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A quality of mercy

John Collins wonders about the appropriateness of the word ‘mercy’ in some liturgical contexts …

A male friend of mine, well acquainted with theology, has for years experienced pain and anger at the total genderisation of institutional Christianity.  Hearing at liturgies – as he must – of God as ‘father’ in a Trinity where one other is ‘son’ knots his guts but steels his resolve to work for language in the church that any woman can feel at home with.  Many (female) feminists have long abandoned any such aspiration, balefully acknowledging that a church based on the Bible is irredeemably sexist.  Some years ago I think I succeeded in persuading my friend not to address a project of rescuing the Bible from its patriarchal orientation by means of a new translation.  The task would be insuperable.

While I do sympathise with him, I see no value in turning to God as my ‘Parent’ because that has no element of the intimacy that familial language evokes.  But I do try to use the word ‘God’ as often as I can instead of ‘He’ and ‘Him’, and do think it is past time when the Vatican’s theological language about us humans might make room for a little ‘she’ in place of its insistence on ‘he’.  In this matter how oddly unbalanced is the otherwise sensitive recent discourse of Benedict XVI on human love.

Such broader issues inevitably come to mind when one wants to take up a particular issue of translation.  My issue arises because of a growing aversion I notice on my part to occurrences of the word ‘mercy’ in our liturgical texts.  Of course the experience comes around very early in the Sunday liturgy.  We are no sooner welcomed than we are saying, ‘Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy’.  We all understand the context here.  We have just called to mind our sins, and in turning to God we recite or sing a very ancient liturgical invocation.  So ancient is this in the Christian liturgical tradition that in the Latin mass these short invocations appear as relics of Greek expressions from pre-Latin Christianity addressed to God, Christ and Spirit: ‘Kyrie, eleison.  Christe, eleison.   Kyrie, eleison’.

In the ‘mercy’ here we recognise what the Shorter Oxford succinctly describes as ‘Forbearance and compassion shown to a powerless person, especially an offender, or to one with no claim to receive kindness; kind and compassionate treatment in a case where severity is merited or expected’.  Of course as believers in a revelation of God’s ‘forbearance and compassion’, we do present ourselves with a level of confidence that would be beyond us as offenders in a court of human justice.  There, the sobbed plea, ‘Have mercy on me’ gives a different colour altogether to the kind of ‘mercy’ that may or may not be forthcoming.  In the latter eventuality, the ‘mercy’ is likely to have none of the kindness and compassion included in the Oxford definition, and I suspect that that kind of ‘mercy’ is what the English word mainly suggests to us.  Perhaps we recall this dimension of the word in responses to the litanies that were prominent in liturgical devotions of an earlier era: ‘Heart of Jesus, glowing furnace of charity, have mercy on us.’  It is such usage that alerts me to wonder about the appropriateness of the word ‘mercy’ in many other liturgical contexts.

The one recent instance prompting this reflection was a verse of Psalm 25 (24 in the Latin and Greek bibles, older Catholic bible translations and liturgical texts).  The verse is the middle verse of the Responsorial Psalm for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B (which is verse 6 in the Bible): ’Remember your mercy, Lord, and the love you have shown from of old.’

Here the English word ‘mercy’ – with its brooding suggestion of ‘expected severity’ – is singularly distorting of the disposition of the psalmist.  Psalm 25 is outstanding in the profound awareness it reveals of the psalmist’s complete confidence in a God who loves.  In the prior verses 1-5 there is not the slightest suggestion of a guilt that might solicit ‘mercy’ as ‘forbearance … to one with no claim to receive kindness’.  On the contrary the psalmist breaks into psalmody precisely because drawn to give expression to an experience of a divine closeness, utter benevolence, and an ancient fidelity.  So intense has been the experience that the psalmist commits to a godlike way of life and asks for guidance in this.  The liturgical text accurately registers this disposition in its elisions of the biblical text, for even when the first phrase of verse 7 goes on to say, ‘Remember not the sins of my youth’, the liturgical text omits this but picks up with the last phrase, ‘in your love remember me, because of your goodness, O Lord’.  Thus, ‘the sins of youth’ here are not matter for guilt and merciful forgiveness – as in ‘Kyrie, eleison’ – but a blip on the screen of the past that God is not to be distracted by: ‘Do not remember those but keep on remembering the real me.’

In looking at the biblical text we notice that the ‘love’ of the liturgical text is the telltale ‘steadfast love’ of some more recent translations.  That is, here the Hebrew word is the all-embracing hesed, its especially divine characteristic according to psalmists and prophets being that it ‘endures forever’ (Psalm 100:5).  If the thought of a love ‘from of old’ and ‘enduring forever’ elicited from the psalmist in the second phrase of verse 6 the word hesed, what word was elicited in the first phrase where our liturgical text and most translations speak of ‘mercy’?  It is rahmim, a plural word curiously translated in the Latin as miserationes, which the Catholic Douay translation of 1609 comprehensively rendered as ‘thy bowels of compassion’.  (Talk about my friend Ted with the knots in his guts!)  And in fact the Hebrew word, in a plural like ‘bowels’ that is called ‘intensive’, is from a root that in Semitic languages engenders meanings across the ideas of softness, gentleness, womb, affection, compassion.  Is ‘mercy’ good enough?  Or does it shift the focus away from the unchanging ancient and everlasting love of a deity for a singular human songster?  The Authorised Version of 1611 tried hard indeed: “Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses [sic], for they have been ever of old.”

Of special interest to me, being more at ease in Greek than in Hebrew, is what the ancient Greek bible, the Septuagint, made of Psalm 25:6 (24:6 in its numbering).  It, too, uses a plural word to emphasis continuous physical manifestations of the ‘pity’ and ‘compassion’ that the word speaks of.  Thus, when writers in the New Testament picked up this Greek word (oiktirmoi), the Authorised Version translated the exhortation to the ‘beloved’ Colossians at 3:12: ‘Put on … bowels of mercies’, the ‘bowels’ in this case being expressed by a separate word in Greek and adding enormously to the depth of feeling that is to accompany the ‘mercies’, called ‘tender mercie’ by William Tyndale in 1526.  What James called the ‘sympathetic’ character of God (the ‘bowel’ word again) is but part of the ‘compassionate’ nature of God (the oiktirm-  word; see 5:11).  To cite my friend’s patriarchal word, God is, according to Paul, ‘the Father of mercies [the oiktirm- word] and the God of all comfort’.

These threads of word usage drag us a long way from meanings so often cluttering around our use of ‘Kyrie, eleison’.  It would almost seem that, like the psalmist in the blessed experience recorded in Psalm 25, we have less need to plead for mercy than to accept a standing invitation to open ourselves to seas of eternal benevolence.

Dr John N Collins has published widely on issues of ministry in the church.  He teaches Texts and Traditions(Biblical Studies) at Loreto Mandeville Hall, and a course in theology of ministry at Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne.


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