A Liturgical Christian’s Understanding of Mercy
Bryan’s note: As I travel the internet I occasionally find something out of the ordinary. Something that stands out and blesses me. The following text is a wonderfully precise definition and application of God’s mercy. I hope it blesses you the way it blessed me.
Many people remember the Russian couple, the Rosenbergs, who were tried in court for treason against the United States. The trial was a long and bitter one. As the final sentence was pronounced, the lawyer for the Rosenbergs cried out, “Your Honor, what my clients ask for is justice!”
Judge Kaufman replied, “What the court has given them is what they ask, justice! What they really want is mercy. But mercy is something this court has no right to give them.”
The One who has the right to give mercy is God.
The Theme of God’s Mercy
This is brought out in the Gospel reading of the Pharisee and the Publican. “God, be merciful to me the sinner,” prayed the Publican. His only plea was for mercy, Kyrie Eleison! Without this prayer Christianity would be a philosophy, a history, a code but not a religion that saves.
The same theme of God’s mercy is expressed again in the Gospel lesson of the Prodigal Son. Listen to the words of the following hymn from the vesper service of the Prodigal Son:
“As the Prodigal Son I come to you, merciful God. I have wasted my whole life in a foreign land; I have scattered the wealth which You gave me, O Father.
“Receive me in repentance, O God, and have mercy upon me.”
One of the most beautiful examples of God’s mercy is the prodigal son, who leaves home, wastes all his father’s resources in sin, ends up living with pigs, remembers his father, repents, and returns home where he is embraced by the waiting father, who declares a feast to celebrate his return. That is God’s mercy.
The same theme of mercy is emphasized again in the Gospel reading which deals with the second coming of Christ. Listen to the words of the following hymn from the Orthros:
“Have mercy, O Lord, have mercy upon me. I cry to you, when you come with your angels to give to every person due return for his/her deeds.”
From the Matins’ Services of Lent
After the Gospel reading at matins on each Sunday during Lent, we hear the following beautiful hymns of repentance:
“Open to me the doors of repentance, O Life-Giver …But in your compassion purify me by the loving kindness of your mercy.
“When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am, I tremble at the fearful day of judgment, but trusting in Your loving-kindness, like David I cry out to You. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy.”
These hymns are preceded by the reading of Psalm 51, one of the most used psalms in Orthodox worship services. In this Psalm, David asks God’s mercy for his sins and proclaims that God’s steadfast love and mercy are greater than the sins of His creatures:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love. According to Thy abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Ps. 51.1-2) .
From the Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete
Another place where the call to God for mercy is heard during the first week of Lent is in the penitential canon of St. Andrew of Crete sung each evening during compline. Listen to some of the hymns:
“I have sinned, Lord, I have sinned against you.
Be merciful to me though there is no one whose sins I have not surpassed.
I cry to You, O Lord: Have mercy, have mercy on me!
When You come with Your angels to give due reward to each person for his deeds.
“I have sinned as no other person before,
I have transgressed more than any other, O Lord.
Before the Day of Judgment comes be merciful to me, O Lover of Man.
“Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!”
David once showed us the image of true repentance in a psalm he wrote exposing all that he had done:
“Be merciful to me and cleanse me!” he wrote,
“For against You only have I sinned, the God of our fathers.
Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!
I have distorted Your image, O Savior, and broken Your commandments.
The beauty of my soul has been spoiled, and its light extinguished by my sins.” in David’s words, “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation.”
“But have pity on me and,”
“Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!
Return! Return! Uncover what is hidden!”
“Say to God who knows all things:
‘You are my only Savior and know my terrible secrets.’
Yet in David’s words I cry to You:
‘Be merciful to me, O God, according to Your steadfast love.'”
“Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!”