Divine Mercy Sunday — the Second Sunday of Easter

SCRIPTURES & ART: Today’s Gospel is illustrated by Renaissance painter Paolo Moranda Cavazzola

Paolo Moranda Cavazzola, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” 1520
Paolo Moranda Cavazzola, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” 1520 (photo: Public Domain)

Today is the Second Sunday of Easter. It is also Divine Mercy Sunday.

Note that it is the Second Sunday of Easter, not the first Sunday after Easter. Because the joy of the Resurrection renews the whole world so completely, it cannot be celebrated in one day or even an octave. (Today is the octave day of Easter.) No, it must be celebrated over 50 days, the 50 days of Eastertide that lead us to God’s next great gift — his Holy Spirit.

In the ancient Church, today was called Dominica in albis — “Sunday in white” — because it was the day that the newly baptized, who had been vested in white robes at their Baptism during the Easter Vigil, took them off. In that ancient Church, the eight days were also a period of intense catechesis, when the newly initiated had all the “sacred things” — the sacraments — explained to them.

Today is also “Divine Mercy Sunday,” designated by St. Pope John Paul II, based on the private revelations of St. Faustina Kowalska who, in her Diary (no. 49), records that Christ had expressed his desire for a “Feast of Mercy” with which he associated a painting to be made based on his appearance to her at that time. 

Like this Sunday, today’s Gospel is also very rich. Three teachings deserve our attention:

  • Christ’s first appearance to all his Apostles, when he institutes the sacrament of Reconciliation;
  • Christ’s appearance a week later to “Doubting Thomas”; and
  • John’s observation about the selective post-Resurrection details in his Gospel.

The Gospel presents two appearances of Christ to his Apostles. The first occurs on Easter Sunday night when Jesus enters, despite locked doors, to appear to the Apostles. His first words to them, after everything that happened from the Last Supper to his night, are “Peace be with you!” Peace — shalom — is not some nice feeling. It is a fundamental rightness that comes from unity, justice and love. To make clear that this is Jesus’ mission (“as the Father has sent me”) — and is to be the mission of the Apostles (“so I send you”) — he breathes on them, saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive they are forgiven them; whose sins you retain they are retained.” 

The Church has always seen in John 20:23 Christ’s institution of the sacrament of Penance, Christ’s Easter gift to the Church. Jesus clearly intends that his work of peace and reconciliation, accomplished on the cross, and the forgiveness of our sins which stand in the way of that peace and reconciliation, be carried on in his Church by his Apostles and their successors. So, to the objection, “Why do I have to confess my sins to the priest?” there is one answer: Jesus, who is the author of that forgiveness, made it that way. And, to the objection, “Who am I to judge?” there is also Jesus’ answer: to forgive or to retain requires making a judgment about the penitent’s readiness and disposition for forgiveness in light of what he has done. 

One reason this Gospel is used today is because the Church can’t fit all of Jesus’ appearances on Easter itself. The Easter Vigil always features the Resurrection according to the Synoptic Gospel showcased in a particular year (this year, Matthew). Mass on Easter Sunday features accounts of Easter morning, i.e., typically the women at the Tomb or Mary Magdalene. So Easter Sunday evening — the time of today’s Gospel — slips to this Sunday. It also combines with the encounter a week later with St. Thomas whom, as John notes (20:24), wasn’t present that first Easter night. 

Once again, Jesus offers his Apostles his peace. Knowing that “Doubting Thomas” rejected the other Apostles’ testimony to having encountered Christ, Jesus invites Thomas — according to his own stated criteria — to poke and prod. Mary Magdalene (John 20: 14-18) recognized Jesus in the gardener and, in her belief, wanted to touch him; Thomas wants to touch him to recognize him. We human beings are sensory creatures. Christ invites us, as he invited those he encountered in his three years of public ministry across Israel, to faith. Jesus’ words to Thomas are also to us, his final beatitude: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” 

Finally, John adds that “Jesus did many other things in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and, through this belief, have life in his name.” Neither John nor, for that matter, the Bible itself pretends to be an exhaustive biography of Jesus or a blow-by-blow record of all that God did in salvation history. But, as Catholics, we believe the Bible is “inspired,” i.e., that the biblical authors were led by God to include what would be vital “for us men and for our salvation.”

