It is useful to remind ourselves that the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins by teaching us of the difficulty of speaking about God. We must always remember the difference between the images we have of God, the words we use of God, and who God really is. The Catechism reminds us that anything we say about God always ‘falls short of the mystery of God’.
“God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God – the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable – with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.”
The Scriptures are full of images and words which try to capture the revelation of God. God is the Rock, the Shepherd, the Almighty; God is the King, the Lord, the Creator; God is the Warrior and the Lover. All these names for God are like turning a kaleidoscope – each revealing something of the beauty of God. But there is one name by which God is known which comes closest to revealing the heart of God – that name is Mercy. When we experience the mercy of God then the face of God is most clearly shown to us.
Each of the three great monotheistic faiths - Islam, Judaism and Christianity - which have their origins in the revelation of God to Abraham ‘our Father in faith’ attest that God has revealed himself as the God of mercy.
When God manifested himself to Moses on Mount Sinai Moses asks God what his name is so that he can tell the people. God replies to Moses; ‘I am who I am’ (exodus 3:14). However, this first revelation of the Name of God is followed by a second which completes it and which the scripture scholar Albert Gelin called ‘the biblical identity card of God’. Still on Mount Sinai, passing before Moses, the Lord proclaims: ‘Lord, Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (exodus 34:6-7). Mercy is not just another name for God. This is who God is, and it is almost a window into his ‘identity’. Mercy is the closest we can come to God’s deepest and truest name.
The word ‘mercy’ might seem a very benign word to use of God and not only a benign word but a word that signifies some kind of weakness. Indeed to the ancient philosophers mercy was not seen as a virtue at all. Aristotle thought it was a weakness of the elderly and of children; the stoics thought mercy was a mental aberration. One dictionary defines mercy as ‘showing forgiveness to someone whom it is in your power to punish or harm’, but this falls far short of the vision of mercy that is presented in the scriptures. St John Paul II, in his Encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), thought that the concept of God’s mercy is often misunderstood because we only have a partial view of what that mercy is. He wrote:
“The present day mentality, more perhaps than people of the past, seems opposed to a God of mercy, and in fact tends to exclude from life and to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy. The word and concept of ‘mercy’ seem to cause uneasiness… ”
This uneasiness may be because we often have only a truncated grasp of God’s mercy. For the People of Israel mercy is God’s greatest strength. They used many words and images to speak of God’s merciful love but the two words they used most frequently, and which we translate as ‘mercy’, are the words hesed and rahamin. Understanding these words and the images they contain can help us come to a fuller grasp of the God who has revealed himself to us as mercy.
HESED – THE STEADFAST, FAITHFUL LOVE OF GOD
Hesed is the word most commonly used for mercy in the Old Testament. Very often it is used about human relationships and speaks of faithful love and friendship. So in the book of Exodus it is used of the love between Abraham and Sarah, his wife. In the first book of Samuel it is used to describe the friendship between Jonathan and David. It is used about relationships of mutual commitment and support and so denotes a relationship not just of goodwill and partnership but of faithfulness arising out of interior love and commitment. It is mutual and enduring, implying an active and faithful love on both sides.
When it is used of God it is in the context of the covenant relationship between God and his chosen people. God chooses Israel to be his people and they are bound to each other in mutual love and faithfulness. It is initiated by God but implies a relationship and has the character almost of a legal contract. The true depth of the meaning of hesed is revealed when the people are not faithful to God, when they do not keep their end of the covenant relationship. When the Covenant is broken by the sinfulness of humanity then God is no longer bound. Despite this God remains faithful: this faithful love of God shows itself ‘as what it was at the beginning, that is as love that gives, love more powerful than betrayal, grace stronger than sin’.
To say that God’s name is hesed is to say that he has revealed himself as a fountain of love. To say that God is hesed is to say that this is who God is in his essence and so God’s fidelity to his people springs out of his faithfulness to himself. ‘It is not for your sake, O House of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name’ (ezekiel 36:22). It is when God’s people are faithless and turn away from him, that the faithful love of God shows itself. As St Paul writes ‘If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny his own self’. (2 timothy 2:13)
God is hesed – steadfast, faithful, merciful love.
RAHAMIN - THE LOVE OF A MOTHER
The second word which we translate as mercy is rahamin. It derives from the plural form of the word for ‘womb’. The word at its very root denotes the love of a mother for the child in her womb. It speaks of the intimate bond, indeed the unity, formed between a mother and her child. It is a love which is entirely free and unmerited. Pope Benedict XVI wrote: ”The mystery of God’s maternal love is expressed with particular power in the Hebrew word rahamin… this word means womb but it was later used to mean divine compassion for humanity, God’s mercy..”
In book of the prophet Isaiah we read:
“Zion was saying: ‘The Lord has abandoned me, the Lord has forgotten me.’ Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb? Yet even if these forget, I will never forget you. ” (Isaiah 49:15)
In this context Pope Francis uses the word ‘visceral’ to describe this love of God for us. A ‘visceral’ love is a love which is felt in one’s very being, it is instinctive, deep-rooted, inward, a love which we can say we feel in our guts. The image of the womb in a similar way is a vivid expression of the interconnectedness of two lives and shows the living bond that God creates with his people. Rahamin shows us that God’s mercy is like the love of a parent.
