The Terrible Mercy of God
Last Saturday I knelt in church to prepare myself for Confession. As usually happens in that place, my mind began to slip from the wretchedness of my sins to the vastness of God and His merciful nature. Before delving into the ideas this excursion produced, it may be interesting to consider the actual reality of this wandering. In fact, I think I will do so now.
I have never been very good at keeping one train of thought in any line; and if that one line concerns me, I am even less interested. Do not mistake me, I have done my fair share of self-absorbed navel gazing. I have pitied myself to an outrageous degree, belaboring the most minor sway in emotion as a cataclysmic event. (If you ever have the chance to speak with my closest friends they will tell you what an insufferable ass I am.) My point is that, even when I am lost in the very grips of prideful self-analysis, I am bored by it, and I usually end up in one of two places: Contemplating the Almighty, or staring numbly at a computer screen, vaguely hoping that it will suddenly have the capacity to interest my churning mind. Need I say that I enjoy the former more than the latter? Or that I end up with the latter much more often than the former?
There is something in the mind that naturally tends toward the infinite. Whether it be the infinite God or the infinite illusion of Cyber pleasure, the human mind needs to delve into a subject without any risk of hitting a final boarder. I pity the materialists their philosophy, and I am sure that I could not last a single day with it. They are trapped by walls on all sides: a universe that feels suspiciously like a prison cell. The Materialist is confined to two responses in the face of the unknown: Denial or Suicide. Not the best options for a scientific mind, surely. Is it any wonder then, as I contemplate such a small thing as my life, even when it is a contemplation on the sinfulness of that life, I am soon dissatisfied with the subject and want to move on?
As the old stone church that I quietly knelt in last Saturday did not possess an internet connection, I was unable to sink dispassionately into the mindless prattle of the web. (Of which, coincidently, I am here contributing to.) My secondary enterprise would have to suffice.* And so, dear reader, I am now in the strange position of drawing to a point, or rather commencing a point. It is something that I have avoided for some time now, but which I accept to be inevitable.
It was a slight deception to suggest that my contemplation of God’s Mercy took place in the line for confession. I did, in fact, think on it a great deal while in the line. And I certainly spent much more time considering the ideas here written than in studying my own conscience. However, the first inclining of this subject occurred to me moments before the Consecration during the Mass of All Saints. Will you believe me if I defend my presence of mind in that occasion? Indeed, I did not let myself get swept away with it, even if the timing was justifiable. The Consecration is too real a moment for any theoretical thoughts. Theory should be avoided in the presence of the miraculous, lest you become like a mathematician scribbling away wildly during the multiplication of the loaves: he risks missing the point. Nevertheless, the point I am about to make is framed just as well in line for the confessional as at the Consecration. In fact, my very purpose is to consider the link between the two.
The Confessional is blood on the hands of the world. It was our sorrow, and not our sins, that caused the Crucifixion. God would never have sent His Son to die for an unrepentant race. If any Devils were capable of sorrow, I am sure Christ would gladly suffer again to save them. But since they remain obstinate, they remain in Hell. The Human race fell just as Satan did, but then we did the worst thing we ever did. We turned back to God. If only our pride were stronger, then Christ would never have had to die for us. And yet, I sing with the Deacon on Holy Saturday, “O happy fault,/ O necessary sin of Adam,/ which won for us so great a Redeemer!” But note, the Exultet has it wrong. It was not the fault of Adam that won us a redeemer, it was his sorrow.
The moment Adam turned to God in sorrow, The Triune desired to grant forgiveness. Alas, He was not able to. God cannot be unjust, for He is Justice itself. But he is also Mercy, and for a very long time I could not understand the relationship between these two ideas. I believed them to be so radically opposed that both of them existing within one being was incomprehensible. I spent most of my childhood (I am lately escaped from youth even now) trying to reconcile the two. Actually, a novel lays half written before me, dealing with this very problem.
Imagine my shock to realize it at last. You may think me a fool for not seeing it before. I am sure that it is a commonly known truth; that I will find it written in book after book now that I am no longer looking for it; but then, such is the humor of God.
Mercy is not the negation of Justice. It is merely a means of achieving it. When we think of Justice in its negative sense, that is, when it considers the wrongs of men, it is natural to assume that the guilty party will fulfill the requirements given. The matter is simple enough in practical terms: If a man breaks a window, he is compelled to pay for it.
Mercy does not dispel the requirements for Justice. It is not the great White Out of God. Rather, it shifts the means of achieving justice from the wrong doer to the wronged. If the owner of the window grants the smasher mercy, then the smasher will no longer have to pay for the window. But Mercy does not pay for windows, and Mrs. Window Owner will grow cold without a barrier to the outside world. So Mr. Window Owner will have to buy a new window himself, fulfilling Justice by practicing Mercy.
God and Man have played out this same scenario on a cosmic scale. Man sinned against God, and the wage of sin is death. We begged God for mercy, and Christ granted it. He took on the yoke of our own sin. He fulfilled Justice through Mercy, and enabled God to forgive us completely.
The Church has always taught that Jesus came to die. Archbishop Sheen says that all men cast a shadow before them from their birth. But Christ cast a shadow back from the Cross, one that even reached His manger in Bethlehem. He was the only man that lived to die. And what was the reason for his death? What cause did he champion as he rose above the world in benediction? It was the sorrow of man that he championed. It was for the baleful cries of wretched sinners that he came to suffer and silence them forever.
Remember this the next time you have the gall to enter a Confessional. You are not asking God to erase your sins from the universe. You are not asking Him to give you a gentle hug and reassuring word of love. When you plea for mercy, you are asking Christ to die for you. You are looking back two thousand years, for time is nothing, and holding out the nails to Him, begging Him to take them.
Perhaps this thought will make us think twice before we sin, but I doubt it. I know myself at least. I know my weakness. Instead, I hope this thought brings something that is even more missed in the modern world than morality: Thanksgiving.
*I might have said that my presence in a church was a contributing factor to my decision. But I believe my readership could see right through that falsehood, even in the inaugural submission to this website.