The Feast of God’s Greatest Attribute

Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday 2018

Jesus came and stood among them and declared to them, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19).

The feast of Divine Mercy shows us a modern glimpse of the spirit of the Christian liturgy in its most ancient roots, and the insights of Christian theology at its most telling and profound depths. These sayings might not be seconded by professional liturgists and even less by some of today’s professional theologians, but I can show you and them how they are true as true can be.

I came to this conviction about Divine Mercy Sunday by studying the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas in my years of study preparing for the priesthood in Rome.

Back then, the Divine Mercy devotion was just being vindicated after a quarter century of Roman prohibition. St. John Paul II “liberated” the devotion, which had been confirmed locally by the bishops of Poland but which was forbidden by the Holy See as part of a general policy of not allowing “new” devotions. So I was a little doubtful. But this is what I found out.

The first thing—about liturgy—I found out by accident, the second—about theology—by research.

In his treatment of the sacrament of penance, St. Thomas explains and examines the Church’s ancient obligation of public penance and the public reconciliation of penitents. This is a rite long fallen into disuse, but its basic logic and spiritual essence can still be perceived in the contours of modern liturgical practice. The rite of solemn, public penance began on Ash Wednesday. Public sinners who had approached the bishop for pardon were dressed in sackcloth and doused with ashes and “expelled” from the church. They came for all the daily observances of Lent, but from the porch or vestibule of the ‎church, not inside like the ordinary faithful. There they would ask for the prayers of the faithful.

On Holy Thursday, the penitents were received back into the church nave and were given absolution by the bishop. From then on, they got involved in the solemn worship of Holy Week and Easter with everyone else.

But here comes the interesting detail: the catechumens of course received Holy Communion at the Mass of the Easter Vigil and then attended for the whole Easter octave dressed in their white baptismal robes. But the penitents had to wait for the octave of Easter (now Divine Mercy Sunday) before they were admitted to Holy Communion. This Sunday was par excellence the day of the full reconciliation of sinners!

Now just consider that their waiting after their readmission corresponded exactly to the days of our Divine Mercy novena, that is, from Good Friday on until today’s feast. It would almost seem that Our Lord had arranged the novena a feast of his mercy to reestablish spiritually this ancient period of reconciliation and Eucharistic grace. But now it is for all the faithful who are penitents.

Add to these facts that in both the Roman and Greek rites the Gospel for this Sunday is precisely the scene depicted on the Divine Mercy picture, and that the Greek liturgy already had the icon of this Gospel scene showed for the kisses of the faithful, and you can see how profoundly our Lord’s requests show the sense of the sacred liturgy as it has developed over the ages.

Mercy is the greatest form of love, and the God who is love would be supremely the merciful one. In some ways God’s mercy is even more powerful than his creative power, for, St. Thomas tells us, the reconciliation of a sinner is a greater thing than the creation of the universe. The Church prays in the collect of one of the Sundays of the year: “O God who show your almighty power most of all by sparing and showing mercy.”

So let us never doubt the depths of today’s great feast of the Divine Mercy, whatever any liturgical expert or theology student thinks. And note equally, that a careful search in St. Thomas Aquinas continually yields very edifying insights for those who have the patience to endure.

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