Although John Paul II instituted this feast, uniting it with the Sunday after Easter so as to make the immediate connection between the saving action of the Cross and Resurrection, the place of the revelation of God as Mercy is as old as Sacred Scripture. It is, after all, a name which God gives to himself, in Exodus 34:6:
The Lord passed before Moses, and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin….”
It is the name which continues to occur again and again throughout the Old Testament writings, and so becomes the quintessential attitude and experience of the God who establishes and returns to the covenant which he makes with the people which he loves. No surprise, then, that in Christ Jesus this mercy is the defining characteristic, if so it might be called, which is the highest expression of the Incarnation. The Incarnation finds its completion in Christ’s Passion, death and resurrection.
And we should never be surprised that the Risen Christ bears the real wounds of his crucifixion – the crucifixion, death and resurrection, while always appearing three distinct moments in that passion narrative and lived and remembered experience, are one complete salvific action performed by the Father through the Spirit in Christ. They belong together and made no sense if separated and made to be distinct. The totality of the Father’s intervention in Christ happens precisely in time, so that humankind may claim the lived experience, but at the same time this intervention is the always present, and always transcendent, and always effective single action.
For the Cistercians, the meditation upon Christ’s sacred humanity was never far from this experience of his mystical kiss as mercy. So, when they read the Song of Songs – which they understood to be the dialogue between the soul and Christ, the soul’d Bridegroom – and came across these words: My dove, hiding in the clefts of the rock, in the coverts of the cliff, show me your face (Song 2:14), those clefts in which the soul could take refuge could mean only one thing. They were the wounds opened up in the flesh of Christ, the Rock, wounds which, healing and salvific, were a true place of refuge for us who seek healing for ourselves.
So St Bernard of Clairvaux can write:
Another writer (Gregory the Great) glosses this passage differently, seeing in the clefts of the rock the wounds of Christ. And quite correctly, for Christ is the rock. Good the clefts that strengthen our faith in the resurrection and the divinity of Christ. The apostle (Thomas) exclaimed: ‘My Lord and my God’. What was the source of these inspired words if not the clefts of the rock?
The wise man builds his house upon a rock, because there he will fear the violence neither of storms nor of floods. Set high on the rock, secure on the rock, I stand on the rock firmly. The rock, with its durability and security, is in heaven. And really where is there safe sure rest for the weak except in the Saviour’s wounds? There the security of my dwelling depends on the greatness of his saving power. The world rages, the body oppresses, the devil lays his snares: I do not fall because I am founded on rock. I have sinned gravely, my conscience is disturbed but not confounded, because I shall remember the wounds of the Lord. For ‘he was wounded for our transgressions’. What sin is so deadly as not to be forgiven in the death of Christ? If therefore a medicine so powerful and efficacious finds entrance to my mind, no disease, however, virulent, can frighten me.
Whatever is lacking in my own resources I appropriate for myself from the heart of the Lord, which overflows with mercy. And there is no lack of clefts by which they (merits) are poured out. They pierced his hands and his feet, they gored his side with a lance, and through these fissures I can suck honey from the rock and oil from the flinty stone – I can taste and see that the Lord is good.
The nail that pierced him has become for me a key unlocking the sight of the Lord’s will. Why should I not gaze through the cleft? The nail cries out, the wound cries out that God is truly in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The iron pierced his soul and his heart has drawn near, so that he is no longer one who cannot sympathise with my weaknesses. The secret of his heart is laid open through the clefts of his body; that mighty mystery of loving is laid open, laid open too the tender mercies of our God. Surely his heart is laid open through his wounds!
(The Church) did not blush at the swarthiness of the cross, she was not terrified by the bitterness of the passion, she did not flee from the ugliness of the wounds. Accordingly she hears the words: ‘My dove in the clefts of the rock’, because all her affections are preoccupied with the wounds of Christ; she abides in them by constant meditation.
