Receive Mercy, Become Mercy, Offer Mercy

When we celebrate the Divine Liturgy during Lent, our practice is to recite the Beatitudes.

“Blessed are the merciful…”

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned.  Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.” (Luke 6.36-38)

The Son of God became like us that we might become like Him.

Us. All of us alike have gone astray, each to his own way. One is not “less astray” than the other. I am not better than my fellow human. I am not worse either. We are all encountered by God in love in our common condition of lost-ness – of hell.

When we begin our life of Christian discipleship, we realize that categories of sin are, in many ways, an attempt to not to achieve justice but to excuse myself and make myself feel “less bad.” We realize that when we judge our brother or sister (see the story Pharisee and publican) we are actually condemning ourselves.

It doesn’t mean we throw judgment out the window and adopt a “whatever” attitude. No, judgment is necessary. It is just that God is the only judge. And, His judgment is not from afar but from the midst of us. Christ is in our midst as the merciful judge. Mercy is the law that governs the whole universe. It is the power that saves the whole universe. It is the law that is at the heart of every authentic relationship. Perhaps that is why, in the Holy Tradition, “Lord have mercy” is the most frequently repeated phrase.

His desire is for you and me to be in the midst of the life of others in the same way by grace. The unceasing phrase within us needs to be, “Lord have mercy.” Be merciful as your Father is merciful. The mercy we receive is the exact mercy we offer. Not a skimpy mercy. That is not mercy. That is judging in noble clothing. Mercy is overflowing, outrageous, and astonishing. It is not, therefore, the mercy I would end up offering. My version of mercy must be crucified. What is raised — born — is the mercy of God in me that I choose to be expressed through me. The mercy I offer is the mercy I have become by grace.

If that is the case, my task is to say “yes” to the Holy Spirit’s desire to address everything in my life that hinders such an inward-outward flow or operates instead of it or contradicts who I am in Christ — my life-giving identity by grace.

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“For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4.15-16)

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You see, then, that Christ has two natures in one Person, one which always was and another which began to be. And according to that nature which was eternally his, he always knew everything. But according to that which began in time, he experienced many things in time. In this way he began to know the miseries of the flesh, by that mode of cognition which the weakness of the flesh instructs.

Our first parents were wiser and happier when they did not know that which they came to know only foolishly and in wretchedness. But God their Creator, seeking what was lost, came down in mercy in pursuit of his wretched creatures, to where they had miserably fallen. He wanted to experience for himself what they were suffering because they had gone against his will. He came not out of a curiosity like theirs, but out of a wonderful charity. He did not intend to remain wretched among them, but to free those who were wretched as one made merciful.

Therefore Christ was made merciful, not with that mercy which he who remained happy had had from eternity, but with that mercy which he discovered in our fleshly garb as he himself went through our misery. SourceSaint Bernard (1091-1153), The Degrees of Humility and Pride, §12

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The Kingdom of heaven is acquired by force

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5.8)

Truly a wonderful and often quoted verse to encourage the faithful. But, what does it imply?! The first indication of what the attainment of a “pure heart” involves occurs at the end of the Beatitudes.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5.10-12)

And who are the persecutors? Are they people? Read Ephesians 6. They are spiritual forces of wickedness external to us and within us. In the most profound sense they are the “passions” at work within us. Those inclinations and drives that hinder the fulfillment of our union with Christ – theosis.

Jesus indicated that the Kingdom of God is within us and that is where the warfare to attain it is waged. Our inner life is, among other things, an arena of combat. The acquisition of purity of heart is a violent journey.

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“And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11.12)

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“Suppose there to be a garden with many fruit trees and other sweet-smelling plants, and that it were all well tilled and laid out for beauty, and that it had also a small wall by way of hedge to preserve it, and suppose that a vehement stream goes through there, though but a little of the water dashes against the wall and saps the foundation, it gets itself a course, and little by little breaks up the foundation, and finds entrance and tears its way, and roots up all the plants, and mars all the tilling, and makes it fruitless. So is it with man’s heart. It has its good thoughts ; but the streams of evil also are always near the heart, desiring to cast it down, and to incline it to its own side. Then if the mind be ever so little light, and yield to unclean thoughts, behold, the spirits of error have found scope, and have entered in, and have overturned the beauties that were there, and have destroyed the good thoughts and laid the soul waste.

As the eye is little in comparison of all the members, and the pupil, small as it is, is a great vessel, because it sees at one glance sky, star, sun, moon, cities and other creatures, and likewise these things, seen at the glance, are formed and imaged in the little pupil of the eye ; so is the mind in the heart, and the heart itself is but a little vessel, and yet there are dragons, and there lions, and there venomous beasts, and all the treasures of wickedness ; and there are rough uneven ways, there chasms ; there likewise is God, there the angels, there life and the kingdom, there light and the apostles, there the heavenly cities, there the treasures, there are all things.” St. Macarius of Egypt (300-391), Homily XLIII

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Joshua crossed the Jordan to attack Jericho. But Saint Paul teaches: “Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the unseen powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens,” (Ephesians 6.12). Those things that were written down are images and symbols. For Paul says elsewhere: “These things happened as an example; they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come,” (1 Corinthians 10.11). If, then, these things have been written down as a warning, well then!, why delay? Like Joshua, let us set out to war, attacking the greatest city in the world, namely wickedness, and let us throw down the arrogant walls of sin.

Would you look around for which path to take, which battlefield to choose? No doubt you will find my words extraordinary; nevertheless, they are true: limit your quest to yourself alone. In you lies the combat you are going to engage, within yourself the structure of evil and sin to pull down; your enemy emerges from the depths of your heart. It is not I who say this but Christ. Listen to him: “From the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy,” (Matthew 15.19). Do you realize the power of this enemy force that advances against you from the depths of your heart? Those are our real enemies. Origen (185-253), Homilies on Joshua, Number 5

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“If you want to serve God, prepare your heart not for food, not for drink, not for rest, not for ease, but for suffering, so that you may endure all temptations, trouble and sorrow. Prepare for severities, fasts, spiritual struggles and many afflictions, for “by many afflictions is it appointed to us to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Acts 14,22); ‘The Heavenly Kingdom is taken by force, and the who use force seize it.’ (Matt 11:12) St. Sergius of Radonezh, Life, 10