St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, Friday after Ash Wednesday 12 February 2016
When someone becomes a monk (a novice), he kneels before the Abbot and community and is asked: ‘What do you want of us?’ The answer is a very beautiful one: ‘the mercy of God and your fellowship.’
The mercy of God and your fellowship.
Isn’t that what our Elect, Zoe, Robyn and Donna, are asking? Isn’t that precisely what they will receive at the Easter Vigil, when they profess the faith and receive the Sacraments of Initiation? Yes, dear Elect, you will receive the mercy of God and fellowship. Not the fellowship of a monastic community, not even just of your own parish – but the fellowship of the universal Church, the Communion of Saints.
Isn’t it what all of us want, this Lent and always? The mercy of God and fellowship. Aren’t these the two great needs of all of us: peace with God, peace with one another?
How beautiful, then, to be coming to Baptism, Confirmation and the holy Eucharist in the Year of Mercy! How good for us all to be keeping Lent in this Year of Mercy!
What, though, is mercy? We are hearing the word so often…
We have just prayed David’s famous prayer, ‘Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.’ He’s asking for what the monk, the Elect and all of us are asking. But what is it? What is this mercy? He goes on, ‘In your compassion blot out my offence.’ So, he is asking for mercy as as forgiveness. This is indeed the first effect of God’s mercy in us. It’s God’s first and greatest work of mercy. St Leo the Great picks this up in one of his Lenten sermons: ‘the special feature of Easter is that it is the occasion when the whole Church rejoices over the forgiveness of sins.’ Yes, that’s how mercy shows itself, that’s mercy in us. But what is mercy in itself? In God?
St Thomas Aquinas says a helpful thing. He says that mercy is a love that makes lovable. He outlines the stages in a kind of crescendo. God, he says, has brought us into being from nothingness: that’s merciful love. God has made us in his own image and likeness, capable of sharing his joy; that’s merciful love. God has recreated us after we’ve sinned; that’s merciful love. God has given his only Son for our salvation; that’s merciful love. Here is God’s love making us lovable, first by creation and then, after we’ve become unlovable, by redemption (cf. Commentary on Ephesians, II, 2).
But this leads on. This implies that our failures, our weakness, our poverty, our sin, our sufferings are precisely what can help us discover God’s mercy. In that first love that brings us into being and creates us in his image, mercy is still hidden. But when we then lose the plot, screw up, get into a mess, and yet come to see we’re still loved, then we’re on the way to God’s heart. We’re on the way through a ‘humbled, contrite heart’ to the treasure hidden in the heart of God. We’re about to discover the precious pearl. God brought the Israelites out of Egypt: that was his first love, and it was already mercy. But it was only after they’d broken the covenant, set up the Golden Calf, behaved atrociously, defied and rejected him at the very place the covenant had been made, in the shadow of Mt Sinai, that God disclosed a new dimension of himself. He proclaimed of himself: ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Ex 34:6). This was his second love, and Israel discovered it because she failed. It was only after David had taken another man’s wife and conveniently eliminated the man, showing huge contempt for the God who had given him so much: only then was his great Psalm, the Miserere, born. God had made him lovable in the beginning, but now, in a humbled contrite heart, had made him lovable again, more lovable. It was only after the sin of us all that the Father has unveiled us the shining face of his mercy, Jesus Christ, Mercy Incarnate.
So mercy, as St John Paul called it, must be love’s ‘second name’. It’s a love that ‘hangs on in there’, even when the beloved is no longer lovable. It’s love that remains. It’s what our English Bibles call ‘steadfast love’. This is God’s inner secret. It’s his glory. A love that sets right. We don’t sin in order to discover this love – that would be to abuse it – but waiting for us in our sins, our sufferings, any painful situation, all the ‘stuff’ in ourselves that’s askew, underneath all our distress, waiting to astonish us, is this second love.
At the end of page one of Genesis, after the work of creation, God rests. St Ambrose has a remarkable commentary on this: ‘I give thanks to God for having completed a work after which he could rest. He made the heavens, but I do not read that he then rested. He made the earth, but I do not read that he rested; he made the sun, the moon, the oceans, but I do not read that he rested. And then I read that he made man, and after that he rested, there now being someone whose sins he could forgive’ (Commentary on the Six Days of Creation, VI, 76).
Let’s say: there now being someone who could have the joy of discovering this second love, this mercy. That’s me, that’s us. Why do I exist? What’s life about? Why do I keep mucking up? Why do things keep happening to me? Why can I never quite cope? Why’s it all too much? So I can discover mercy. So I can be forgiven, set right, rescued again and again. So God can tell me his Name, which is Mercy. Who am I? Someone God wants to forgive. Someone he wants to clothe in mercy. Isn’t that ‘good news’ of the highest order?
Here’s the secret of God, the secret of our lives, the secret of the Saints. Here’s Easter.
‘What is it that you seek?’ ‘The mercy of God and your fellowship.’ And there we find rest for our souls.