Today we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. It’s a good time to reflect upon how to live out God’s merciful Love and become a channel of His mercy.
In his book Mercy, the German Cardinal Walter Kasper mentions the teachings of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas about mercy. They interpreted “mercy” (Misericordia) as to “have one’s heart (cor) with the unfortunate (miseri), with those who, in the widest sense of the word, are poor and in distress. Mercy for them is not only a feeling that is elicited by the experiences of another’s suffering. It is not only affective, but also at the same time is an effective disposition, which strives to combat and overcome the deprivation and suffering.” (Walter Kasper, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life)
Mercy is not only about feeling compassion towards those less fortunate. True mercy starts from compassion and leads to an act of mercy, while at the same time an act of mercy is full of compassion and love.
The Church’s corporal and spiritual works of mercy help us to be alive in mercy and extend God’s mercy towards our neighbours. One of the works of mercy is ‘to clothe the naked’. At first, I thought: ‘This is so obvious: give clothes to those who need them.’ But, in fact, it is something much deeper than that.
The Bible uses the imperative ‘to clothe’ many times and emphasises two dimensions of nakedness: physical and spiritual. To provide clothing is to take care of two basic human needs, protection and dignity. The Bible is full of mercy stories and there are many examples that urge us to do works of mercy, especially this particular one – cloth the naked.
The prophet Isaiah exhorts is: ‘When you see the naked, clothe them’ (Is 58:7). The Letter of James uses the act of clothing another person as an example of a good work which makes faith alive (James 2:14-16). In his letter to the Colossians, St Paul uses “clothing” to refer to the spiritual, encouraging us to “wear” heartfelt compassion, generosity and humility, gentleness and patience and, above all, love (Col 4:12-14).
The story of the prodigal son presents a father who has restored his son’s lost dignity, saying to his servants: “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” (Lk 15:22).
By providing his son the best robe, shoes and a ring, the symbols of a man’s dignity, the father helped his son to see himself as he is: a beloved son, who is forgiven and who still possesses goodness within himself. The father saw goodness in his son’s heart and by his forgiveness, righteousness and compassion restored his son’s dignity as a beloved son. This is mercy.
As I was reflecting on ‘clothing the naked’ two other stories, both from the Old Testament, came to my mind. In the Book of Genesis (Gen 9: 20-24), we read that Noah got drunk and went to sleep naked. One of his sons saw that, went to his two brothers and told them about their father’s nakedness. We can only guess that this son had a good laugh at his father. In his indifference he disregarded his father. Instead of helping, all he decided to do was spread news about his father’s nakedness.
And what do the other brothers do about what they heard? Shem and Japheth took a cloak and they both put it over their shoulders, and walking backwards, covered their father’s nakedness; they kept their faces turned away, and they did not look at their father naked. When Noah awoke from his stupor he learned what his youngest son had done to him (Gen 9: 23-24)
This is a such powerful scene which conveys the message about acts of mercy. These two brothers teach us that mercy is not only about doing things, but also about the way we do things. These two brothers knew about the nakedness of their father and they covered it with mercy. They acted with respect, gentleness and love, without condemning, disregarding and pointing out the father’s weakness even though they knew about it.
The second story is the story of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:8-11), which I am sure you know well. I want you to look closely at the moment when Adam and Eve have hidden from God. Do you remember this moment? After Adam and Eve broke God’s command and ate fruit from the forbidden tree, they hid from God. They also realised they were naked, and so started to see each other differently.
God looks for Adam and calls him by name: Adam, ‘where are you?’ Adam answered ‘I am naked.’ And God asked him ‘Who told that you were naked?’
This is a story about another kind of nakedness: spiritual nakedness. I see this nakedness when I see the image of God looking for Adam, worried about him, calling ‘where are you?’, and asking, ‘Who told that you were naked?’
This nakedness shows me my sin and all who I am in the depth of myself. I see things I don’t like it and try to hide them from God. It shows me all the moments when I failed and disgraced myself. When I see my nakedness, I see my weaknesses, a sense of not being worthy of love and forgiveness, and all the shame I keep inside.
I want to hide it from God. I want to quickly cover my nakedness. And I often do it in the wrong way. I run away from God by filling the emptiness of my heart with something which actually leads me into greater destruction and loneliness. But God looks for me to show me the real image of myself, the real self He created; to show me the goodness within me and assure me that I am loved. He always wants to restore that image in me and you.
Look at His question: “Who told that you were naked?” He asks: who told you that you are not worthy to be loved, you are nothing and you are worthless? By asking that question, God encourages us to find the source of that thinking. God wants us to find the source of our spiritual nakedness and act upon it, not run away and hide. He wants us to stand in the truth of our sins, the source of that nakedness. He wants us to be open to His mercy and for conversion.
We learn from that scene that to clothe the naked also means to tell people about their goodness and help them rediscover their dignity. To help them to believe that even though they made some mistakes and they attempt sin, they are still loved and respected. To clothe them means to help them to restore their dignity as a child of God. That act of mercy would help them to believe in themselves and give them courage and strength to change their lives.
We need to remember: God does not love us because we are good; we are good (and become better) because God loves us. I would like to conclude with the words of Pope Francis ‘…never tire of being merciful’. Never tire of being alive in mercy.
Sr Margaret Kozub CSFN