In the Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 30, a. 4, St. Thomas Aquinas writes: “It is proper to God to exercise mercy, and he manifests his omnipotence particularly in this way.” At first glance, it seems odd to equate God’s mercy with power. When we think of God’s power, we are drawn more to images of God’s creation of the universe, or of how He parted the Red Sea when He led the Israelite out of Egypt, or of how Christ calmed the stormy sea. Yet there is an intimate connection between God’s mercy and his power: only because God truly is omnipotent can God be truly merciful. Mercy shows us the power and presence of God.
God’s Power Draws Close
Consider for a moment people who are considered important in our culture: people who have a lot of power, people who have a lot of wealth. One thing they all tend to have in common is that they keep most people at an arm’s distance. People of power have security guards to keep others away from them. People of wealth build walls around their property and install security alarms to protect their material treasures.
This distancing is a way to protect their image and identity. All of us do this in some respect or another. In a world where might seems to make right, weakness is not admirable. We want, and need, to keep up the impression that all is perfect. To keep others away means that they will not see our faults or failings. We dread the thought that others may see us do something foolish or know that we are fearful. We are frightened that others will know our imperfections because our imperfections make us vulnerable.
But Christ has no fear of this for he is truly perfect and all-powerful. He has no need to fear vulnerability for he has no weakness. Because of this, he has no need to fear drawing close to humanity. We see this in the Gospels. Christ repeatedly spends time with the outcast of society: the sinner, the leper, the tax collectors. For example in Luke 7:36-50, a sinful woman comes to Jesus, bathing his feet with her tears and anoints them with ointment. Seeing this, a Pharisee doubts that Jesus really is Lord for, if he were, then he would not let the sinful woman touch him. Likewise, in Mark 2:13-17, Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors, provoking the Pharisees to ask the disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Christ has no fear of being “tainted” by either the woman’s sin or the tax collectors. Christ does not fear to associate with those who have done wrong. Had he been good only in a purely human nature, then perhaps spending time with the sinner and outcast may have been a temptation to sin or to cause scandal by condoning their wrongs. Because he is, by nature, all good, nothing can corrupt him.
Christ has no need to stay aloof and preach from on high of the Father’s mercy. Instead, time and again in the Gospels, he goes to the sinner, to the places they frequent and to their homes. For example, in Luke:1-10, Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he must stay in his house. Because of Jesus’ willingness to literally dwell with Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus experiences a conversion of heart and ultimately, his salvation. Indeed, time and again, Jesus seeks out the people deemed “unworthy” by society for he wishes to show his God’s power through their weakness.
God’s Mercy Seeks Us
One of the beautiful aspects of the Catholic faith is that, while our charitable actions are seen as a natural out-flowing of our faith and love of God, our faith is not contingent upon our ability to prove our worthiness. In other words, one does not have to prove that we are worthy to be with God. Think about this for a moment for most cradle Catholics take this for granted. This fact is somewhat unique.
Mormons, for example, believe that entrance into the temple is the pinnacle of their worship experience for the Lord may visit there. To enter the temple, one must have a temple recommend which requires meeting with a church official in order to assess whether the person can be deemed worthy to go into the temple. In other words, Mormons must be doing the correct things and holding the correct beliefs before approaching the Lord.
As Catholics, however, we do not need to wait until we’ve set our affairs in order before we approach God. He waits for us in every tabernacle all around the world. Even if one were in mortal sin and unable to go to Confession, one could still approach the living God in the tabernacle. Even one who is not Catholic or is having a crisis of doubt of the faith can approach and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Our faith is not contingent upon our ability to become holy; rather, it is in acknowledging who God is – and who we are in relationship to Him.
Moreover, God comes to us in such an unobtrusive and common form as bread and wine so as not to impress us with His power or grandeur. The gods of the Greeks and Romans had to display their power to human beings in order to force their worship. Yet Christ chooses to become so humble so as to appear as ordinary bread and wine so that we need to fear to draw near to Him. Patiently, Christ waits for us to approach; he does not normally come thundering in a display of power to command our worship. He mercifully meets us where we are in a gentle manner.
We Have an Almighty and Merciful God
These two qualities of power and mercy necessarily go together. Certainly, in justice, God would have ample reason to strike down humanity for all the sins committed. One would certainly sympathize with a parent who, in a moment of anger, yells at a child for repeatedly not doing his chores, despite ample reminders and warnings. God, however, demonstrates His power in restraint. He does not strike us down for our sinfulness but continues to forgive when we repent.
God’s omnipotence is not the arbitrary power-wielding gods of the Greeks and Romans, gods who seemed to act capriciously towards humans. Our God is all-powerful in accord with His nature of being Goodness, Truth, and Charity. Since He cannot contradict Himself, God wields power only in accord with Goodness, Truth, and Charity. Thus, while justice might demand punishment for our sins, God’s mercy goes beyond justice out of love for humanity. God’s power does not take away our free will or impose on our freedoms. Rather, it seeks to elevate us to the people God meant for us to be. Celebrating God’s omnipotence really is a celebration of His great mercy and love for us.