The Year of Mercy: A Retrospective
In addition to our weekly blog pieces, Crown & Cross publishes a semesterly print issue, a compilation of 9 to 12 pieces based around a singular theme. Since these pieces represent some of our best work, we want to give them greater circulation. So, starting this semester, our blog will post a new piece each Wednesday as individual essays in a thematic series. This semester’s weekly series will be titled “The Great Commission,” the theme of our most recent print issue. Below is the sixth of ten installments.
The Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy began on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th, 2015, and ended on the Feast of Christ the King, November 20th, 2016.
I could hear the screaming coming from down the hallway and the lunchboxes slamming against the wall. I knew it could only mean one thing: a meltdown. I ran as quickly as I could to the noise and found the poor child. I looked at the child and began to speak in an even tone, asking the other children to back away so that they would not get hurt. I looked the unhappy camper in the face and asked her what was wrong, trying my best to keep my own cool as she screamed at me. I slowly walked up and held out my hand, saying, “Let’s go someplace where you can tell me what happened and we can get you some water.” The face turned up to me and smiled. She walked up and reached out her hand to mine. In the space of a second, she kicked me where no man wishes to be kicked.
Before the summer of 2016 began, I remember telling my spiritual director that I felt God wanted to teach me about mercy, especially with my favorite job: counseling a local summer camp for kids. I would work there for fun and give back to the community, while also working a “real job” for my resume. I knew it would be a tough summer, but I felt that I could be a Saint Francis among the birds, joyfully going to and fro and teaching the children life lessons. Even now I know this was naïve, and I still do not know how my pride blinded me so much, especially when this was not my first, second, or even fifth time doing this. I digress; I had thought that all the hours of praying for mercy and strength had given me all that I needed, and I was ready to be the most patient and forgiving influence in their lives—granted, an exaggeration.
Soon, my surroundings started to come back into focus after the initial shock of the kick: after gathering my bearings, I took a deep breath. I looked the laughing child straight in the eyes. I knew this was my moment. The consummate moment of the summer, the one where I could show how much I learned of mercy and patience. I took one more breath—as anyone who works with kids can tell you, you have to have a flair for the dramatic— and promptly and mercilessly chastised the child. I told her how much trouble she would be in, that I would not even let her so much as look at her portable games or even dream of touching the playground ever again. I had failed. I blew it. My attempt at mercy, even during the summer of mercy, was mistake after mistake. It was not the summer I had in mind at the start.
I came back to Columbia a man defeated, a cruel and impatient sinner, capricious as the day is long. In the first meeting with my director, I told him how I had failed. On the verge of tears, I knew that I had not only failed myself, but more importantly I had failed both the children at camp and my God. Sure, there were moments of mercy, and moments of learning, but in the big picture, my summer was a bad one. Anyone who works with children can tell you that there will be tough periods, but nothing prepares you for it, not even hours of prayer.
But it did teach me something: By failing at mercy, I learned where mercy abides and must be given. It is not in a perfectly repentant child, asking for forgiveness. It is found in the moments when someone grates against the nerves at every turn or when the friend who never helps and never makes amends implores for help. Mercy is much harder than it appeared to me in my limited understanding. In the moment, giving into anger, impatience, and the violence of the human condition is much more seductive. But it is not what we are meant for; we are meant for mercy, the language of God.
Little did I know that these lessons in mercy would begin to teach me about evangelism in action. I would never have believed that mercy was an evangelistic virtue until I began to see it in my day to everyday life. Mercy showed me how intimately connected it is to peace and how it fosters peace between us.
We are told in the Second Creation Account of Genesis that for Adam, God made the animals of the earth “helper[s] fit for him.” 1 Even then, the animals were not enough, and God made woman to be a helper as well. 2 Whether or not one ascribes to the literal interpretation of creation, we can see that all creation was made to be helpers to one another. “But what does this mean?” you may be asking. What if we were to take this claim seriously? What if we take peace and cooperation to be one of the fundamental building blocks of creation?
In the New Testament, Jesus declares, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.” 3 What does Jesus mean when He says this? Why is His peace different? And what does the Holy Spirit, mentioned in the previous verse, have to do with this? This is the peace of Eden, the fundamental peace of God. This peace is not that which re-channels the violence, instead it is the peace that hands itself over to the violence. It is that which says, “You are angry and wish to do violence, take me: I willingly offer myself to you. Do not take one another.” And thus, through our failing mercy, Christ offered Himself for us. It is not sinners in the hand of an angry God, but a God in the hands of angry sinners. How could any violence between people compare with the violence against God?
