Today, the Sunday after Easter Sunday, would seem to be a fairly inconsequential date in the Church calendar. But it most assuredly is not! Today completes the so-called Octave of Easter, an eight-day celebration after Easter in which the daily prayers of the Church are all taken from Easter Sunday. In other words, we celebrate eight Sundays in a row, to emphasize the point that every Sunday has a little bit of Easter in it. Why eight days? Why not seven? Because seven implies a fixed duration – one week. Celebrating something eight days is supposed to jar us a bit and signify that the celebration is not bound by earthly convention, but goes on and on.
If we look at early Church tradition, prior to Vatican II, we find that today had another name, Low Sunday. After the “high” celebrations of Holy Week, today marks a return to a simpler Mass, with less of the bells and smells we were experiencing. Plus, after the overflow crowds of last Sunday, many people note that this Sunday is always much lower in attendance! Low Sunday. But that’s not the end of it. In 2000, Pope John Paul II, inspired by the writings of Saint Faustina, a Polish mystic, designated this Sunday Divine Mercy Sunday. The Pope is so tightly linked to this date that he was first beatified in 2011 on this feast, and three years later, was canonized on Divine Mercy Sunday. Needless to say, there’s something quite special about this day!
The readings are all from the New Testament, a sure sign we’re in the Easter season, and this pattern will continue for the next seven Sundays. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, perhaps better termed “Luke’s gospel, the sequel,” depicts the early days of the growing Jesus movement, often nicknamed the way. It’s a bit romanticized, really, sort of like the honeymoon period of a relationship. The remaining apostles are imbued with the promised healing power of Christ, Peter finally shows the leadership qualities Jesus saw in him long before, and the surrounding community is drawn into this new way of life. In a couple of weeks, we begin hearing about Paul and his travels. The Gentiles become the focus, and Paul moves from trying to reform Judaism to preaching a focused emphasis on life in Christ, which to him is a logical outcome of the law and the prophets.
Our gospel readings are all taken from John, the most mature and theologically dense of the Gospels, as we unpack the mystery of Easter’s meaning and call. Today is no different, as we hear the well-known story of Thomas, forever known as doubting Thomas. So let’s start by giving old Thomas a break. Really, would any of us had reacted any differently if we were told that Jesus, our leader, who you saw hanging on a cross, was seen by everyone just now, most clearly alive? Thomas may have been a bit dramatic in his response, for sure, but the doubting sentiment is hardly unreasonable. Let’s cut him a little slack. And now, with all due respect to St. Thomas, I’d like to turn my focus to the real hero of today’s gospel, and the reason we call this Divine Mercy Sunday. Yes, let’s turn the spotlight from Thomas to Jesus and see what is so easy to miss.
By all accounts, this is the first appearance of Jesus to all of the disciples. They are cowering in fear, locked away from the world, dreading a knock on the door, speaking in low voices, stressed to the nines. They are certainly aware that they behaved quite badly in these last days, abandoning Jesus to a gruesome death, focused entirely on saving their own skins. The only disciples who have any reason to stand tall are the women, who gave Jesus whatever comfort they could from the foot of the cross, even if it was only through their tear filled eyes. This is a miserable bunch of people, and no denying it. Then Jesus appears.
Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. Accompanying the shock of his appearance must be a chilling “Oh [bleep]!” moment. Now we’re in for it! Jesus has every right to express anger, disappointment, resentment, and accusation. You saw how Jesus acted in the temple with those money changers. Are we next? Look, he’s saying something, he’s saying, “Shalom!” The gospel translates this as peace, but it’s goes way beyond that simple word. Shalom means not only peace, but harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. Jesus turns a situation calling for right judgment into a demonstration of divine mercy. No wonder the disciples rejoice! But he doesn’t stop there. Note the words he speaks. “As the father has sent me (to deliver mercy), so I send you (to deliver mercy). Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” In other words, it’s now your turn to forgive, to deliver mercy, and, not only do you get my permission to do so, but the power to do so. And, just as importantly, you also have the power NOT to give mercy!
So, here we sit. The doors are not locked, and we’re not particularly afraid of being assaulted by angry Jewish leaders, at least I hope not. But think a bit on this question: what part of me is indeed afraid and locked away? Is there a piece of your past that haunts you and fills you with shame? Is there a deed in your past that you would dearly like to undo? To go back to that day and not say those words? To not act in the way you did? To just restart that day and take a right turn instead of that left?
John has such a moment. John is a prisoner at Donovan. He and a friend were stopped at a gas station in Los Angeles in 1976. John pumps gas ($1.19/gallon) while his friend goes into the station to pay the bill. To John’s shock, he hears shots ring out, and his friend comes bolting out of the door, gets into the car, and they peel away. His friend asks John to take the gun and get rid of it, which John agrees to do. But John is afraid, so he keeps the gun, and the police find the gun in John’s house after his “friend” tells the police that John was responsible for the robbery and murder of the gas station manager. John is serving a life term, and is now 68 years old. To this day, he berates himself for being so stupid, so gullible, so willing to believe in his friend’s good will.
On his first day in prison, he decides to end his life. He sees no future, no happiness, nothing but despair. Then Jesus walks up to him in the prison yard. John doesn’t recognize him. He looks for all the world like another inmate, a “Mexican dude” as John tells the story. This guy takes John by the arm, leads him into the prison chapel and gives him a Bible. John shakes his head, “Sorry, Dude, but I can’t read.” So the man reads one of the gospels to John. And as John hears the story of Jesus’ sham trial, his betrayal by Judas, his betrayal by Peter, his unjust sentence, John gets the message. He breaks down and weeps. If Jesus could walk that walk, if he could show such mercy, so could he. And today, 40 years later, John still can’t tell that story without tears. Jesus saved his life.
And guess what? He still saves lives. He wants to save yours. He wants to save the life of your loved one. He wants to give mercy because that is the heart of who Jesus is, the heart of God Himself. Mercy. Divine Mercy. We celebrate it today. If you want that mercy just ask. If someone needs to hear that mercy from you, please give it. None of us deserves to live our lives behind locked doors, whatever they’re made of, be it iron bars or psychological chains of regret. Mercy doesn’t use the scales of justice – it throws them the heck out. We don’t deserve it, but you know what? It wouldn’t be mercy if we did.
© Deacon Peter Hodsdon St. James Parish, Solana Beach