Several years ago I began researching the meaning of the word “mercy.” It is a word frequently used in the Roman Catholic Mass. Bishop John Sheets, a former professor of mine at Creighton University, used to say that certain theological words are “weighted.” By this he meant that there is more to a word’s meaning than what we might understand at a first glance. In fact, he took a complete term to explain one word – grace! I believe the word mercy is also one of those weighted words. Here are some of the “qualities” of mercy that may help us to gain deeper insight.
One quality of mercy is a willingness to forgive. This is perhaps the most common understanding of mercy. When we use the word mercy in the Mass, there is the hope that God will grant us forgiveness. We say, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”
Another quality of mercy is the willingness to ease the suffering of another, even at great sacrifice. There are many examples of this aspect of mercy. For example, parents often sacrifice much for their children, especially when they are sick or in pain. Another example is Healthcare Professionals who often go the extra mile to help.
A third quality of mercy is care for another, an eagerness to help. An example of this occurred in New York several years ago; a man risked his life by jumping in front of a subway train to help a young man who had fallen on the tracks. Our response to any tragedy, whether local, national or international (e.g., a family whose home is lost due to fire, the devastation of a hurricane or other natural disaster) brings out this quality.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, one of the words translated as mercy is “hesed.” Its meaning in the scripture implies a mutuality. Those who receive mercy are also to be merciful. To have mercy then implies an active involvement. As the gospel of Luke expresses, “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Mercy is not only something received, it is to be given as well. Pope Francis beautifully expands on this notion of mercy in his document announcing the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus.
So, the next time you pray the words, “Lord, have mercy” remember it weighted. It is more than just forgiveness. It’s about caring for others, helping out those who are in need and a responsibility to show mercy to each person that grace our lives!
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