those plagued by evil spirits:
Reading 1 Acts 5:12-16
Many signs and wonders were done among the people
at the hands of the apostles.
They were all together in Solomon’s portico.
None of the others dared to join them, but the people esteemed them.
Yet more than ever, believers in the Lord,
great numbers of men and women, were added to them.
Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets
and laid them on cots and mats
so that when Peter came by,
at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them.
A large number of people from the towns
in the vicinity of Jerusalem also gathered,
bringing the sick and those disturbed by unclean spirits,
and they were all cured.
Jesus’ love for the sick and those afflicted with Spirits was evident during his own earthly ministry, and continues as His Spirit works through the Apostles.  Jesus’ mercy for the sick continues to be expressed in the life of the Church down to the present day.  It is widely and intentionally forgotten in contemporary society that the concept of the “hospital” is an invention of the Catholic Church, beginning with sick persons gathered into churches for care.  The traditional nurses’ outfit—now largely replaced with “scrubs”—was in fact an adaptation of a women’s religious habit, and in some languages (e.g. German) the word for “nurse” (e.g. “Krankenschwester,” i.e. “sister for the sick”) still betrays the origin of the profession in women’s religious orders.  To this day, the Catholic Church operates, through its subsidiaries, the world’s largest health system, and cares for more sick persons than any other institution on the planet.
Furthermore, despite the denial of the reality of the spirit world by the contemporary academy, the Church steadfastly maintains the truth concerning the demonic, and offers healing for those afflicted through the sacraments (particularly baptism and confession) and, if necessary, more particularlized forms of ministry (i.e. solemn exorcism).  Canon law requires each diocese to have a designated exorcist.  While this requirement has not been observed in recent past, happily in many dioceses it is being restored, and newly appointed priest-exorcists are finding themselves immediately busy.
The Church is the Body of Christ, and continues to make manifest tangible expressions of the mercy of Jesus on humanity down through the ages.
2. The Responsorial Psalm is a very important one, Psalm 118, a Todah or “Thanksgiving” Psalm that has pride of place in the most solemn liturgy of the Church Year (the Easter Vigil), and a key role in this Sunday’s Mass as well:
Responsorial Psalm Ps 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24
R. (1) Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love is everlasting.
Let the house of Israel say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
Let the house of Aaron say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
Let those who fear the LORD say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
R. Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love is everlasting.
I was hard pressed and was falling,
but the LORD helped me.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.
The joyful shout of victory
in the tents of the just:
R. Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love is everlasting.
The stone which the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
By the LORD has this been done;
it is wonderful in our eyes.
This is the day the LORD has made;
let us be glad and rejoice in it.
R. Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love is everlasting.
It is important to know that Psalm 118 is the conclusion of a set of psalms  (Pss 113–118) known in Jewish tradition as the “Hallel” (the “Praise!”), which was (and is) recited during the Passover liturgy and during other festivals (e.g. Pentecost).  When the Gospels speak of Jesus and the Apostles “singing a hymn” during the Last Supper (Matt 26:30; Mk 14:26), it is likely that this refers to the chanting of the Hallel, which concluded with Psalm 118.
It is extremely striking to read Psalm 118 in its entirety carefully, keeping in mind that Jesus recited this Psalm on his own lips before leaving the Upper Room to go to Gethsemane and begin his Passion.  Certain lines are particularly poignant:
17 I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD. 
18 The LORD has chastened me sorely, but he has not given me over to death.  19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. 
20 This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it. 
21 I thank thee that thou hast answered me and hast become my salvation. 
22 The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. 
23 This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
Most of the Psalms 113-118 are Todah or “Thanksgiving” Psalms, a genre of psalm that gives thanks to God for a specific act of deliverance.  Todah psalms were recited in the Temple as part of the ritual of the Todah or Thanksgiving sacrifice, a particular kind of sacrifice whose regulations are detailed in Leviticus 7:11-14.  The Passsover lamb was considered a particular kind of Todah sacrifice that gave thanks to God for the act of deliverance that we call the Exodus.  For Christians, the Eucharist (lit. “thanksgiving” in Greek!) is our New Passover, giving thanks to God for the New Exodus, the act of deliverance worked by Jesus in his suffering, death, and resurrection, which frees us from sin and leads us to eternal life.  Therefore, it is supremely appropriate that in the Easter liturgies we continue to recite this great, climactic Todah psalm, Psalm 118!
The English translation obscures the significance of the Hebrew word and concept hesed.  This word, which is best translated “covenant fidelity” or “covenant faithfulness”, is rendered in our English translations as both “love” (as in “his love is everlasting”) and “mercy” (as in “His mercy endures forever.”)  But the meaning of the term is more specific than either translation.  We are giving thanks in this psalm for God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises, concretely expressed by sending us Jesus to fulfill all the commitments God had made to his people through history, especially to Abraham and David.  It is true that God is love, but the “love” that God is, is not just any kind of love.  It is not infatuation, mere affection, or a benign wish for our well-being.  It is a love of commitment, a love characteristic of a covenant relationship.  This is so important to internalize in a culture where the idea of covenant commitment (i.e. marriage) is spurned and rejected in favor of love without any “strings”, that is, without any binding qualities which might inconvenience the self.  This commitmentless “love” so popular nowadays is a pseudo-love, a fool’s gold.  The “love” and “mercy” of God (the hesed of YHWH) is demonstrated in his commitment to us, even to the point of the “inconvenience” of the incarnation and the Cross.
3. Our Second Reading is taken from Rev 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19:
I, John, your brother, who share with you
the distress, the kingdom, and the endurance we have in Jesus,
found myself on the island called Patmos
because I proclaimed God’s word and gave testimony to Jesus.
I was caught up in spirit on the Lord’s day
and heard behind me a voice as loud as a trumpet, which said,
“Write on a scroll what you see.”
Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me,
and when I turned, I saw seven gold lampstands
and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man,
wearing an ankle-length robe, with a gold sash around his chest.

