Every (Sun)Day Is “Divine Mercy” (Sun)Day:
Every Eucharist, a Thanksgiving for God’s Mercy
Pope Francis issued his Bull of Indiction, Misericordiae Vultus (“The Face of Mercy”), on April 11, 2013, the Vigil of the Second Sunday of Easter, now officially inscribed in the “third typical edition” of the Missale Romanum as de divina Misericordia (translated in the current English Roman Missal as “of Divine Mercy”). Today we commonly refer to this as the “Sunday of Divine Mercy” or “Divine Mercy Sunday.” Some liturgists as well as other members of the faithful suffer not a little heartache (as well as heartburn) regarding this perceived encroachment to the “Sundays of Easter.” (No mention of “Divine Mercy Sunday” occurs in the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar.)
St. John Paul II established the Second Sunday of Easter as the “Sunday of Divine Mercy” in 2000, in part to honor the Polish nun St. Faustina Kowalska, and in part as an invitation to the Christian world to lean into divine benevolence and mercy in a world, the future of which often seems fearful and uncertain especially vis-à-vis mercy divine or otherwise (more on this in a moment). Though analogies usually limp, similar dynamics are manifested when in popular religiosity, for instance, we speak commonly of the Fourth Sunday of Easter as “Good Shepherd” Sunday. Celebrations of theological “ideas” such as the Sunday of “The Most Holy Trinity” are also analogous.
Whether or not the actual liturgical texts of the Mass of the Second Sunday of Easter functioned as a catalyst in St. John Paul’s mind at the time, still, the texts do lend themselves to praise of and meditation on the mercy of God. The Collect addresses: “God of everlasting mercy…” (Latin, Deus misericórdiæ sempitérnæ). The gospel text drawn from John 20: 19-31 narrates the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to the fearful disciples with the comforting words, “Peace be with you.” In this periscope the words occur three times always as a greeting. By way of an aside, though the text indicates that the disciples are hiding “for fear of the Jews,” one wonder whether it might not be the resurrected Jesus towards whom their fear is directed, since the Passion account indicates, that except for some women and the Beloved Disciple, the disciples themselves fled and denied Jesus whether overtly or covertly. Still, the first words ring out: “Peace be with you.”) In a most appropriate way, given both the Collect and the gospel text, mercy certainly finds a place within this particular Easter celebration, and more broadly within the Easter Season itself.
As noted earlier, however oddly, the subscript “or of Divine Mercy” (Latin, seu de divina Misricordia) causes some people heartache. Before resorting to hopefully well-intentioned epithets such as liturgical “purists” or “fuss-budgets” it might prove useful to examine why some liturgists as well as others raise red flags here. Let us begin with what ought not to be the issues at stake. Surely concern over the imposition of a particular papal piety (popes are people too) or concern about the private revelatory experience of a Polish woman who happened to be a nun (women have appropriate and valid experience of the Holy Mystery) ought not be the real matter at stake here.
Let’s, rather, approach the matter both more liturgically and theologically. First, though we earlier suggested that the Sunday “of Divine Mercy” was/is comparable to “Good Shepherd Sunday” (the Fourth Sunday of Easter), in liturgical fact, they are not. The title “Good Shepherd Sunday” appears nowhere on the pages containing the presidential prayers for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (though the image of shepherd, both kind and brave, does appear in the Collect and the Prayer after Communion). Second, “the “Good Shepherd” involves a quite concrete biblical image rather than a theological idea or concept such as “Divine Mercy.” For this reason, as also noted earlier, the Sunday “of Divine Mercy” is more akin to the “Sunday of the Most Holy Trinity.” As such it is a feast celebrating a theological idea which makes it a peculiar liturgical celebration indeed, since liturgy generally celebrates events rather than ideas, theological or otherwise. On this account, just as every Sunday Eucharist (for that matter every daily Eucharist) celebrates the Most Holy Trinity, so every Sunday Eucharist (and again every daily Eucharist) celebrates Divine Mercy.
