Sadly, many people today understand mercy in a very detached way, a way that is apart from repentance and a deep knowledge of our sinfulness. Too many people think that mercy means that God merely overlooks our sins, or doesn’t really care about our sins. Hence, the thinking goes,
“Since God is merciful, He doesn’t really care that I live with my girlfriend or fornicate. He doesn’t really care that I skip Mass or refuse to forgive someone who has hurt me. No, God is merciful so He doesn’t care about all that stuff.”
But of course this notion isn’t mercy at all. Rather, it cancels it and there is nothing to celebrate. For if God doesn’t care about sin, or even regard sin as sin at all, then mercy is not needed. And in this way if we do not grasp the bad news (that sin is real and a serious problem for us) then the good news (mercy) is no news.
In this year of mercy, we ought first to contemplate (by which I mean to grasp, deeply and innately) our sins, in order to rejoice profoundly in God’s mercy and abide in it. In doing this we are raised to higher and better things by confident joy and gratitude in God
Consider the following wisdom from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, as he speaks to this “cycle” of contemplating our sins and God’s mercy:
The first stage of contemplation, my dear brothers, is constantly to consider what God wants, what is pleasing to him, and what is acceptable in his eyes. We all offend in many things; our strength cannot match the rectitude of God’s will, being neither one with it nor wholly in accord with it. [L]et us then humble ourselves …
Once the eye of the soul has been purified by such considerations, we no longer abide within our own spirit in a sense of sorrow, but we abide rather in the Spirit of God, with great delight!
… The whole of the spiritual life consists of these two elements: When we think of ourselves, we are perturbed and filled with a salutary sadness. And when we think of the Lord, we are revived to find consolation in the joy of the Holy Spirit.
From the first we derive fear and humility, from the second hope and love (Sermo 5,4-5, St Bernard Abbot).
Note that St. Bernard uses the phrase “salutary sadness.” Thus contemplating our sins is not envisioned as a self-loathing, or as a merely accusatory action. Rather, it is to lay hold of our need for mercy and for God. St. Paul in Second Corinthians distinguishes between godly and worldly sorrow: For godly sorrow produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but worldly sorrow produces death (2 Cor 7:10).
Hence we go to the foot of Cross and there behold what our sins have done to us, to others, and to Christ, and we weep there for our sins. But our sorrow is turned to joy as we also there encounter the true glory of mercy available to us.
Note: it is our repentance that unlocks mercy. It is our sorrow that brings consolation and joy. It is knowing the bad news that makes the good news, astonishing news.
Scripture admonishes, “Do not forget the works of the Lord!” (Ps 78:7) And thus we are summoned to remember.
What does it mean for me to remember? It means to have so present in my mind and heart what God has done for me that I am grateful and different.
And this work of God’s mercy that we should never forget, takes place at the foot of the Cross, where I am summoned to bring the burden of my sins, weeping for them and humbly admitting them. Yes, I need this death of Jesus’. That’s how bad off I am! But then rushes in gratitude and joy. And this experience of God changes and elevates me. Grateful people are different. They are more confident, generous, forgiving, and joyfully complaint in whatever God asks of them.
The year of mercy is not a declaration that God doesn’t really care about sin. It is a declaration that He cares about us and knows what sin does to us and to others. He seeks our repentance and sorrow in order to unlock His mercy, which elevates and changes us.
To summarize St. Bernard, the whole spiritual life consists looking to our self honestly so that we acquire salutary sorrow and run to the Lord, who transforms us by His grace and mercy. Repentance unlocks mercy and brings healing.
This song says,
If might I hide my blushing face
While Calvary’s cross appears
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness
And melt my eyes to tears.
At the cross at the cross
Where I first saw the light
And the burdens of my heart rolled away.
It was there by faith I received my sight
Now I’m happy all the day.
Here’s a very different version from the “We Sing” concert: