Betting There’ll Be a Big Safety Net

Almost fifty years ago, movie cop “Dirty Harry” Callahan asked “Well, punk, do you feel lucky today?”  Sometimes Harry’s crooks chose wisely not to resist arrest, but others tried their luck and lost.  A lesson lurks there about avoiding mindless violence.  Harry possesses superior (fire)power—why fight back? Make a better decision because the only alternative is swift, violent retribution.  This line, shorn of the violent scenes, came to me reflecting on today’s readings.  The Second Sunday of Easter features readings from Acts, Psalm 118, I Peter, and the striking post-Resurrection scene with “doubting Thomas” in John 20.  Every Scripture offers a rich banquet, but this day particularly so. Even before we reach the Gospel we encounter “the stone the builders have rejected” which becomes the cornerstone and an account of the Church featuring the works of mercy.  It is this passage in Acts 2 from which Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI launches his discussion of communion ecclesiology in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (2005). The Church’s communitarianism—spiritual and material—constitutes, Benedict states, the true freedom found only in the Trinity (p. 58).

Thus “Do you feel lucky today?”—because God’s mercy comes only through the Church, why gamble on it being any wider?  Every reading today instructs us to make wise choices. I Peter makes this particularly clear: through mercy, God in Christ bequeaths us “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time”. Thus the communion of the Church is far more than mere material assistance, but a foretaste of the Trinity’s communion.  Don’t bet on finding this anywhere else (and, for any Schleiermacherian readers out there, this applies especially to our idiosyncratic experiences).  There’s no need to gamble on God’s mercy—we know where to find it. Better than Dirty Harry’s offer, too, because why issue a threat when God’s offer far surpasses anything we know?

Perhaps that rosy vision might seem too Pelagian.  “Come on, all you need to do is stay within the Church and presto! Mercy!”  No, the Gospel promises that God helps those who cannot help themselves.  This, of course, includes all of us. It becomes all the more important to remember that today is also Divine Mercy Sunday, a fitting celebration of God’s mercy following the Triduum.  While the novelty has not yet worn off, Divine Mercy Sunday likewise has gained a popular following in parishes and online.  Beyond the devotional practices—venerating the image, praying the Chaplet—the Divine Mercy tradition contributes an astonishing reminder.  St. Faustina records Jesus stating His mercy extends to all, especially those souls apparently furthest from Him.  “Let the greatest sinners place their trust in My mercy. They have the right before others to trust in the abyss of My Mercy” (Divine Mercy in My Soul, #1146). And “the greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to My mercy” (#1182).  At one level this is not new—the Gospel like today’s reading teaches us the very same point about salvation in Christ through faith.  It is, though, a refreshing jolt to have this universal message conveyed through such a particular channel like St. Faustina. Her experiences are not merely spiritualized escapism. Like the early Church in today’s readings, actual corporal works of mercy must accompany prayer (#742).  Obviously we are a far distance away from “Do you feel lucky today?”, but also obviously the breadth of Christ’s mercy extends more widely than we know or admit.

An indication of my inner Augustianism is my stubborn refusal to recognize that I, the trained theologian, might have construed God’s mercy much more narrowly than St. Faustina, “merely” a nun in interwar Poland.  On the surface, the Divine Mercy seems like yet another expression of Catholic devotionalism.  One more image, one more set of prayers, etc.  Our elitism, though, should not blind us to Divine Mercy’s lesson:  that through the very particular, God conveys the very gift of His all-encompassing mercy.  Again, the Gospel already proclaims this.  Jesus does not merely offer salvation in some general fashion; He accomplishes it by being a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth who dies in a particular (and particularly awful) way and then rises on the third day. Thus “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

Next month the Church will recognize the centenary anniversary of another devotional expression of this same lesson.  The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to three young children shepherding near Fatima, Portugal, in May, 1917.  Pope Francis will canonize them next month as part of the one hundredth anniversary celebration.  The Fatima apparition, appearing during the First World War and requesting spiritual resistance to Bolshevik aggression, resembles the Divine Mercy in its devotional popularity and scholarly skepticism.  On the other hand, St. John Paul II, clearly a scholar, expressed firm devotion to both!  The “Fatima Prayer”, requested by the blessed Mother to be added to the end of each Rosary decade, expresses the same sort of radical inclusivism we find in Divine Mercy.  “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy.”  This is one of those instances where the literal interpretation is also the scariest:  that could mean anybody.  It is our fallen nature that pulls back, that hesitates.  We all know people—public figures as well as personal friends and acquaintances—who fit the bill “those in most need of Thy mercy”.  When we are honest with ourselves, we realize this include us, too.  This also dismisses utterly any lingering “Do you feel lucky today?” resentments.  We remain called through today’s readings into the Church and thus God’s great, unmerited Gift. Fatima and Divine Mercy remind us of another Scriptural reminder:  that God’s mercy through Christ extends far beyond our comprehension to those who appear much farther astray.  Yet we should not presume, betting on God’s mercy (Romans 6:1).

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

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