When St. Faustina first saw the picture of Jesus which he had commanded her to have painted, she burst into tears complaining that it was nothing like as beautiful as the vision of Jesus she had seen when he spoke to her. Jesus himself had to reassure her that it was not the artistic beauty of the picture that counted, but the grace that he would impart to those who venerated it. And in fact when he first began appearing to this very ordinary and uneducated nun in the 1930s, the very first thing he asked of her was to have a picture of himself painted for people to contemplate and pray with.
And the Divine Mercy picture is in effect a representation of Jesus as he appeared to his apostles in the Gospel reading we have heard today, walking through the doors they had locked for fear of what might happen to them after their Master’s death. Thomas was not with them on that occasion, and he stands for all of us who have not seen with our physical eyes the risen Jesus, but have nonetheless put our faith in him. It is to us that Jesus is refer-ring when he says to Thomas, “You believe because you have seen me: blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
And perhaps it is because we have not seen with our physical eyes that we need pictures and statues to help our faith. As you probably know, in the 8th and 9th centuries serious disputes broke out in the Church, especially in the Greek speaking world, as to whether it was legitimate to make and reverence icons, that is images of Christ and the saints. Possibly one factor that brought this about was the rise of Islam which strictly forbids any representation of God in art, as does the Jewish faith. The Church came down firmly on the side of icons and other works of art, but the unease persists even to our day in some quarters, partly because we know God cannot be described in physical terms, partly because any one picture, including the Divine Mercy picture, doesn’t appeal to everyone’s taste.
And that is particularly true at this time of year. The events of Holy Week are easy to depict in art. Everyone has seen someone riding on a donkey as Jesus did on Palm Sunday; hundreds of people witnessed the crucifixion and the related events of Good Friday. But no-one saw Jesus actually rising from the tomb. If you look on our website home page you will see one of my favourite depictions of this event, but if we are honest we have to admit that even the greatest works of art depicting the resurrection have a slightly odd quality about them, as if the artist were saying, I can’t really depict this adequately but let’s have a go.
Perhaps this is why our first reading today lays such stress on what the early Church was like, a community united heart and soul and even going so far as to share their physical goods and possessions with each other, distributing them according to each one’s need, a kind of early form of Communism. The joy and unity of that community seemed to make the risen Jesus present to other people in a very realistic way, even though he had physically passed beyond their sight, and the effect was so powerful that the Church grew at an astonishing rate as new people were added to their number every day.
Another description of this community is given to us in the second reading, where St. Peter writes probably to the Christians living in Rome and paints a picture of people looking for-ward eagerly in the midst of their trials to the joy stored up for them in heaven. They too, like Thomas, have not seen Jesus, but they love him, says St. Peter, and are filled with a glorious and unspeakable joy as they await the goal of their entire life, the salvation of their souls.
If we put these two pictures together, we end up with a rather surprising conclusion: it is our faith in someone we have never seen, and our hope of something we cannot really imagine in heaven, that makes us, the Christian community of our times, 2000 years after that early community, live in a very distinctive way that makes Jesus present to the people of our time. Whether it is our night shelter for the homeless of the area, our gathering for the eucharist – the breaking of bread – and for prayer like the early Christians, or our firm adherence to the teaching of the apostles, all these are signs to others that he is risen and is living among us.
But today, on this Divine Mercy Sunday, we remember the most powerful sign of all that we can give to the people of our time: to live in a merciful way to others because we have been the beneficiaries of God’s mercy. Pope Francis when trying to describe himself, likes to say, “Who am I? A sinner on whom God has had mercy.” We do not witness to Christ’s resurrection by claiming to be better than others, but by admitting freely that we too are sinners, who live by the power of God’s mercy which we have freely received and freely pass on.