Maria Fedorovna was the wife of Tsar Alexander III of Russia. Her husband’s reign was marked by repression and persecution, particularly of the Jewish population. She, on the other hand, had a reputation for kindness and generosity. There is a story that one time Alexander had signed an order condemning a prisoner to life in exile. The order read, “Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.” Moved with pity for the prisoner, Maria intervened by moving the comma so that the order read, “Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.” It was thus that Maria’s pity and compassion saved the prisoner’s life.
Today we are reminded that God “moved the comma” for us. The first reading for today’s liturgy comes from the Second Book of Chronicles. The reading alludes to the overthrow of the Babylonian Empire by the Persians and the consequent return of the Jews to the Holy Land. The author attributes the freeing of the exiles to the hand of God working through Cyrus.
In other words it is God who delivers his people from exile. He restores them to the Promised Land where they can worship him in his temple, which is to be rebuilt.
The reading reflects the mercy of the Lord in terms of an acquittal. The princes and people of Judah were clearly guilty of evil practices. The author writes: “In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the Lord’s temple which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.”
The Lord sends prophets to call the people back to the covenant. They refuse to listen and even mock “the messengers of God.” The author sees these sins as the cause of Judah’s downfall and defeat. Babylon is victorious over Judah. They destroy the temple, burn Jerusalem and exile a large portion of the population.
Yet this is not the end of the story, nor the end of the Lord’s compassion for he raises up Cyrus of Persia to free God’s people. God’s mercy triumphs over sin. Cyrus becomes the unexpected hand of God’s mercy.
This particular episode in Israelite history is one of many that point to the greatness of God’s mercy in contrast with the severity of Israel’s offenses. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Ephesians, reminds us that we have all been the recipients of God’s mercy through Christ Jesus. Indeed he stresses the greatness of God’s mercy that is clearly undeserved. His mercy is graciously given. Mankind was trapped by the guilt of sin. Yet “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ – by grace you have been saved ….”
Jesus definitively expresses the mercy of God through his passion, death and resurrection. He is the innocent one, free from all sin, who offers himself for our redemption and salvation. He expresses this himself when he says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
The reference to the “serpent in the desert” harkens back to another incident in the history of the covenant where mercy trumps transgression. The Israelites were in the desert, delayed from their inheritance for 40 years due to yet another incident of sin. Despite the Lord’s goodness in delivering them from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites grumble against the Lord saying: “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!” (a reference to manna).
The punishment received for their sin are seraph serpents whose crawl among the camp. Their bite causes sickness and death. When the serpents arrive the people are reminded of the severity of their sinfulness and quickly relent of their grumbling and beg for mercy. God responds telling Moses: “Make a seraph and mount it on a pole, and everyone who has been bitten will look at it and recover.” So Moses makes a bronze serpent, mounts it on a pole and anyone who looks at the serpent is cured.
Jesus uses this reference to describe himself. He is the instrument of God’s mercy and healing. Comparing the two events we realize that something qualitatively different is happening here. God’s mercy is being expressed in a new way, in a fuller way, in the perfect way. No bronze image is being lifted up but the Son of God, Jesus, is the one lifted up; and with him all humanity.
He is lifted on the cross in his passion. The cross then becomes the sign of God’s mercy. A vehicle for torture, repression and death becomes the instrument of healing, freedom and life. Jesus explains this when he says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
The liturgy invites us to reflect this week on the mercy of God. Reading the Old Testament, we are reminded over and over again of the immense patience of God expressed through his mercy. The greatness of his love is seen in the offering of his Son. He has the greatest love. We are the recipients of that love and mercy.
This Sunday begins the fourth week of Lent. Holy Week, the Triduum and Easter are quickly approaching. Part of our Lenten preparation is a personal reflection on God’s mercy. God is merciful to humanity; God is merciful to you and me. We certainly experience this mercy in baptism which we recall at Easter with the renewal of our baptismal promises.
As we reflect on the greatness of God’s mercy we also have the opportunity to receive his mercy anew in the sacrament of penance. Many parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are having Wednesday night confessions from 7 to 8 p.m. Likewise as the Lenten season draws to a close many parishes will be having penance services.
These are great opportunities to have a concrete experience of God’s mercy as we confess our sins, express our sorrow and ask for the forgiveness that God graciously bestows on us.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.