Mercy and Grace

The Propers for the Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Please note: an entry in the People’s Missal Project

Missa Cum clamarem ad Dominum

JMJ

TODAY’S OPENING COLLECT is quite clear that God’s power is most evident in his Mercy. And then we ask for his mercy. What is God’s mercy?

A note in my missal says that originally this prayer asked for God’s grace it was changed at the Council of Trent to request his mercy. In fact, several changes in the Liturgy happened at the Council of Trent (q.v. The Mass of the Ages). One major change was moving the propers to different Sunday in the calendar from where they had previously been while keeping the readings assigned to the same place. This is noted in The Liturgical Year, by Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B. His comment is that we must trust the church when she makes such changes – and that the connections clergy imagine between the various propers are not “really” there: but are only the product of meditation and can be wrong – or changed to another meaning. I can imagine that clergy the time of Trent were greatly confused, especially with the Protestant Reformation happening around them, to have these changes happen suddenly. A sermon that had always worked on thus-and-such a Sunday suddenly no longer had the same context. The same council also, for the first time, took all of the liturgical texts and compressed them into the Missal that we now have. Prior to that time, it took several books to celebrate the Mass. None of the texts were to be found in one place. So, what was “grace” in the old pile of texts became “mercy” in the one-volume New Mass from the Council. And everyone moved on.

This Tridentine change, however, is corrected in the Novus Ordo, where the collect is restored fully to the original form, asking God – who is most powerful in his Mercy – to pour his grace upon us.

Deus, qui omnipotentiam tuam parcendo maxime et miserando manifestas, gratiam tuam super nos indesinenter infunde, ut, ad tua promissa currentes, caelestium bonorum facias esse consortes.

Although this blog project is intended to provide commentary on the 1962 Missal, I would like today to play with this difference between grace and mercy as we meditate on the Publican and the Pharisee. I do not wish to contrast them too greatly: grace is not opposed to mercy. In the biblical Greek the word for mercy ἔλεος eleos comes from the same root as oil. The implication is of soothing, or comforting. We ask God to comfort us with his mercy. Grace, on the other hand, is the Greek word χάρις charis. It implies the active presence of God in our life in his energies, as the Byzantine say. I don’t think you can separate grace and mercy: certainly God’s grace acting in our life is comforting and certainly, his comfort is his presence. Still, we do tend to think of grace and mercy as different things. We wouldn’t have different words otherwise.

Where were these men before this moment? Our Lord does not say, but they both went up to the Temple to pray. We might imagine that the Pharisee went often, perhaps whenever he could. But did the publican go up all the time? To be honest, I can’t imagine to be so, but maybe.

But notice here that both men are rich. The Pharisee is a class of scholars and political leaders, (semi)respected elders in the community. The Publican is filthy rich and quite literally so, having acquired his ill-gotten booty by betrayal, grift, bullying, embezzlement, and politically-empowered thievery. Both have wealth – sometimes understood as a sign of God’s blessing – and show by their lives that they have no heavenly right to that. Both men would not have been liked by Jesus’ listeners, but they would have known the Pharisee was the “good guy” in God’s eyes and the Publican the “really bad guy”.

It is grace that makes the change possible. So it is grace that the Publican is working with as he stands before God and begs for mercy. Standing in the Temple, both men are literally standing in the fount of all graces, but one man is ignoring them while the other is responding to them.

As the Epistle says, all these graces are given by the same Spirit. We are not at peace until we humble ourselves (as the Publican does) in order to open ourselves to God. Begging God for his for his soothing Mercy is a way to open ourselves to Grace, as are the sacraments. The Secret asks that the Holy Mysteries might become a remedy for our sins, as oil (mercy) is a remedy for our souls.

The Alleluia begs God – having saved us – to keep us safe. We can still fall away in our pride. We should all be afraid of being a religious performer like the Pharisee. He speaks as if God does not know his heart, as if God were not listening, or even not there. “The fool says in his heart, there is no God“.

The Offertory bring our own souls before God – not the offerings as is often traditional. We are the holy and living sacrifice offered to God. Having been humbled, and filled with God’s presence in the sacrament, the quotation from David’s Psalm of Repentance in the Communion verse makes perfect sense: Psalm 50 (51) says that only after our our “sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart”. The Pharisee has nothing to be broken or contrite about: he’s done everything right. The publican knows he’s done nothing right at all. That’s why he’s the one made right.

The Postcommunion returns us to grace, asking that God never leave us needing his grace. Which is mighty merciful of him to do.

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.