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April 16, 2017

Father Donald Senior, CP

Beating heart of the gospel

April 23: Divine Mercy Sunday
Acts 2:42-47; Ps 118:2-4, 13-15, 22—24; 1 Pt 1:3-9; Jn 20:19-31

In the year 2000, the beginning of the new millennium, St. John Paul II named this first Sunday after Easter as “Mercy Sunday.” Pope Francis has spoken emphatically about mercy. In his recent beautiful exhortation on marriage, “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis says, “Mercy is the beating heart of the Gospel, which in its own way must penetrate the mind and heart of every person.”

When the pope designated 2016 as the Jubilee of Mercy, he declared that the Jesus of the Gospels reveals “the human face of the Father’s mercy.” Pope Francis in his words and in his own example urges the church to be guided by this divine mercy.

“Mercy,” he notes, “is the very foundation of the church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness which she shows to believers; nothing in her preaching and her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy.”

This emphasis on God’s tender mercy is certainly evident in the Scripture passages assigned for this Sunday. The opening reading from the Acts of the Apostles is one of the famous summary descriptions of the early Jerusalem community, exulting in the joy of the Resurrection. “They ate their meals (together) with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people.”

The words of the responsorial psalm from Psalm 118 could easily be the kind of joyful prayer that filled the hearts of these early followers of the Risen Jesus: “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.’”

The second reading for this Sunday is from the First Letter of Peter, one of the New Testament’s most beautiful texts. This passage from the opening paragraphs of the letter exults in Easter joy: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”

How could one do justice to the beauty of John’s account of the appearance of the Risen Jesus to the disciples in Jerusalem, huddled in fear behind closed doors, their hopes shattered by his death. But the Risen Christ comes to them, bringing a greeting of peace and breathing on them the power of God’s Holy Spirit that will turn their fear into courageous faith.

The most arresting feature of John’s account is its emphasis on the wounds of crucifixion that the Risen Christ still bears. As he greets them, “he showed them his hands and his side.”

This point is emphasized all the more by the remarkable story of Thomas. He was absent for this first appearance of the Risen Jesus and he refuses to accept the testimony of his fellow disciples, unless he is able to “see the marks of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks.” A week later, the crucified and Risen Jesus appears again and encounters Thomas. “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side.”

Why the emphasis on these wounds? Those wounds were the vivid signs of Jesus’ death out of love and mercy for his disciples. “No greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” the Johannine Jesus had told his disciples at the Last Supper.

As Pope Francis has said, and we should take to heart, “Jesus is the human face of God’s mercy.” Thomas, the doubting disciple, was overwhelmed by that mercy and finally utters the most profound confession of Jesus in all of the New Testament: “My Lord and my God.”

Senior is a New Testament scholar.

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