Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

The Fear of God, the Fear of Men, and Divine Mercy

Give thanks to God, for He is good, His Mercy endures forever. Let Israel say: “His Mercy endures forever.” Let the House of Aaron say, “His Mercy endures forever.” Let those who fear the Lord say, “His Mercy endures forever.” In danger I called out to the Lord; the Lord answered and set me free. The Lord is with me; I am not afraid; what can mortals do against me? The Lord is my helper; I shall look in triumph over my foes.

-Psalm 118: 1-7

 

Last Sunday, the Second Sunday in Easter, is Divine Mercy Sunday. It is all too appropriate to celebrate God’s Infinite Mercy immediately after Holy Week and Easter. God’s Mercy and Love is the antidote to despair, for God so loved us that He was willing to empty Himself to the point of becoming man and dying on the Cross. Think about it: God is infinite and omnipotent, infinitely above man, yet He chose to become man, to manifest Himself within the confines of the limited, finite, broken state of man. God, the Source and Author of Life, experienced death. If God was willing to go to such an extreme to reconcile mankind to Himself, if He could bring life even from death, one should never doubt His desire and ability to bring you to the fruits of His saving act. The only thing standing in between yourself and salvation is your willingness to embrace Christ.

 

In the readings for this week, we get a glimpse of the effects of Divine Mercy. The second reading is taken from the first chapter of the Book of Revelations. St. John describes his predicament: after spending a lifetime preaching the Gospel, he was then sent into exile to the island of Patmos off the coast of Turkey (v. 9). He then speaks of how he received his first revelations while on Patmos, those revelations which would go on to form the text. He hears a voice commanding him to write everything he hears, and when he turns around, he sees Christ standing behind him (vv. 10-16).

 

St. John then falls to the ground and begins to worship Him upon seeing Him (v. 17). This is the first effect of Divine Mercy: it releases us from the bondage of sin to serve the living God (Hebrews 9:14). To live and act in service of the Lord, to be a slave of Christ (as St. Paul was accustomed to calling himself [see, for example, Romans 1:1]), is true freedom. To be a slave of Christ means that our consciences are bound to God, it is incumbent upon us to serve God. Yet, God is, in fact, the source of our freedom. Sin is the term used for a type of evil more specifically called “moral evil.” Evil is the privation of some due good – that is, when some good that should be present in a particular person, thing, action, or situation  is absent or has been corrupted. Such a definition of evil is only fitting. Think about it: God is the Creator of the universe. God is also All-Good. If an All-Good – that is, perfectly good – God could cause or create something evil, then He wouldn’t be perfectly good, and therefore wouldn’t be God. Hence, everything that exists, by virtue of being created by God, is by its nature good. Yet, evil exists. Evil must thus not be a positive quality – that is, a quality that has some existence – but rather stems from the corruption or loss of some quality that should be there. Moral evil, or sin, are evil acts that we willingly chose to engage in. Moral evil is contrasted to natural evil (things like natural disasters or disease).

 

Insofar as man chooses to sin, he corrupts himself. Sin thus serves as an obstacle to man being all that he was created by God to be. The God-man, Jesus Christ, freed and purifies us of sin. This enables us to serve God. But since human life comes forth from God as its Ultimate Source, and is ordered back towards God as its Most Final End, to serve God is what makes man, man. Through sin, and the subsequent service of the Lord that follows, we become all that we are meant to be.

 

Divine Mercy thus, first and foremost, brings about the transition from being a slave to sin to being a slave of Christ, a slave to God, which is true freedom. But the second effect of freedom is seen in the first reading, taken from Acts of the Apostles, chapter 5, verses 12-16. It describes the Apostles performing miracles during their ministry. The power of God working through them was so strong, that, according to verse 5, people were healed even when St. Peter’s shadow fell upon them.

 

These events are described within the first few chapters of Acts. Thus, one shouldn’t be shocked if these event did take place, historically, sometime shortly after the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, in the very early years of the Apostles’ ministry. What this reading shows is that which was implicit in the second reading: namely, Divine Mercy isn’t merely the pardoning of sins in a legalistic sense, that is, God saying, “I’ll forget about your sins, now here’s a get-out-of-jail-free card.” Rather, Divine Mercy, far from being something external to the self, is something at work within us. The Apostles witnessed the Resurrection of Our Lord. They saw the pledge of Eternal Life made manifest in that event. Then, fifty days later, after Jesus had ascended into Heaven, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. After witnessing the Resurrection and being filled with the Holy Spirit, the Apostles began to preach the Gospel, perform miracles, and ultimately died as martyrs. In doing so, they brought many people to salvation.

 

But, when you look at verses 17-42 – the verses immediately after the ones we read this past Sunday – we see the story of the Jewish religious leaders arresting the Apostles and putting them in jail, during which time they tried to persuade the Apostles to stop preaching before finally flogging them. But, as the rest of the text continues, the Apostles did not stop preaching.

