Over and over again in the Divine Liturgy and the other liturgical services of the Church we implore the divine mercy … Kyrie Eleison, Kyrie Eleison, Kyrie Eleison. These petitions are made with confidence not with fear. We are not slaves before a tyrant, we are sons and daughters of God before our Heavenly Father who is merciful and calls forth mercy from His children. This is our confidence:- God loves us and his will for us is entirely beneficial.
In Christ He has proven this in the flesh by returning only goodness for our evil. Christ died voluntarily upon the Cross at our hands … He died with mercy on His lips for those who knew not what they did. His death and resurrection has destroyed the power of death and sin by despoiling them from the inside out, achieving this by becoming flesh. He took unto Himself our very own human nature from the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary to liberate it for that growth into God for which it was originally created.
So when we are commanded by our Lord to be merciful even as our Heavenly Father is merciful this means that we must try by an entire reliance on God and His grace to become in this world as God is in this world, merciful. Not just merciful of course but also compassionate, wise, understanding, resourceful, imaginative, sensitive, honest and faithful. The essential characteristics of Christ are therefore those of our own humanity - but perfect, ascended in their final transformed state.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons and the Greek Fathers generally saw the rebellion of humanity in the Garden of Eden not as a fall from a previous perfect life but rather a refusal to mature, to grow into the likeness of God through obedience and love. So the quest of salvation is to attain to that blessed state of perfection. We can only do this through and in Christ; by accepting both what He has done for us and His teaching, by living our lives in the Holy Spirit according to this and by becoming living members of the Body of Christ, the Church. None of us can be perfect without God in our lives, without Christ and the Holy Spirit, without the Church and her Holy Mysteries. As Jesus taught:- “Without me you can do nothing.” (John 15: 5). He has provided everything that we need to become holy … to attain salvation.
Today we are looking at just one aspect of that holiness, of that God-likeness, mercy. What are the practical implications of becoming a more merciful person?
The most important principle here is that we must learn not to make others submit to our own justice. We must not pass sentence on anyone. We must not judge. In society of course, the law does judge people and rightly so, provided that itself conforms to God’s law. The law, however, itself prevents individuals from exacting their own rough justice, for in that way chaos lies.
Similarly in our own personal lives and in matters that do not concern the law or social and economic contracts we have no right to make others accountable to us or conform to our own way of life. Still less do we have any right to exercise moral superiority over anyone else or to use personal injury or sleight as a pretext for not forgiving others for the wrongs they do to us before they show any act of repentance or contrition – which they may never do. We cannot make mercy conditional on justice. God didn’t and doesn’t. Neither can we. If we are not merciful then we harden ourselves against God’s mercy and cannot receive it. Instead, through our own hardness of heart, we experience God’s wrath. As the famous English poet George Herbert said:- “He who cannot forgive another breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself.”
Now, some recoil at this and think, falsely, that this implies an immoral universe in which all wrongs no matter how horrendous are to be forgiven. They suppose, again wrongly, that the Last Judgement of God is of no real account. Voltaire, the French revolutionary atheist declared that it was God’s business to forgive; not that he cared of course but he wasn’t beyond parodying Christianity for his own immoral purposes. Nowhere do we teach, however, that the mercy of God cancels his justice. The divine mercy is for a limited time only until that is the Great Day of Reckoning when the thoughts and actions of all will be laid bare before God. There will be sheep, there will be goats. There will be mourning. There will be weeping and the gnashing of teeth, BUT NOT NOW! Now is the time of salvation; the time of Great Mercy. Now is the time to repent before it is too late. Now is the time for all of us to cast ourselves on the mercy of Christ and to be confident in that.
We do not take the mercy of God for granted but we do place our whole trust and hope in it, not only for ourselves but for all people. This is why we also must be merciful so as to not hinder but rather promote and deepen the work of God in human life. As Christ Himself taught in the Beatitudes:- “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matthew 5:7). Even so, “Lord have mercy … help me to be merciful.”