19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Desperately Seeking Mercy
Sometime back, in dinner conversation, a friend mentioned that she had recently discovered the richness of praying for mercy. Something she had read suggested praying specifically and repeatedly for God’s mercy. She said she had never really thought about doing that, and asked me if I ever prayed for mercy. My immediate response was “Yes”, which is true. But since that conversation, somehow I’ve been more aware of our praying for mercy, and the richness of this concept.Probably the most frequent prayer for mercy that I began to notice more is in the Mass. There is of course in the Penitential Act at the beginning of Mass an explicit plea for mercy. The ‘Kyrie, Eleison’, the only remnant of the early Greek liturgy, means, ‘Lord have mercy’. There is also a prayer to Christ for mercy in the Gloria: ‘You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us’. And in the Communion Rite, we pray to the Lamb of God, once more explicitly asking that Christ have mercy on us.
The first thing that comes to mind in connection with mercy is probably forgiveness of sin. Only because of his mercy does God forgive. Frequently in the Scriptures, mercy is granted to evildoers, and in the Mass itself, it is directly connected to seeking forgiveness in the face of our own unworthiness.
But when I think of mercy, I think of a quality of God that goes far beyond just the forgiveness of sin. In the Scriptures, mercy is often spoken of in connection with the covenant, because ‘his mercy endures forever’. Oftentimes in the Old Testament, mercy in invoked in sparing someone’s life. And it is often connected with grace, since “grace and mercy are with his elect”. It can also be the source of a favor that is granted, as in when Elizabeth conceived a child in her old age. I suppose if I had to speak of mercy in just a few words, it would be “loving kindness”.
But the central quality of God’s mercy that stands out for me, and for which I am eternally grateful, is that His mercy is undeserved. It cannot be earned, we cannot deserve mercy, and it is never something to which we are entitled. Mercy is an expression of God’s providence, reminding us of our abject poverty, so that any riches bestowed upon us are pure gift.
That is the mercy for which I was grateful as, this past week, I marked 32 years as a priest. Priesthood is a mission, a privilege, a life that is undeserved, and that has enriched me in countless ways, far beyond my reckoning. I am grateful to all of you for your kindness and generosity on the occasion of this anniversary. But most of all, I give thanks for mercy. Only in mercy is there faith, and hope, and love, and life.