When a person is brought to enter the Dominican Family, he or she kneels or prostrates before the person who is to receive them – the local or regional superior – as well as before the rest of the community. The superior asks, What do you seek of God and his Church? The response is, God’s mercy and yours. This question and answer is the same for a new friar, a new sister, a new cloistered nun, or a new member of the Third Order. Each of us begs the same thing of God and his Church: God’s mercy and yours.
Mercy is such a vague quality: for it seems something out of the distant past rather than today. We might think of a nurse on a civil war battlefield on a “mission of mercy” bringing comfort to the wounded. We might think of a judge “going easy” on a convicted criminal. We might imagine a prisoner being whipped and begging for mercy, by which is meant “less pain”. What does it mean to ask for any of these things from God and his Church? Do we want to imagine God on a battlefield, or as a judge, or as the foreman of a prison camp? Sadly, all of these images may come up.
The Hebrew word is חֶסֶד chesed. In the Septuagint, it’s rendered as ελeος eleos and in Latin as misericordiae. Mercy. In Hebrew it signifies the compassion God has on his creation and it can mean that sort of brotherly camaraderie that we see among soldiers who have shared a battle or a war together. In the Latin it can mean those things about judges and masters with whips. But it’s the Greek that I want to highlight: the historic language of the Church. So much so that even in the Latin Mass, the Greek word for Mercy gets used: Κύριε ἐλέησον Kyrie eleison Lord have mercy. This very phrase is used hundreds of times in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom and the other services of the Eastern Church. It is eleison that gives the Church her idea of “Mercy”.
This word comes from the Greek root meaning “oil” as in “olive oil”.
In Greek and Roman culture, olive oil was used for lighting, for cooking, for cleansing, for medicine, and for various religious rites. An athlete would anoint his body with oil before engaging in sport. Then, applying more oil, he would scrape off the dirt and sweat. Going home, he would find his food prepared with a higher grade of the same oil, while his house was lit by lamps filled with a lower grade. A doctor might pour oil on his wounds to seal them against infection. A body servant might use the oil in a massage to soothe cramped muscles. His wife might wear a scented oil. His bread may be ground spelt in loaves made with olive oil. Asking for God’s mercy comes with all of these implications.
As Christians we do not only receive Mercy directly from God: we also receive his mercy through our brothers and sisters. So the Dominican asks for “God’s mercy and yours” meaning mercy from the whole of the church. This signifies how we are to be to each other: we are to be exactly like God, fully present in our love and in our compassion to our brothers and sisters. In this, we participate in each other’s salvation as we make present the love of God in our lives in service to others and in humility receiving other’s service ourselves.
Naturally, mercy comes through the sacraments, most obviously the Holy Eucharist and Confession. But mercy, the oil of God’s love, flows to us each (as individuals) through all the sacraments. Baptism and Eucharist to your soul, through Marriage to you and your spouse, through ordination to the ordained – yes. all of this is true. But also through those sacraments, through you personally to the entire Church. The Man and Woman united in marriage are a sacrament of Christ and his Church. The newly baptized and the newly confirmed are named, literally, “Little Christs” and are to serve that way. The ordained man is Another Christ, standing at the altar, in the confessional, or in the pulpit being Christ to the whole Church. These rites order us individually as channels of grace and mercy to the whole body of Christ.
Since Christ is the saviour not of the Church but of the World, we become channels of mercy, the presence of Christ, to every person we meet.
A Christian, properly ordered, is Christ in her place of work, is Christ in the line at the King Super, is Christ picking up his children at preschool, is Christ having her teeth cleaned, is Christ giving a parking citation, is Christ defending his home from destruction by bulldozers and soldiers, is Christ protecting her native land from strip farming. A Christian properly ordered, is Christ feeding the homeless, Christ defending the unborn, Christ voting, Christ holding office, Christ on the subway. A Christian, properly ordered, is God’s mercy, the oil of God’s love soothing the pains of the world.
God’s Mercy and Yours.
We ask a lot. Dare we offer ourselves in return?