Joseph A. Genito, O.S.A.
National Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia
Acts 5: 12-16
Ps 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-24
Rev 1: 9-11, 12-13, 17-19
John 20: 19-31
In light of this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Divine Mercy Sunday offers an enhanced opportunity to reflect on compassion and forgiveness. The early Church community encountered severe obstacles in their proclamation of Jesus as the Risen Lord and Messiah, sometimes to the point of death. Danger lurked around every corner as they were typically rounded up, beaten and imprisoned for their witness to the faith. They needed the reassurance of the presence of Jesus in their forays among unbelievers, some of them angry and treacherous. They further needed encouragement that being afraid and doubtful would not incur the Lord’s wrath if they should find themselves faltering in their practice of the faith, afraid of the consequences. In this context, we have the story of Thomas and his skepticism, and his understandable astonishment when he finds himself in the presence of Jesus. His humble acknowledgement of Jesus as his Lord and God elicits not judgment from Jesus, but mercy and forgiveness.
Recently, a movie entitled Risen showed this early community in a refreshing, believable light. After the unexpected appearances of the post-Resurrection Jesus, they struggled with the irrationality of these occurrences. What stood out for me was the portrayal of Jesus in this film as one whose face was so full of joy that it would be easy to believe in his mercy towards unbelievers like Thomas. Jesus portrayed the face of mercy. It’s easy to accept that the utterly incredible circumstance of resurrection would challenge the faith of even his staunchest followers. Any of the others would have responded as Thomas with similar doubt and skepticism, feeling shame for their unbelief when they saw Jesus in the flesh. Who can blame them for doubting something so outrageously farfetched as resurrection?
I like to think that Jesus had a sense of humor. The face I saw on the character in the film was one that spoke of comprehending their astonishment, reflecting back to them that he was not offended. I can imagine the good nature of Jesus coming to the fore as he forgave them for their distrust of the accounts of his return to life with humor radiating from his countenance. “You should see the look on your face,” his expression, glowing with merciful forgiveness, would convey.
Thomas becomes the symbol for all those who struggle to believe. As Jesus stated, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” This is directed to those, like us, who have not had the occasion to behold the Risen Christ in the flesh. All future generations after the Resurrection are in the same boat; all have to employ deep faith in the face of danger and disbelief. For the earliest Christians it was persecution; in some cases in the world today it is still happening. But for all ages of believers, the temptation to scoff at a God who is loving and caring is strong in the face of grave illness, family tragedies, the heartbreak of addictions and the like. Who can blame us for giving in to the temptations of cynicism and doubt? Even if we don’t say it, there are times when we are figuratively shaking our fist at the heavens to ask “why me?” or “why this?” And then we feel shame and doubt if God will forgive us this lapse of judgment.
If our image is that of a stern and wrathful judge, we are shaken to our foundations and prone to loathing ourselves for our weakness. But a merciful, smiling Jesus, counteracts that fear, allowing us to believe we are forgiven. It’s the way Jesus referred to God as the father in the Prodigal Son, or those who rejoiced in finding the lost sheep. These are portrayed as joyful distributors of forgiveness, welcoming the errant sinner, caring for and embracing those whose fear weakened their spirits. For this merciful Jesus, joy supplants judgment in recognizing that we humans sometimes suffer from lapses in courage and faith, and that if we have the good sense to acknowledge this and return to following his way, we are always welcomed back. Imaging Jesus in this way, with a smiling face that radiates happiness at our return to good judgment, is a powerful incentive to seek forgiveness.
As we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday in this Year of Mercy, may our spirits be fed by the mercy we receive from a loving God, so that we also may be generous dispensers of God’s mercy to others.