Scripture and the Liturgy

Divine Mercy Sunday

Behind the readings for this Sunday lies a Gospel text which is never read, but whose influence is felt and whose concepts and images serves as a link between the texts that are read.  That passage is John 19:34:

John 19:34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.  35 He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe.

The blood and water flowing from the side of Christ is the background for the Divine Mercy image seen by St. Faustina. 

This “river” that flows out from the side of Christ is understood in the Church’s spiritual tradition as a river of mercy, but there is also a rich biblical background to this passage of John. 

Ezekiel 47 and other passages from the OT prophets foresaw a river of life which one day would flow from the heart of the New Temple in the age to come.  Our Lord identifies himself as the New Temple (John 2:20-21) and as the one from whom the river of life will flow (John 7:38).  John 19:34 is a sign of the fulfillment of that promise.  Ancient Jewish readers would have recognized the significance of the bloody flow from the side of Christ as Temple imagery.  During festival seasons prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70, huge amounts of animal blood were generated by the Temple sacrifices.  The blood was ducted out of the Temple precincts by a plumbing system which emptied out of the side of the Temple mount, creating a stream of blood that flowed down and joined the Brook Kidron that flowed along the ravine between the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives.  This bloody brook had to be crossed if one entered Jerusalem near the Pool of Siloam.  So a “stream of blood and water” would evoke the image of the Temple and the Temple city to the ancient Jewish reader.  This phenomenon helped identify the body of Jesus as the New Temple. 

Of course, the physical flow from Christ’s side is not the ultimate point.  It is a sign of a deeper reality, the true “river of life” that flows from him, which is the Holy Spirit.  Furthermore, throughout the Gospel of John, water is employed with reference to Baptism, and blood is only discussed in the Eucharistic discourse of John 6.  So the Fathers were right to see in the bloody flow from the side of Christ the River of the Spirit, which comes to us through the sacraments, Baptismal Water and Eucharistic Blood.  The sacraments are efficacious signs of God’s mercy. 

Now for the readings of this Sunday.

The First Reading is Acts 4:32-35:

The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common.
With great power the apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need.

This account in acts of a certain kind of “charismatic communism” has strong ties to the jubilee theme in the Old Testament.  Old Testament law provided for a “Year of Jubilee” (Leviticus 25) occurring every fifty years, in which wealth and property were redistributed and abject poverty among the Israelites essentially eliminated.  Significantly, this Jubilee was proclaimed on the Day of Atonement.  After the people’s debt of sin was abolished by the High Priest in the Temple, a trumpet was blown throughout the land and debts of money were forgiven everywhere.  The Jubilee was the socio-economic sign of a spiritual reality.  Likewise, the early Church here is expressing socio-economically the forgiveness and equality that has been established among them spiritually through the Cross.

As the Church grew and spread throughout the world, this “charismatic communism” of the small, early Church became unworkable, but the principle of communion of goods remains.  That is why the collection plate, which is often the butt of jokes or regarded as an intrusion into worship, is actually an important part of Eucharistic worship.  The collection plate (or basket, or bag-on-pole, etc) provides us the opportunity to share our excess goods with the needy.  It is an important symbolic gesture, even if our primary giving may be through internet donations or regular withdrawals from our bank account to various charities.  For this reason, I always try to bring some cash to Mass, and encourage my students to do the same, so that we may participate in this important rite by giving visible sign to the communion of goods that expresses a real aspect of the communion of the saints.  The mercy we have received from Christ can and should take tangible form in acts of mercy toward the needy.

2. The Responsorial Psalm is a very popular one for the Easter Season, Psalm 118.  One of the reasons this Psalm occurs so frequently in the lectionary during this liturgical season is that it formed part of a collection of Psalms known as the Egyptian Hallel (Praise) Psalms (Pss 113-118) that were sung during the Passover ritual.  Our Lord probably sang or chanted Psalm 118 at the end of the Last Supper—Mark 14:26 may be a reference to the singing of the Hallel psalms: “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”

In addition to being a Hallel Psalm, Psalm 118 is also a Todah psalm, a psalm for the Todah or Thanksgiving Sacrifice.  The Thanksgiving Sacrifice is a theologically very significant Old Testament form of worship.  Unlike many other forms of sacrifice, the Todah was not offered to expiate sin or guilt, but to express thanks to God for a particular act of deliverance.  In the context of the Passover, the act of deliverance that Psalm 118 expressed thanks for was the Egyptian exodus.  Transmuted into the New Covenant, however, Psalm 118 now expresses our thanks for the New Exodus that Jesus Christ has made possible for us, in the context of our New Passover, the Eucharist, the definitive “Sacrifice of Thanksgiving,” the new Todah.

