Today, the universal Church celebrates the end of the Easter Octave, the eight chronological days that are needed to celebrate the one earth-shattering event of the Lord Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead.
Commonly known as the Second Sunday of Easter, today was renamed “Mercy Sunday” by Pope Saint John Paul II. The new name is apropos for many reasons, most of which can be seen in today’s Scripture readings from Mass. The new name, and its emphasis on mercy, can also be a particular help to Christian households during the current pandemic.
What are the lessons surrounding mercy that can be seen in today’s Bible readings? How can the Lord’s call to mercy be of assistance to us during our current state of affairs?
During the fifty days of the full Easter Season, the Church suspends her liturgical proclamation of the Old Testament on Sunday’s. While usually found in the First Reading of the Mass, the Old Testament is replaced with a proclamation from the Acts of the Apostles. The Church gives us these readings from Acts as an instruction on what is means to live in the glory of the Lord’s Resurrection, and as a model of how we are called to live as the disciples of the Risen Christ.
And so, true to form, today’s First Reading describes the early Church. We hear, “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.” These sacred activities form the visible attributes of the Church. They manifest what the Christian community should look like and what its mission is in the world.
It is precisely this community life that strengthens believers to show humility, serve the poor, reach out to the sick, protect the vulnerable, befriend the forgotten, and to give generous mercy to all those who have hurt or harmed them or their loved ones. Such a selfless way of love cannot be lived out faithfully and consistently without the grace of God given through the sacred actions of the body of believers.
The emphasis on the work of the Christian community flows from the life of the Lord Jesus and the initial community that he created with his apostles. After his Resurrection, the Lord sought out this community. The apostles were frightened and uncertain, confused and behind locked doors. The Lord passed through the doors, declared peace, showed them his wounds, breathed on them, and then sent them into the world to continue his mission until the end of time.
How appropriate it was that a part of this mission entrusted to the apostolic community involved mercy, which was (and is) the central action of Jesus Christ as he seeks to reconcile the world to God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Lord said to the apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
It’s only in the context of the life – and sacred activity – of the Christian community, therefore, that the summons to seek, receive, and bestow mercy can be fully understood.
Mercy is not an abstract reality, or merely a judicial act. Mercy is about relationship. It’s about healing hurts and harm so that community life can be edified and allowed to flourished. Mercy cannot heal what it doesn’t know. And so, as mercy restores community life, so it depends on it as an inspiration, foundation, and springboard to fulfill its tasks.
This stress on community life as an arena through which mercy is enabled and allowed to work is a timely lesson to us today as we suffer through our current pandemic and its accompanying quarantine.
Families are small communities within themselves, as well as the cell of society. While in quarantine, families can allow themselves to be spiritually identified with the original apostolic community, or the broader communal life of the early Church, and take up the original tasks of the Acts of the Apostles, namely, to devote themselves to the reading of the Bible (especially the Gospels), to holy fellowship (marked by patience and kindness), to the breaking of the bread (even if it’s participated in by live streaming), and to active prayer.
Such a Christian way of life can empower households to find the fortitude to speak only words of encouragement, to outdo one another in kindness, to humbly seek forgiveness when an offense has been given, and to generously give mercy to those in need.
If the Christian family fulfills its call to live the Lord’s way of love, therefore, then today will be Mercy Sunday, not only in name but action and deeds.
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby