The impression she makes will depend, in large measure, upon what you know of her. And, it matters when, in her life, that you meet her. Begin with her last moment, her death. In her final words, one hears a common humanity.
A crowd is howling for her execution, and, unlike many of the aristocrats who face the guillotine stoically, she is hysterical. Her final words are to her executioner, a desperate plea for pity. “Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment.” (Just one moment more, Mr. Executioner, a small moment.”
What good would that do? Death is here. The end has come. But, unless our minds will be focused upon some noble purpose, or infused with a sagacity most of us have never known, aren’t these the words, which we would also speak to death, in whatever guise he takes? That is, if morphine hasn’t already clouded the mind and muddled the voice? “Just one moment more, a small moment.”
The woman is Madame du Barry, the mistress of King Louis XV of France, accused by the revolutionaries of aiding aristocrats to escape their justice. She lived a voluptuous life. So, does she deserve her death? She was born an illegitimate pauper and was pimped into the highest society. Does that make her a victim? Whatever she was, at the last moment of her life, she was a human, begging for mercy.
The church has proclaimed a year of mercy. For a moment, leave aside the politics of the synod in Rome. Before wondering where the church should show mercy in her own pastoral practice, and what that might mean, consider a more fundamental question: Why does mercy matter so little to our contemporaries? Why does a “Year of Mercy” only find press as a question of church polity? Why does the proclamation of mercy itself sound medieval, irrelevant to most folk?
Is it because many of our contemporaries don’t believe in God? Probably. But it’s more than that. Most of us don’t worry about mercy because we rarely meet a need for mercy. Modern life has left us feeling the masters of our destiny. Yes, we fret about the future; we resent those who have more than we; and we worry about others, taking what we consider our due. But who needs mercy, if you’re still in control? (Is that the appeal of those formerly blond, strongmen, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump? That they promise to keep their people in control?)
Of course there are moments when we are shaken by life itself: the loss of a career, a diagnosis, a divorce, the death of a loved one. Then we plead for mercy, even to the God who—we once said—doesn’t exist. Then the words of blind Bartimaeus become our own.
Problem is, nothing happens. At least, that’s what the skeptic says. Believers can point to innumerable prayers that have been answered, but what are the innumerable to infinity itself? Who can count how many prayers seem to pass without pity? A marriage may be saved from divorce, but all marriages end. A diagnosis may be reversed, but only his or her personal mortality prevents a physician from watching every patient die.
God is merciful; God does take pity upon us; and God answers so many prayers. But in the end—at the end—the human heart has only one plea. It wants to live. It knows that it was not created to go down into the darkness. “Just one moment more. A small moment.”
If God answers that prayer, if there is a redeemed and sanctified life to come, then God is indeed a God of mercy. Everything can be borne in hope of eternity. Without that promise, all of life is a pitiable preening.
Those are the words of the Father, spoken into the depths of a silent tomb. They are answered by the Son.
If the resurrection of Christ reveals the deepest identities of God and man, then God is merciful and we have found pity.
Jeremiah 31: 7-9 Hebrews 5: 1-6 Mark 10: 46-52