In Jesus of Nazareth, Part III (Holy Week), Pope Benedict XVI explains the meaning of Jesus’ saving death on the cross. An earlier, material notion of sacrifice (burnt offerings to God for the forgiveness of sins) gradually gave way to another, more spiritual notion, whereby human beings dedicate their entire existence – body, mind, and soul – to God: that is, perfect obedience. By its very nature, sacrifice of this sort is impossible for human beings to accomplish unaided. The Holy Father writes: “The Son becomes man and in his body bears the whole of humanity back to God. Only the incarnate Word, whose love is fulfilled on the Cross, is the new sacrifice, and in this obedience he draws us all with him and at the same time wipes away all our disobedience through his love.” (235) What a beautiful description of the theological, liturgical, and ethical dimensions of Jesus’ sacrifice: the Good Shepherd seeks out those who were lost, joins them to his prayer to the Father, and ultimately restores them to friendship with God.
One of the manifestations of “true sacrifice” for Christians is God’s mercy: both the experience and the practice of it. Today, the Church celebrates Divine Mercy Sunday in the spirit of St. Faustina, the early 20th-century nun and mystic. During the interim between the two World Wars, she preached devotion to the Divine Mercy, one that surpasses a shallow form of “empathy” or “do-good-ism.” She writes: “I feel tremendous pain when I see the sufferings of my neighbors. All my neighbors’ sufferings reverberate in my own heart; I carry their anguish in my heart in such a way that it even physically destroys me. I would like all their sorrows to fall upon me, in order to relieve my neighbor.” Just as Christ identifies with the “least” of his brothers and sisters, so much so that actions toward them are directed at him as well. Such profound compassion implies a sense of urgency to alleviate all forms of human suffering: physical, of course, but also mental, emotional, and spiritual as well.
A sense of urgent identification with the suffering members of Christ’s Body, therefore, tempers our Easter joy, given the horrific attacks that claimed the lives of almost 300 Christians in Sri Lanka last Sunday. The act is all the more cruel owing to the vulnerability of these people, engaged as they were in the worship of almighty God on Easter Sunday itself. Christianity is officially the most widely persecuted religion in the world today. Of course, we do not believe that one life is more “valuable” than another, but we have to ask whether it is responsible to accept hostility, both explicit and implicit, toward the Church as the “new normal.” A sense of outrage at injustice is certainly consistent with the compassion and mercy Christ would have us demonstrate toward our neighbor. Indeed, it is only because we can identify with others on a deep level – the meaning of Cardinal Newman’s motto, Cor ad Cor Loquitur (“Heart Speaks to Heart”) – that we actually do something about the misery of the human condition. It is no coincidence that virtually every institution dedicated to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy were born within the structures of Roman Catholicism.
As we rejoice in the victory of Christ over Death, we do well to pause and pray for our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka. We who have embraced the Cross of Christ should consider how best to herald the Divine Mercy in our own corner of the world.