 

And this shows one of the effects of Divine Mercy at work within us: namely, the recognition that God, in having mercy on us, has destroyed and conquered sin. Jesus died on the Cross, but in doing so, He conquered death. He allowed Himself to be the victim of human sinfulness, but in doing so conquered human sinfulness. Trust in Divine Mercy thus creates a sense of humbleness before God which leads us to be bold before men. It is a sense of fear of the Lord which protects us against fear of the world, fear of sin, fear of men. It creates a sense of servitude towards the Lord which lays the basis for freedom from the things that bind us within our fallen, broken existence.

This doesn’t mean that we aren’t humble before our fellow humans. Some humans have legitimate authority which we must submit to, and the Bible commands this. The Bible also commands putting the wants and needs of others before our own. All of these things are signs of humility. Yet, awareness of God’s mercy creates an awareness that Christ has conquered sin. Whenever we are wronged by our fellow man, this shouldn’t create resentment or deep, existential fear. Whenever we see sin or the effects of sin within ourselves, this should create guilt, but it shouldn’t create despair and hopelessness.

 

Ultimately, Divine Mercy makes us aware of how God has defeated the forces of evil, sin and death. This thus reaffirms our belief that God is the Sovereign and All-Good Lord of all. This thus motivates us to serve the Lord above all. In serving the Lord, we don’t look for trouble, but we aren’t afraid to butt heads with the forces of evil if need be, whether it be sin or the effects of sin within ourselves, or the sinful actions of others. Just as the Apostle John bowed before Christ upon seeing Him, likewise God’s mercy at work within us, and an awareness of God’s immense glory, frees us from sin and creates within us a sense of gratitude towards God, which then moves us towards the worship and service of God. We recognize that God is our Ultimate Source, and that human nature is, by definition, ordered towards God. Human nature is warped when it is not ordered towards this end. When Divine Mercy frees us from sin, it causes us to realize that God is the highest good, the desire for Whom is the foundation of all human desiring, towards Whom we owe our highest and most profound love, and to Whom we owe our highest allegiance. This, like with the Apostles, strengthens us to do what is right, and this, combined with the awareness that God’s mercy is sovereign even over the forces of sin and death, emboldens us in the face of sin and evil. We know that God has already defeated evil, and everything is merely a playing out of this victory over sin.

 

God’s mercy thus creates a sense of inner peace. Interestingly, yesterday, we celebrated the feast day of St. Catherine of Siena, one of the greatest mystics of the Middle Ages. One of the visions she had of Christ is closely related to the point we have made thus far. The 18th century pontiff Benedict XIV, writing on the life of St. Catherine, relays the message of this vision, saying,

 

In the Dialogues of St. Catherine of Siena, we read thus: “If thou asketh Me how it may be known, whether it [a mystical experience] comes from the devil rather than from Me, I answer, the sign is this: that if it be from the devil, that he is come to visit thee in the form of light, as it is said, the soul receives at once, when he comes, a certain pleasure, but the longer he remains, the more is this pleasure lost, weariness and darkness remain, and pain is in the mind, obscuring it within. But if in truth it is visited by Me, the soul receives at first a holy fear, and with this fear cheerfulness and security, with a sweet prudence, which, not doubting, doubts not. … [W]hen it is visited by Me, there is fear at first, and afterwards, and at the end, cheerfulness, and a hunger for virtue…” [2]

 

This standard applies to all experiences or encounters with Christ: to be aware of God’s presence in our lives produces fear – that is, overwhelming awe at God’s Infinite Majesty and Goodness, which then leads to a twofold effect: an awareness of our smallness when compared to God, and a desire to not do anything to offend the Goodness and Majesty of God. Yet, since God is the Source and Goal of human life, He is the source of all meaning, and therefore happiness. The fear of the Lord that constitutes our initial encounter with God leads to happiness, faith, and trust in God’s plan, which in turn leads to prudence, that is, moral wisdom, the ability to differentiate right from wrong. Fear of the Lord leads to happiness, inner peace, and illumines the world around us, giving us the ability to move forward, to do God’s will in the concrete circumstances we find ourselves.

 

St. John, when receiving his revelations on Patmos, represents the first aspect of this encounter with God, while the Apostles preaching, performing miracles and confronting the authorities of their time embodies with latter aspect of an encounter with God. And it is THIS which serves as the essential form of experiencing God’s mercy.

 

 

Sources:

  1. To get a list of this week’s readings, visit: https://www.loyolapress.com/our-catholic-faith/liturgical-year/sunday-connection/second-sunday-of-easter-cycle-c-sunday-connection
  2. Pope Benedict XIV, Treatise on the Lives of the Canonized Saints and the Servants of God, vol. III (London: Thomas Richardson and Son, 1852), pg. 337. Accessed on: https://archive.org/details/heroicvirtue03beneuoft

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