During the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II designated the Second Sunday of Easter as “Divine Mercy Sunday” in the Catholic calendar, a feast also observed in some places by other Christians. Mindful of Divine Mercy Sunday, as well as the emphasis given to mercy by Pope Francis and its centrality to Christianity at large, the following reflection considers the Hebraic depths of 'mercy'.
Let’s begin with a beautiful Hebrew word: Rahamim, meaning “compassions”, “tender mercies”. Its root is rehem, which means ‘womb’. Thus, God is rahum, compassionate, merciful. Divine love is ‘womb-like’, with the intensity of a mother’s love for her child. This image is a powerful starting point for thinking about mercy in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Mercy can be described as the divine response to the cry of distress. Scripture abounds with the cries of people in distress: those in grave danger, perhaps afflicted by physical or mental illness, trapped in poverty, grieving the loss of loved ones, abandoned, far from home, fearful, perhaps sinful, wounded, lost, uncertain of the future. The Hebrew psalmist expresses such anguish in ways that touch the raw, visceral depths of human experience: “All my bones shall say, O Lord . . .” (Ps 35:10).
Another Hebrew word that signifies mercy is hesed, which can be translated as steadfast love, loving kindness, even loyalty. Here, mercy is not simply an instinctive movement of goodness, but a conscious, freely-willed response, a choice made because it is the right thing to do. "For great is his steadfast love towards us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever” (Ps 117:2).
The Scriptures repeatedly tell us that God, forever faithful and compassionate, is moved by the predicament of God’s people and reaches out, drawing them out of isolation and entrapment, relieving pain and restoring to wholeness.
“I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down and fed them.” (Hosea 11:4)
Time and again in the Hebrew Scriptures, in both masculine and feminine imagery, we see the face of a tender God turned towards those in need of comfort, rescue, healing. God who is merciful uplifts on eagles’ wings, cherishes, nurtures, protects and does battle on behalf of the children of Israel. God signals personal, active presence through messengers, angels, cloud, fire, God raises up leaders and responds to hunger and thirst with lifegiving rains, water from rock, manna and miracles.
In the midst of this great tradition which knows divine mercy, emerges Jesus of Nazareth. Through Jewish eyes and ears, Jesus sees and hears the predicament of the people and the cry of the individual in the crowd. As a faithful Jew, he is moved with compassion, at times with great sighs and tears. His Torah-based worldview leads him to act, with healing words and deeds. He encourages, challenges, praises, forgives. He spends himself in service, in teaching, and is unafraid of robust engagement with the ‘other’.
According to Christian belief, mercy has a name, a face, a voice: Jesus Christ, Word made flesh, Divine Mercy Incarnate. In proclaiming Christ as merciful Saviour, Son of God, we acknowledge with gratitude the epic story of God’s everlasting love affair with the Jewish people; it fuels our own Christian story and continues to speak to us today.
In the words of Pope Benedict:
“Christ, the Son of God, became flesh in a people, a faith tradition and a culture which, if better known, can only enrich the understanding of the Christian faith. Christians have come to this deeper understanding thanks to the death and resurrection of Christ (cf. Lk 24:26). But they must always be aware of and grateful for their roots. For the shoot grafted onto the ancient tree to take (cf. Rom 11:17-18), it needs the sap rising from the roots.”
(2012 Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, 21.)
Considered within the frame of all three Abrahamic religions, we acknowledge, too, that in Islam the names of God include Al-Rahman and Al-Rahim, meaning "Most Compassionate", "Most Merciful".
By Teresa Pirola, 2021; an adaptation of her work in River of Mercy, Streams of Joy: Reflections in the Jubilee Year of Mercy (CSO Catholic Diocese of Broken Bay, 2016). Scripture: NRSV.