The root of this discord, however, stretches back to Genesis when the serpent utters one of the most fundamental of lies: “You will be like God” says the serpent. 4 And through that act of disobedience and pride, we set ourselves as competitors for divinity and not as peaceful beings. Yet God in His mercy reached towards us, who are in every way, shape, and form His unequals—though we have tried to set ourselves up as equals. God ran towards us in mercy, as it says:
Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 5
Mercy and peace involve our inequality with God. Usually, in the situations where we can use mercy, a wrong has been committed that makes the parties unequal. If we are to achieve peace, equality must be established. It could be something as little as a moment I was late to something important: in that moment I said that my time was worth more than yours. I set us in competition and declared myself the better, disrupting the peace between us. The peace is our natural state, but I have made an aberration. I beseech your mercy to restore us. It is you, in your magnificence and love, who comes to me and helps.
In other situations, such as socially systematic ones, groups of people try to assert their superiority over other groups. Institutional racism, for example, is a framework in which certain people set themselves up as superior to others, creating both a spiritual and material inequality. There is not only a need for mercy but also for repentance on behalf of the offender. Every effort must be made to make peace. I can neither cling to nor grasp a greatness I do not have, especially when my savior did not ‘grasp’ towards a greatness that was duly His. Repentance and mercy must be practiced here.
Mercy is an act of love, as the whole life of Christ illustrates. Mercy is participation in love, because as we love one another, we are honest about the wrongs we have done and our false sense of superiority. The parable of the prodigal son shows this clearly in the personage of the elder brother. The elder, seemingly righteous brother refuses mercy toward his wayward younger brother, thus closing himself off from participation in his father’s love. Finally, by the refusal of participation in the father’s love, he unknowingly ignores all that his father gives him. 6 A refusal of mercy impoverishes our spiritual self and can blind us to an honest appraisal of ourselves and openness towards others, all of which destroys our peace and mutual cooperation.
Mercy towards someone always gives him or her a chance to be a better person. This is the Christian hope from the Church’s first days: that by God’s mercy, we are given a chance to become better people. Mercy is encouragement and edification, both of which build true peace and justice between us. Violence and violent conceptions of justice impose a violent order by chipping away and destroying pieces that do not fit the dominant structure. Instead mercy and peace incorporate all peoples, to create a fuller conception of the Church. This fuller conception of the Church, with its incorporation of all peoples brings us to evangelism and the Great Commission given to us after the Resurrection.
In John’s Gospel, the visit of Jesus after the Resurrection is described as “Jesus said to them again ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” 7 Jesus sends them out on the Great Commission with His peace and the Holy Spirit, and therefore the work of the Great Commission calls upon mercy. Mercy is an evangelistic virtue. It spreads God where it goes; mercy is God’s language spoken upon the earth, for it is by mercy that He spoke to us.
If peace is part of the Great Commission, then it cannot be one of violence and competition. We are called to evangelize the equality of man and the fundamental mercy of God that should joyfully leap between brothers and sisters. This is found in the person of Christ Jesus, who brings all things together in Himself.
I will conclude with a few thoughts on Ephesians, where Paul brings these many strains of thought together. He states that God “set forth Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in Heaven and things on earth.” 8 The Great Commission is our inheritance as the Church, and we are to continue the plan to bring all things in Him. As Christ’s mission was one of love and mercy, so should ours be.
We must not view those yet uncalled as lesser, but must strive to bring them as siblings into the church and into God’s family. Paul explains, “For [Christ] is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility … for through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” 9 The Great Commission is a call for us to bind ourselves in peace to the rest of humanity through Christ Jesus. Evangelism is not an imposition but a binding, a solemn oath where we take the other into our heart and say, “You are my brother or sister and I love you.”
Those who are to be reached are the future brothers and sisters in Christ, not competing outsiders who must be subdued. Thus, if we are to establish and announce the true peace of universal brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ with others, mercy must be there. We were created to be helpers to one another, as Genesis states. We are not of this world and our kingdom is not either. The growth of a worldly kingdom is accomplished by the violence and fury. Ours is meekness, making disciples of all nations, not by a sword, but by a baptism, 10 and a willingness to be buried with Christ. 11
If we are to make disciples of all nations, then we must work and live in mercy. As I look back on those times where I failed at mercy and, by extension, failed God, I see missed opportunities to build up the saints: little steps that would have helped gather a world of believers. I see how my failures rupture the peace of the Holy Spirit, and I am ashamed. However, I also hope because I believe in a mercy far greater than my own. It is this mercy that saves the world; this mercy will spread beyond nations, and it is my hope that I can have the grace to see and live in it. It is the love of God that moves us, a love that is merciful to its core. If we are to be the instruments in the great symphony of the Love of the Father, we must attune ourselves to His heart, His mind, and His Spirit—all in mercy.
Michael Miskovski (CC ’17) was born in New York, but raised in Alabama, where he learned to distinguish between the formal “y’all” and the informal “all y’all.” Like his favorite animal, the manatee, he enjoys slowly moving through life taking each day as it comes.