Saint Rose of Lima
“We must not fail to help our neighbors, because in them we serve Jesus.”
This Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, while focusing on the merciful love of the Father, serves to highlight the role that mercy or misericordia has in the life of the Church and her people. Yet, references to mercy abound in the spiritual and liturgical life of the Church at all times of the year. Mercy is often mentioned in the Eucharist and the plea for God’s mercy is part of the Introductory Rites.
The kyrie eleison or Lord have mercy is the most explicit example of pleading for mercy. When it is not included in the Act of Penitence, the kyrie “is a chant by which the faithful acclaim the Lord and implore his mercy” (GIRM, n. 52). When better understood, the Lord Have Mercy clearly illustrates the Scriptural content of mercy. The English word mercy is derived from the same linguistic root that yields its Greek equivalent or eleos (Gk. ἔλεος). In its original setting, eleos meant olive oil which was used as an ointment for bruises or wounds. Normally, oil would be poured upon the affected area of the body and massaged into that harmed or bruised section. So, both the medium and the method resulted in soothing or comforting.
In the Old Testament, the equivalent Hebrew word is hesed which has several meanings, among them goodness or steadfast love. When those attributes arise between two people, it is not simply a feeling or good wishes; no, it constitutes fidelity to each other based upon an interior commitment of one to the other. Thus, when properly understood hesed can also be seen as grace or love which arises due to the fidelity that exists. The nature of such a binding commitment has both moral and juridical (or legal) characteristics. In its Hebrew setting, whenever hesed is used in reference to the Lord it only occurs in relationship to the covenant which YHWH established with Israel. From the divine perspective, this berit (or covenant) was both a gift and a grace for the Israelites. Yet, because the covenant entailed a divine commitment to abide by its terms, hesed also came to include a legal connotation. This binding or obligatory nature of the agreement, though, ceased when Israel failed to adhere to its covenantal obligations and, thereby, broke the covenant. Ironically, whenever that occurred, hesed lost its more juridical characteristic and revealed its more profound nature – hesed as a love that gives which is more powerful than betrayal and, thus, an unearned grace that is stronger than sin or infidelity.
While the Israelites no longer had any legal or moral claim to God’s steadfastness love, due to their repeated infidelities, they were forced to rely only on their hope and trust that the God of Israel would really be a loving and faithful God. In the end, the fruits of God’s hesed or steadfast love are forgiveness and renewed grace which recreate the interior disposition upon which the spiritual covenant was established. The litany Kyrie eleison or Lord have mercy implies asking God to soothe and comfort His people, in order to manifest His steadfast love. Mercy, then, is not seeking justice or acquittal for sins committed, as much as it is a plea for the infinite loving kindness of God to be showered upon His sons and daughters because the Lord alone is all-compassionate and forgiving even when affronted by the sins of His people.
Mercy is a virtue that influences the human will and elicits compassion for and, wherever possible, the alleviation of someone else’s misfortune. Mercy influences relationships between specific persons and it is motivated by the recipient’s lack or need which is, to some degree, involuntary in its nature. The need that has been manifested can be either physical or spiritual; hence, the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
Enshrined within the Old Testament, at its heart, you will see God revealed as merciful and steadfast in His love; yet, the merciful God expected His people to imitate what He offered to them and to share mercy with each other and even with the aliens or strangers in their midst. In the Book of Isaiah, there is this description of the proper form of fasting, “…releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke. Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh” (Is 58: 6-7)? Those fourteen spiritual and bodily actions coincide with almsgiving which is an English word derived from the Greek eleemosyne (Gk. ἐλεημοσύνη).
The Lord Jesus knew those demands of Isaiah and, so, amid His revelation of the ultimate judgment, He noted that the basis of God’s judgment will be predicated upon how well six of those works of mercy were done—merciful acts done on behalf of those who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, ill and imprisoned (Mt 25:35-36). The seventh work of mercy is inspired from the Book of Tobit (Tob 12: 12-13) from which the duty to bury the dead is derived.
Spiritual works of mercy: admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, advising the doubtful, comforting the afflicted, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving injuries, praying for the living and the dead.
Corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, harboring strangers, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead.
At the conclusion of the biblical description of a Jubilee Year, you find this enjoinder, “The land will never lack for needy persons; that is why I command you: ‘Open your hand freely to your poor and to your needy kin in your land’” (Dt 15:11).
Written by Msgr. Peter R. Beaulieu, S.T.L.