When I caught sight of him, I fell down at his feet as though dead.
He touched me with his right hand and said, “Do not be afraid.
I am the first and the last, the one who lives.
Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever.
I hold the keys to death and the netherworld.
Write down, therefore, what you have seen,
and what is happening, and what will happen afterwards.”

In all liturgical years, the Church reads semi-continuously from the Book of Acts in the First Reading of the Easter Season, and in Year C, we read semi-continuously from the Book of Revelation in the Second.
The Book of Revelation shows us a vision of heaven right now, and a vision of the future of human history, when human history and heavenly reality will ultimately convene.  At the end of the Book of Revelation, the Mercy of God makes its ultimate triumph, as those who receive God’s mercy come to live with him forever in a reality described under the figure and image of the Heavenly Jerusalem (Rev. 21-22).
In this opening vision of Revelation for this Sunday’s Mass, John, whom tradition identifies with John the Apostle, beholds Jesus in his risen glory in the heavenly Temple.  The golden lampstands are an image from the Holy Place of the Jerusalem Temple; likewise, Jesus is dressed as a priest, adorned with the ankle-length rob and sash that characterized the attire of the high-ranking priests who served in the Temple.
The priestly role in the Old Testament was primarily one of dispensing God’s mercy.  The priest offered sacrifice on behalf of worshipers, so that their sins could be forgiven (Lev 4:20 et passim in Leviticus); they also were empowered to bless people with the Name of God (Num. 6:22-27).  So John begins his apocalyptic vision of heaven and human future by gazing on Jesus, the great High Priest, the one given to us from God to dispense God’s mercy.
4. The Gospel Jn 20:19-31:
On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve,
was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But he said to them,
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nailmarks
and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Now a week later his disciples were again inside
and Thomas was with them.
Jesus came, although the doors were locked,
and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples
that are not written in this book.
But these are written that you may come to believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that through this belief you may have life in his name.

God’s mercy is demonstrated in so many ways throughout this passage.
First we notice that this is the first time Jesus meets the disciples as a group after his resurrection.  The last time he saw this band of eleven men, he was looking at their backs, in the dark, as they all ran away from him rather than accompany him to through is suffering and death (Matt 26:56).  But there is no mention of this.  Jesus does not say, “Hey guys!  Guess you didn’t think you’d see me again!  Thanks for sticking by me there, in my hour of need!”  Instead, their dismal infidelity is overlooked, and the word of Jesus is simply, “Peace be with you!”
Continuing from the Last Supper (John 13-17) as if nothing had intervened, Jesus completes the commissioning of the Apostles that he had begun at that meal:
He breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”
Having shown them mercy, he ordains them as agents of divine mercy, empowering them to forgive sin.  The forgiveness of sins was administered by priests in the Old Testament; thus Jesus is commissioning the Apostles to a priestly role in the New Covenant.  The Church has always known that this authority to forgive sins was handed on to the apostles’ successors, because there is always need of this ministry down through the generations of the people of God.  So we see in these verses the seed and essential nature of the sacraments we now call “Holy Orders” and “Reconciliation.”
Thomas is not present, and denies the reports given to him from his fellow Apostles.  Jesus “goes the second mile” for Thomas.  He does not leave him in unbelief, but makes a special appearance just for him.  And when he does appear to Thomas, he doesn’t upbraid the doubting Apostle for his lack of faith, but condescends to allow him to handle his body and assuage his doubts.  So Jesus treats many of us, giving us extra signs of his presence to encourage us, though our faith should have been strong enough to do without such consolations.
Jesus last words in this passage pronounce a blessing on those of us who hear this Gospel proclaimed with believing hearts: “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.”
Yes, we are blessed indeed, because our faith allows us to know and experience the mercy of God.
Originally posted: The Sacred Page.