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The Mercy Seat

“Mercy” in all its meanings implies a special gift. It is a concept denoting compassion, gratitude, and the commiseration with those who suffer. The English word “mercy” comes from Old French, meaning "God's forgiveness of his creatures' offenses - the ‘grace’ of salvation." It is derived from Latin roots that mean "reward, gift, kindness." “Mercy” is so connected to giving that it became the response for those who received; “merci” today means “thank you” in French.

In Hebrew scriptures, the “mercy seat” was the seat atop the ark of the covenant, where God met human, in the holy of holies deep within the temple. Here one was cleansed, one’s transgressions wiped clean. Theologically, “mercy” refers to the heavenly reward of those who show kindness to the helpless. Meaning "disposition to forgive or show compassion," those who are merciful to people who suffer are believed to receive divine mercy – the promise of salvation and the alleviation of their own distress. Mercy traffics in forgiveness:

“The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed- It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.” William Shakespeare

Mercy is akin to the word “pity,” though the word pity has become tainted in its connotation in recent times; how often have you heard someone deride another for “wallowing in self-pity”? Pity means ‘having sorrow in response to another’s misery”; “mercy” happens when we act on that sorrow. Mercy also asks us to go easy on one another – to not only feel what others feel but to not dwell on one another’s faults. English poet Alexander Pope says this beautifully:

“Teach me to feel another’s woe, To hide the fault I see: That mercy I to others show, That mercy show to me.”

The most important – and often most neglected – use of mercy is to have mercy on ourselves. The Catholic Mass includes a term called Kyrie Eleison, a Latin term meaning, “Lord have mercy.” It seems easier for us to ask God or other people to be merciful to us than for us to be merciful to ourselves. So I invite us to use two phrases during this month: May God be merciful; May I show mercy unto myself.

In faith and love,

Reverend Scott Sammler-Michael


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