That Scripture is not exhaustive is also why the Church speaks of sacred Tradition, i.e., what the Church in her life that started on that Easter Sunday night held about Christ. Remember that on the day of Pentecost, the Apostles did not receive the Holy Spirit to run to their rooms, pick up their quills and start writing the New Testament. They went out and preached and only later put down in writing, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, what they preached. The Church herself had to determine which books belonged in the Bible (were “canonical”) and which didn’t. She did that, also under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, in light of what she already knew and believed about Christ, i.e., sacred Tradition. 

Today’s Gospel is illustrated [above] by a Renaissance painter from Verona, Paolo Moranda Cavazzola, who lived at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries. I chose it because while the Renaissance was already in full swing in Italy, the painting also harks back to earlier, medieval considerations. 

How so? Well, while there’s some nature in the background (grass) and something of the Renaissance predilection for buildings and architecture (the church), the scene is really theological, not historical. Thomas is alone in his encounter with Christ; there are no other Apostles nor Upper Room. In lieu of the historical scene, we have a canvas of the whole of post-Easter salvation history.

The event itself occurs after the Resurrection, and Jesus bears his cross of victory in his left hand. Is that his empty tomb on the left, just behind Thomas? In the background are already anticipated the next major moments in salvation history: the Ascension of Christ on the left and the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the right, where the Holy Spirit is both breaking in and building the Church, whose birthday Pentecost is. Heaven and earth are joined in to where Christ goes and whence the Spirit comes. Thomas must discover faith, but faith is lived in the community of the Church: his fellow Apostles and Mary, the first disciple, are already “in the picture” and I expect Thomas to be among them. (I can’t make out close details.)

Because this is Divine Mercy Sunday, I must discuss another work of sacred art: St. Faustina’s image of Divine Mercy [below]. As noted above, she received a vision of Christ in a white robe, which he parted at his breast, revealing streams of red and “pale” light from his heart, which we might say allude to the blood and water that flowed from his pierced side (John 19: 34-35) as a fountain of mercy for poor sinners. His right hand is raised in blessing.

Christ asked that the image be painted, for which St. Faustina engaged — with the help of her confessor, Father Michael Sopocko — a local painter, Eugene Kazimierowski, who produced this original painting. It was first displayed on the Second Sunday of Easter at the Marian Shrine of the Bright Gate (Ostra Brama) in Vilnius, Lithuania, a city which in the 1930s was part of Poland and one of the houses of her community in which St. Faustina was stationed. That painting is in a Vilnius church to this day, just miles from current war Russia is waging against Ukraine.

In her Diary (no. 49), St. Faustina relates that Our Lord promised “that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish. I also promise victory over [its] enemies already here on earth, especially at the hour of death. I myself will defend it as my own glory.” Christ speaks of the image as a sacramental: “By means of this Image I shall be granting many graces to souls; so, let every soul have access to it” (no. 570). 

Also connected with the Feast of Divine Mercy (Diary, no. 699) is complete remission of sin to those who, before the feast, go to Confession and receive Holy Communion on this day.

Jesus, I trust in you!

Eugeniusz Kazimirowski, “Divine Mercy,” 1934, Vilnius, Lithuania
Eugeniusz Kazimirowski, “Divine Mercy,” 1934, Vilnius, Lithuania
The Divine Mercy image is displayed April 19, 2019, in Daley Plaza in Chicago.

Divine Mercy Sunday 2023 (April 15)

This weekend the Universal Church celebrates Divine Mercy Sunday. Pope John Paul II dedicated the Second Sunday of Easter to ‘The Feast of Mercy’ in 2000 at the canonization of the Polish religious sister St. Faustina Kowalska and since then devotion has grown tremendously. Today on Register Radio, Register writers Matt McDonald and Lauretta Brown talk about the growth of the Divine Mercy devotion as well as some ways to partake in this feast day’s greatest offerings.