Responsorial Psalm Ps 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24

R. (1) Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.
R. Alleluia.
Let the house of Israel say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
Let the house of Aaron say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
Let those who fear the LORD say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
R. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.
R. Alleluia.
I was hard pressed and was falling,
but the LORD helped me.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.
The joyful shout of victory
in the tents of the just:
R. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.
R. Alleluia.
The stone which the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
By the LORD has this been done;
it is wonderful in our eyes.
This is the day the LORD has made;
let us be glad and rejoice in it.
R. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.
R. Alleluia.

The refrain says, “Give thanks (Todah) to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.”  And one of the verses says, “His mercy endures forever.”  Actually, the word translated “love” and “mercy” are actually the same in Hebrew: it is the word hesed, which can mean “love” or “mercy” but whose meaning is actually more technical: it is the term for covenant fidelity.  “Hesed” describes how covenant partners are supposed to treat one another, so yes, it includes concepts of love, mercy, longsuffering, but all within a covenantal context, a context of being in an oath-bound familial relationship.  Divine Mercy Sunday is really a celebration of God’s hesed—his faithfulness to the covenant.  God does not show mercy to us arbitrarily: he shows mercy because he has promised to do so, he has sworn to do so by multiple oaths throughout salvation history. 

3.  The Second Reading is a famous passage about the basics of salvation in Christ from the Apostle John:

1 Jn 5:1-6

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God,
and everyone who loves the Father
loves also the one begotten by him.
In this way we know that we love the children of God
when we love God and obey his commandments.
For the love of God is this,
that we keep his commandments.
And his commandments are not burdensome,
for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
Who indeed is the victor over the world
but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ,
not by water alone, but by water and blood.
The Spirit is the one that testifies,
and the Spirit is truth.

As a Protestant pastor, I used to place great emphasis on salvation “by faith alone,” but it is interesting to note that St. John teaches here that assurance of salvation (“This is the way that we know …”) is the result of actually putting into effect the commands of God (“when we love God and obey his commandments.).

St. John describes Jesus Christ as “the one who came through water and blood,” which is, among other things, a reference back to the famous scene in the Gospel that we mentioned at the beginning of the post, John 19:34-35.  Jesus came “through water and blood”—which may also refer to his manifestation of his divinity at the Baptism and the Cross (the bookends of John’s Gospel)—and he continues to come to us through water and blood, that is, through Baptism and Eucharist.  Through these sacraments, we are filled with the Spirit who is Truth.  On Good Friday we read about Pilate asking his famous question, “What is Truth?” (John 18:38). Here the Apostle provides an answer: it is the Spirit.

4.  The Gospel Reading is Jn 20:19-31

On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve,
was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But he said to them,
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nailmarks
and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Now a week later his disciples were again inside
and Thomas was with them.
Jesus came, although the doors were locked,
and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples
that are not written in this book.
But these are written that you may come to believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that through this belief you may have life in his name.

First, we see that Jesus appears to the disciples and bestows on them the reality of which the bloody river from his side was only a sign—namely, the river of the Holy Spirit.  Significantly, the first thing mentioned about the Holy Spirit given to the disciples is that it will empower them to forgive sin—so we come back to this theme of mercy which is so intimately tied up with the ministry of the Spirit.

Next we see the Lord having great mercy on Thomas, the doubter.  Although he could have been rightfully indignant about Thomas’ lack of faith, Our Lord “goes the second mile” and condescends to show himself to Thomas in ways that will satisfy Thomas’ doubts.  Significantly, Thomas is invited to thrust his hand into the side of Christ—the very wound from which the mercy-flow of blood and water came forth.  We don’t actually know if Thomas took the Lord up on his offer—despite iconography that shows him doing so.  But we do know that Thomas responded to the Lord’s mercy by recognizing his true nature: “My Lord and My God!”  In many ways, this is the climactic statement of the entire Gospel of John.  The Apostle is leading us to the point that we, too, can make this whole-hearted confession with Thomas. 

Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking, “Faith was easy then, but now it’s hard.”  It was hard for the first disciples to believe that Jesus of Nazareth, a man they knew and ate with, was also the God who revealed himself to Moses.  After all, for the most part Our Lord looked normal.  Aside from a few incidents which only a few witnessed (the Transfiguration), his body looked similar to other men’s bodies.  No halo followed him around.  He did all the things other people did.  He performed miracles—but so had other prophets who were not divine.  So we should not underestimated the demands on the faith of the first Apostles.  Likewise, we should not exaggerate the demands on our faith today.  In many ways we are blessed with a long tradition and a great deal of truth and insight that the Church has been given over two thousand years.  We have categories and language to speak accurately about how Jesus can be both God and man (one “person,” two “natures”) and how the Eucharist can be his body (“substance” and “accidents”).  This intellectual framework is a help to faith, as is the clarity and coherence of teaching readily available to us in, for example, the Catechism.  Embrace of Christ and his claims always has required an act of faith, both for Thomas and for us.  Christ gave him helps for his faith—but he gives us helps, too.  Let’s not make excuses; let’s make the good confession.

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