The Bull of Indiction does refer to the Eucharist at several points but rather less frequently than the Sacrament of Penance and other matters such as indulgences. In exploring the relationship between the Eucharist and mercy, Francis notes in MV #7:
“For his mercy endures forever.” This is the refrain that repeats after each verse in Psalm 136 as it narrates the history of God’s revelation. By virtue of mercy, all the events of the Old Testament are replete with profound salvific import. Mercy renders God’s history with Israel a history of salvation. To repeat continually “for his mercy endures forever,” as the psalm does, seems to break through the dimensions of space and time, inserting everything into the eternal mystery of love. It is as if to say that not only in history, but for all eternity man will always be under the merciful gaze of the Father. It is no accident that the people of Israel wanted to include this psalm – the “Great Hallel,” as it is called – in its most important liturgical feast days.
Before his Passion, Jesus prayed with this psalm of mercy. Matthew attests to this in his Gospel when he says that, “when they had sung a hymn” (26:30), Jesus and his disciples went out to the Mount of Olives. While he was instituting the Eucharist as an everlasting memorial of himself and his paschal sacrifice, he symbolically placed this supreme act of revelation in the light of his mercy. Within the very same context of mercy, Jesus entered upon his passion and death, conscious of the great mystery of love that he would consummate on the Cross. Knowing that Jesus himself prayed this psalm makes it even more important for us as Christians, challenging us to take up the refrain in our daily lives by praying these words of praise: “for his mercy endures forever.”
As a result, it might prove useful simply and briefly to glance at some of the Mass texts in the Roman Missal.
Recognizing the dangers of semantic scorekeeping, nevertheless, a brief perusal of the texts of what we sometimes call the “ordinary” or the “common” of the Mass as found in the Roman Missal, indicates that at any given celebration of Mass on any day of the year, Sunday or daily, the word “mercy” or a cognate (mercifully, merciful, all-merciful) is heard minimally seven times – minimally thrice during the “Penitential Act,” minimally once in every approved Eucharistic Prayer, minimally thrice during “The Communion Rite.” (Of course, this presumes that the priest preside is praying the invariable text as found in the missal.) Or consider that “mercy” (or, again, one of its cognates) is prayed fifteen times during various presidential prayers during “Ordinary Time.” On twelve of the thirty-three Sundays of “Ordinary Time” (not counting the “First Sunday” since this is actually the Baptism of the Lord), mercy (or one of its cognates appears. While ubiquitous may overstate the case, still mercy imbues the celebration of the Eucharist. (Please note we are not here highlighting other references to Divine Mercy such as forgiveness and kindness.)
Be clear. These observations do not constitute a criticism or mere approval of St. John Paul’s designation of the Second Sunday of Easter as the Sunday of Divine Mercy. Something more may be at stake than merely a personal papal devotion to the private revelatory experience of a Polish Woman Religious. In part, the importance of lifting up the Second Sunday of Easter as a Sunday acknowledging and celebrating Divine Mercy may reside elsewhere. That “something” and “elsewhere” may be lodged in a poignant observation made in both St. John Paul’s second encyclical Dives in Misericordia and Pope Francis Bull of Indiction – namely that in a culture which underrates mercy, perhaps even outright denies and despises it (cf. MV #9 and DM 2), we need dense reminders even within the universal liturgical calendar, lifting up the non-negotiable role of Divine Mercy in the economy of grace that is often at risk due to any number of other competing economies.
Here we are relying, in part, on a Rahnerian understanding of grace as everywhere, yet still in need of moments of concrete advent and celebration. Rahner makes a similar observation regarding the Blessed Sacrament in the twenty-third volume of his Theological Investigations. To borrow and paraphrase Rahner’ idea: since our attention and presence is not always and everywhere near the loving attention and presence of Christ who is always near us, we need concrete moments and places to focus and celebrate it. As it is the case with grace and Eucharistic Presence, so it is the case with Divine Mercy. God’s mercy lies at the heart of the gospel, but we need concrete moments and places to be reminded of this. If the Sunday of Divine Mercy assists in this, then we ought not turn up our noses at it. Magnifying once in awhile may help as long as we remember: Every Sunday is Divine Mercy Sunday; everyday is Divine Mercy Day; every Eucharist a giving thanks for God’s mercy.