If we understand that the hollow in the ground is referred to (Is. 2:10) in the words: ‘they have dug my hands and my feet’, we cannot doubt that the wounded soul who abides there will quickly regain health. What greater cure for the wounds of conscience and for purifying the minds acuity than to persevere in meditation on the wounds of Christ? Indeed until he has been perfectly purified and healed I do not see how anyone can suitably listen to the words: ‘Let me see your face, let me hear your voice.’
(Sermons on the Song of Songs, 61)
And Blessed Guerric of Igny, commenting on the same, tells us:
Blessed is he who, in order that I might be able to build a nest in the clefts of the rock, allowed his hands, feet and side to be pierced and opened himself to me wholly that I might enter “the place of his wonderful tent” and be protected in its recesses. These clefts, so many open wounds over all his body, offer pardon to the guilty and bestow grace on the just. Indeed, it is a safe dwelling place, my brethren, and a tower of strength in the face of the enemy, to linger in the wounds of Christ, the Lord, by devout and constant meditation. By faith in the Crucified and love of him a man keeps his soul safe from the heat of the flesh, from the turmoil of the world, from the attacks of the devil.
Go into the rock, then, man; hide in the dug ground. Make the Crucified your hiding place. He is the rock, he is the ground, he who is God and man. He is the cleft rock, the dug ground, for “they have dug my hands and my feet.” Hide in the dug ground from the fear of the Lord, that is, from him fly to him, from the Judge to the Redeemer, from the tribunal to the Cross, from the Just One to the Merciful, from him who will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth to him who inebriates the earth with the drops of his blood, from him who will kill the godless with the breath of his lips to him who with the blood of his wounds gives life to the dead.
Rather do not fly only to him but into him, go into the clefts of the rock, hide in the dug ground, hide yourself in the very hands that were cleft, in the side that was dug.
Rightly then the dove of Christ, Christ’s fair one, for whom his wounds have provided clefts so safe, so good for the building of a nest, sings his praises everywhere today with rejoicing. Now you, my brethren, have built your nests the more deeply within the clefts of the rock the more secretly you live in Christ and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
In both of these very powerfully composed discourses, Bernard and Guerric draw us into the reality of the Crucified One, but in order to show that that is where our own wounds, fragility, brokenness find their place and find their sense. There is the implication, also, because of the overall vision, that something of the marks and wounds remain – they are not entirely healed or taken away. We bear them, just as Christ bears them, not as a painful reminder of a time of suffering but as a further invitation to continue to live into his redemptive act.
Not to be outdone by her male counterparts that great Cistercian nun, Gertrude of Helfta, who is the true originator of teaching on the divine mercy and seems to adopt ‘mercy’ as her favoured word of address to Jesus, has this to say to us:
Ah Jesus, my faithful friend, may the abyss of your generous mercy be the safest hiding-place for me, in which I may escape the horrible insults of my enemies. And you yourself be for then my safe asylum, into which I may joyfully leap from the captivity of all evils. Ah Jesus, my sweet hope, may your God-heart (broken by love for me) which lies uninterruptedly open to all sinners, be the first refuge of my soul out of its body. There, in the abyss of unlimited love, may my entire transgression be absorbed in a moment so that I may, without obstacle, enter with you into the heavenly dance, O cherished one of my heart.
Closer to our own times, and as one with the Ignatian devotion to the Sacred Heart, the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Pedro Arrupe sj, links for us the wounds, mercy and pierced heart of Christ so that they become definitive for us in our relationship with God:
The Heart of Jesus is a door through which we can also discover God’s works which go out from himself. If love always means communication, that infinite love which is God communicates outwards from him and, through Creation, he spreads his perfection through all the creatures in the universe, making them reflections of his own Light; but the human person in particular was created by God ‘in his own image’; he was made capable of love, of communication, of giving himself fully to others, and this is where the full realisation of his human potential and happiness lies.
And it was, after all, the unfathomable answer to the question which was never fully articulated but always present to Thomas Merton ocso:
God, speaking of himself: Mercy within Mercy within Mercy
(The Sign of Jonas, Epilogue)