BLESSED ARE THE MERCIFUL; THEY SHALL OBTAIN MERCY
(Matthew 5: v.7)
Why is the exercise of mercy so difficult for us Christians, as it is not a pagan virtue, and certainly not a humanist’s, or a secularist’s virtue? It is virtue that emanates from the heart of God himself, and finds its perfect expression in Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection. We must be absolutely crystal clear that the Second Person of The Blessed Trinity, would have suffered the Passion for one individual. Christ does not simply see huge crowds of anonymous people, as if he were viewing a Cup Final Crowd, a Nuremburg Rally, or the Crowds at a May Day Celebration in Red Square back in the Soviet days, neither does he see huge crowds as were seen at Blessed John Paul II’s funeral as a crowd, nor does he see the massive armies fighting each other to death during the great and terrible battles of The First and Second World Wars. He sees each and every individual as his beloved creation, infinitely lovable, because he has created each one of us out of infinite love.
Now because we are fallen, our love is defective and is particularly open to the corrosive effects of jealousy, self pity anger and anxiety. We are not helped if we are taken up with ourselves which is another tragic feature of our fallen nature, namely selfishness. In families we too often see these hellish vices flourishing.
I remember when I was studying Elizabethan and early Jacobean drama many, many years ago for my A levels, being struck by a peculiar form of drama called “Revenge Tragedies”, the most famous, of course, being Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, and the most horrible being possibly Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi”, which apparently was based loosely on something that happened in Italy in the early 16th century. The terrible characters of the Cardinal and Ferdinand, the Duchess’s brothers could be modern characters in some terrible thriller, especially Ferdinand who has the Duchess and her second husband a commoner called Antonio Beccadelli di Bologna murdered, (He has the same name in the play as he did in real life. The Duchess in real life was Giovanna d’Aragona, the granddaughter of Ferdinand I of Naples, and her first husband was the Duke of Amalfi). The reason that The Duchess is cruelly murdered along with Antonio, and their children, is ultimately because her brothers cannot abide the fact that she has married beneath herself. This blood filled tragedy has special resonances with the appalling cruelty and often murder that takes place in the modern family, which is usually not based on marriage at all, but on lust. So one vice leads to another. When Man makes himself the centre of the Universe, then everything, his children, his friends, his, spouse, lover, country, town, neighbourhood become simply extensions of himself. How many a son or daughter, from prosperous middle class families, have so often had to submit to their parents’ egocentric wishes and follow a path that they would have rather not chosen. When children, brothers, sisters or parents are simply there to fulfil our whims and wishes, then we become our own gods, and we soon become incapable of a merciful thought or action.
Mercy, however sees the utter importance of the other person, and to return to the world of theatre, is happy to be working backstage, or taking only a bit part in the play, so that those taking the major roles will truly shine. The merciful person is truly compassionate. He or she suffers with the other person, or suffers for the other person, sometimes dying for them. We see this in the wonderful character of Alcestis in Euripides’s great tragedy of the same name. Here we see a legendary pagan character beginning to understand mercy albeit in a very opaque way. She has a glimmer of what it demands. Admetus, the King of Thessaly, and husband of Alcestis is dying. He can live, if someone will take his place. Oddly his old father refuses, because he still wants to enjoy life. Alcestis takes her husband’s place. This has all come about, because Apollo for a while was banished to earth from Olympus and became a servant of Admetus, and allowed Admetus to cheat death for a while, if someone else would take his place. Alcestis is certainly not a Christian character, but she has all the best qualities of the Greek Classical heroine. After Alcestis has been buried, Hercules turns up at the palace of Admetus. Admetus who promised Alcestis that there would be no merry making after her death, breaks his promise, tells the servants to say nothing about Alcestis’ death. Hercules is lavishly entertained by Admetus and gets drunk. This so upsets the servants, that he tells Hercules what has happened. Hercules, mortified, decides he must do something, and goes down to Hades. He rescues Alcestis, and everyone rejoices. I think that the play is more manageable as transformed by Gluck into an opera of great beauty. There have been three great Alcestis’ on recording, Kirsten Flagstad, Eileen Farrell, and Janet Baker. Alcestis has become more sympathetic at the hands of the Christian composer.
In our very degraded Western World, and not only is it degraded, many other parts of the world are equally degraded, mercy is in short supply, and the term is so often misused. Euthanasia is known under the chilling title “mercy killing”; when is killing every merciful? Christ’s death shows mercy. In that sense mercy is seemingly passive but in fact is anything but; Christ goes to the Cross, whole heartedly and willingly. As St. Catherine of Siena says, “He runs to the table of the Cross.”
Today we see the very serious situation in the Ukraine, where nationalism, greed, legitimate grievances, racism, and anti-Semitism are making a toxic brew. Russia does not wish to see its power and influence compromised, or the 60% Russian population of Crimea at risk. America does not want Russia to be powerful. The EU seem to be overwhelmed by economic problems, monetary issues, and a worship of political correctness, and has no regard for Christian morality. It, for some mad reason, wants to export its sexual immorality to the Ukraine. There is little mercy to be had here. All the participants in this grim drama which may soon begin to resemble that most tragic of Greek tragedies, namely the epic poem, The Illiad, are thinking of their rights, their needs, and then dressing it up in Human Rights. They would do well to reflect on St. James advice on both topics, war and peace.
What leads to war, what leads to quarrelling among you? I will tell you what leads to them; the appetites which infest your mortal bodies. Your desires go unfulfilled, so you fall to murdering; you set your heart on something, and cannot have your will? Because you do not pray for it, or you pray, and what you ask is denied you, because you ask it with ill intent; you would squander it on your appetites. Wantons, have you never been told that world’s friendship means enmity with God, and the man who would have the world for his friend makes God his enemy? (James 4: 1-4) (Knox translation)
Does any of you claim to wisdom or learning? Then let him give proof of his quality by setting a good example, living peaceably as a wise man should. As long as you find bitter jealousy and thoughts of rivalry in your hearts, let us have none of this boasting that perverts the truth; such wisdom as yours does not come from above, it belongs to earth and to nature, and is fit only for devils. Where there is jealousy, where there is rivalry, there you will find disorder and every kind of defect. Whereas the wisdom which does come from above is marked chiefly indeed by its purity, but also by its peacefulness; it is courteous and ready to be convinced, always taking the better part; it carries mercy with it, and a harvest of all that is good; it is uncensorious, and without affectation. Peace is the seed-ground of holiness, and those who make peace will win its harvest. (James 3: 13-18) (Knox translation)