When we talk about mercy, we should remember that it has one range of meanings when talk about the works of mercy and another range of meanings when we speak about God’s mercy. For God, mercy evokes God’s providence, grace, and love. In this Year of Mercy, and at this particular time, we must be careful using military metaphors, although the Lord is presented as a commander in some of the Psalms, “the Lord of Hosts,” and conflict plays a major role in the book of Revelation. I think that there is something inappropriate about singing Onward Christian Soldiers.
“Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
with the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
forward into battle see his banners go!”
The Church is not an army with generals, crusades, marches, conquests, victories, flags, and banners. During the Korean War in the early nineteen fifties, Joseph Stalin famously asked, when he heard about the Pope’s power, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” In fall 1951, I started kindergarten at Saint Teresa of Avila’s in Brooklyn, New York. We thought the Pope had lots of divisions. It was an Irish-American parish, and the Irish-Americans were feeling their oats. There was a senator out west named McCarthy. We learned a song I still remember.
“There’s a crimson banner flying, there’s a bloodstained flag unfurled.
For the knights of Christ are marching to the conquest of the world.”
That it is not so, thank a merciful God.
We see this theme in the three readings from the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time. They feature individual persons meeting God, in fear and trembling, humbled, transformed, one on one. Isaiah saw the Lord. “Woe is me, I am doomed! I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah’s lips are burned. “Here I am. Send me.” He prophesied during the momentous Assyrian invasion of 740 B.C. which destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. Do not be afraid.
Paul says, “I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective . . . not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me.” He was put to the sword in Rome in 64 A.D., a martyr. Do not be afraid.
In Luke’s Gospel, Peter meets Jesus in a sinking boat. “They came and filled both boats with fish so that the boats were in danger of sinking . . .” Peter saw this and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus replies, in Luke’s Greek, me phobou, “Do not be afraid;” In 64 A.D., Peter was crucified upside down on Vatican Hill in Rome, a martyr. Do not be afraid. This is motif in the Gospel of Luke. The angel told Zachary, me phobou, “Do not be afraid.” The angel told Mary in Nazareth, me phobou, “Do not be afraid.” The angel told the shepherds outside of Bethlehem,” me phobou, “Do not be afraid.”
Military force overwhelmed Isaiah, Paul, and Peter, but they were enveloped in the mercy, providence, grace, and love of God. The important point is that, even if they were caught up in vast and sweeping historical movements, God’s mercy, providence, grace, and love went one on one with them. Do not be afraid. God’s mercy, providence, grace, and love are particular, individual, unique, and personal. Since God sees us as individuals, each one matters. Isaiah, Paul, Peter, Zachary, Mary, and the shepherds matter. So do I, so does Father John, my wife MaryAnn, Desiree, Reid, Molly, Patty, Eban, President Dlugos and his family, each one matters in God’s sight. Do not be afraid.
Let me end with a long quote from a sermon that Blessed John Henry Newman gave to university students in 1833. Note the old-fashioned “thee’ and “thou.” These pronouns refer to you singularly.
God beholds thee individually, whoever thou art. He ‘calls thee by thy name.’ He sees thee, and understands thee, as He made thee. He knows what is in thee, all thy own peculiar feelings and thoughts, thy dispositions and likings, thy strengths and thy weaknesses. He views thee in thy day of rejoicing, and thy day of sorrow. He sympathizes in thy hopes and thy temptations. He interests Himself in all thy anxieties and remembrances, all the risings and fallings of thy spirit. He has numbered the very hairs of thy head and the cubits of thy stature. He compasses thee round and bears thee in His arms; He takes thee up and sets thee down. He notes thy very countenance, whether smiling or in tears, whether healthful or sickly. He looks tenderly upon thy hands and thy feet; He hears thy voice, the beating of thy heart, and thy very breathing. Thou dost not love thyself better than He loves thee. Thou canst not shrink from pain more than He dislikes thou bearing it; and if He puts it on thee, it is as thou wilt put it on thyself, if thou wert wise, for a greater good afterwards. Thou art not only His creature, thou art man redeemed and sanctified, His adopted son, favored with a portion of that glory and blessedness which flows from Him everlastingly unto His Only Begotten Son. Thou art chosen to be His. Thou wast one of those for whom Christ offered up His last prayer, and sealed it with His precious blood. What a thought this is, a thought almost too great for our faith! Scarce can we refrain from acting Sarah’s part, when we bring it before us, so as to ‘laugh’ from amazement and perplexity.
When you meet God, as indeed you already have, and as indeed you will again and again, enveloped in God’s mercy, providence, grace, and love, me phobou, Do not be afraid. Uncle Sam may need an army. You don’t need an army. You do not need a general. Follow in the footsteps of Isaiah, Paul, Peter, Zachary, Mary, and the shepherds. Do not be afraid.
Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College and former Director of the Online Theology Program. He is a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Portland.