In the book of the prophet Hosea we read:
“When Israel was a child I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt. I myself taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in my arms yet they have not understood that I was the one looking after them. I led them with reins of kindness, with leading strings of love. I was like someone who lifts an infant close against his cheek; stooping down to him I gave him his food. ”(hosea 11: 1, 3-4)
St John Paul II suggested that hesed is the masculine and rahamin the feminine face of God’s mercy. ‘While hesed highlights the marks of fidelity to self and responsibility for one’s own love (which in a sense are masculine 11 DM, footnote 52 12 Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 39, Bloomsbury 2007 13 DM, 52 13 14 MV, 6 15 Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si’ 2015, 20 16 LS, 82 14 characteristics), rahamin, in its very root, denotes the love of a mother.’ When joined together hesed and rahamin reveal the depth of the meaning of God’s merciful love.
This is the mercy which the Jubilee invites us to meditate upon and to experience. Mercy which is not only God’s forgiveness but is revealed as a steadfast love, guiding us and caring for us as a mother nurtures the child within her womb. Pope Francis writes: ‘In short, the mercy of God is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality through which he reveals his love as that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of love for their child. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that this is a visceral love. It gushes forth from the depths naturally, full of tenderness and compassion, indulgence and mercy.’
God is rahamin – nurturing, life giving, tender love.
If God’s name is ‘MERCY’ how are we to understand God’s justice? Does God’s mercy just let us off the hook?
On a personal level we might have the same feelings in our minds as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who turned to God and wondered why there was such a lack of justice in our world. Why, he pondered, do the unjust seem to flourish when those with integrity often flounder? In words which reflect the Preface at Mass, Hopkins writes:
“Thou art indeed just Lord, if I contend with thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just. Why do sinners’ ways prosper? And why must disappointment all I endeavour end?"
If we feel that we are unjustly dealt with we also know that we too can be ” unjust to others. If I am unjust in my words, in my treatment of others, can I simply have recourse to God’s mercy without fear of consequence or payback?
When we look at our world we see injustice on a massive scale. We see a world where the innocent are exploited, human beings are treated like commodities and thrown away when they are no longer of use. Warfare brings untold misery into countless lives and, as Pope Francis points out, ‘pollution produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths.’ In his encyclical Laudato Si’ (‘Our care for our common home’) Pope Francis writes of the scale of the injustices in our world:
“ When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of ‘might is right’ has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus. ”
The experience of injustice is felt both on the personal and on the communal level, and we know that each of us has contributed to the injustices of our world. We have a deep sense that this injustice needs to be put right. The Gospel calls us to live those ideals of justice and fraternity today and to make them a reality in the way we live. If there seems to be little justice in this world for so many surely there will come a time when God will balance the scales and those who have exploited others will face judgement? The question before us is ‘if the heart of God is overflowing mercy how will there be justice for those who have suffered injustice and will there be judgement for those of us who have acted unjustly?
At first glance it would seem that God’s justice and God’s mercy are two contradictory attributes. But what the great tradition of faith teaches us is that they are not opposed to each other but work together to bring about God’s plan for salvation. Pope Francis reminds us of the need ‘to recall the relationship between justice and mercy. These are not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love.’
God has a desire for justice, a passion to put things right. God has a plan for salvation which does not allow evil to stand in its way. If there is anger in God it is an expression of the fire of love which longs to bring about the salvation of all creation and to conquer all that obstructs his will.
It is by showing mercy and not condemnation that God achieves his plan. It is by revealing that his heart, and so the heart of all reality, is an all-consuming love that converts us and changes us. Pope Francis writes: ‘The creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us.’ There is a sense in which we can say that God’s justice sits within his mercy. It is God’s mercy which turns hearts back to justice and allows God’s will to be done by converting us and allowing us to place our faith in his loving plan for our salvation. This does not mean that justice will not be done, it means that it is mercy which is the bedrock of justice. God’s faithful and nurturing love does not let us off the hook but restores us to faith, giving us a new beginning and the grace to make amends.
Pope Francis reminds us that the experience of God’s mercy will put us back on the right path:
“ Mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert and believe... God goes beyond justice with his mercy and forgiveness. Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous. On the contrary: anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price. ”
We can say that God’s mercy expands justice and accomplishes it. Mercy does not sit in opposition to justice but in a sense serves justice and brings it about. As Pope Francis writes ‘God’s mercy, rather than a sign of his weakness, is a sign of his omnipotence.’
Throughout the ages people have used art and music, words and symbols to express, to approach, the beauty of God’s mercy. Jessica Powers, an American Carmelite nun who died in 1988, used her gifts as a poet to convey her movement away from the fear of God to a trust in God’s mercy. In her poem ‘The Mercy of God’ she writes of the day she discovered the gratuitous and transforming mercy of God.
Does Pope Francis’ teaching about mercy help me to move away from fear of God’s justice to trust in his mercy?
Is there anything that God will not forgive?
Are there ways in which I have experienced God’s faithful love?