Monthly Archives: April 2011

Reflecting on 1 Peter for the Second Sunday of Easter

From First and Second Peter, Jude (Coming November 2011) by Daniel Keating, commenting on 1 Peter 1:6-7:

Peter introduces a profound paradox: the presence of inexpressible joy in the midst of suffering. He says first that we rejoice in this living hope, which is our salvation, present and future. Who would not rejoice? But then he tells us that now we must be ready to suffer through various trials, even if only for a little while.

Using a metaphor found frequently in the Old Testament (Job 23:10; Prov 17:3; Wis 3:5-7; Zech 13:9), Peter compares the testing of our faith to the purification of gold by fire. The sentence structure is difficult to follow, but the point of the comparison is perfectly clear. If gold, the most precious of earthly substances, requires purification, how much more does our faith—more precious than any earthly gold—benefit from the purifying fire of our trials. “For in fire is gold tested, and worthy men in the crucible of humiliation” (Sir 2:5).

© 2011 Daniel Keating and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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Feasting in Easter Week

The lectionary readings of Easter Day and Easter Week serve up a rich repast of revelation regarding Jesus’ resurrection.  Like those of Holy Week, these readings command attention, and if we are awake, hardly allow us to think of anything else.

Several themes predominate in these readings that we can picture as concentric circles of meaning.

First, at the very center, the resurrection accounts of all four Gospels thrill our hearts and fire our faith with testimony that Jesus really did rise from the dead.  Never mind the fact that there are minor discrepancies among the evangelists as one would expect from diverse witnesses to a remarkable event.  All agree, the tomb was empty.  All agree, the first witnesses to the fact were women.  All agree, angels were involved.  Except for the short ending of Mark, all agree that Jesus appeared to his disciples and spoke with them.  First Corinthians 15:3-8, written even earlier than the Gospels, reports that on one occasion Jesus appeared to more than 500 people, most of whom were still alive at the time Paul wrote.

Second, we are told repeatedly that Jesus’ death and resurrection was “according to the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27, 44-45; John 20:9), that is, according to the “set plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23).  In his Pentecost sermon, St. Peter identifies one of the texts that points to Jesus’ resurrection, Psalm 16:8-11 that includes the line: “you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption” (Acts 2:25-27).  Undoubtedly, the early Christians also referred to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant text and Psalm 22, both of which speak of death and then, inexplicably, of life after death (Isa 53:10-12; Ps 22:21-31).

Third, the lectionary selections of Easter tell us what the resurrection reveals about who Jesus is. “He is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). God has made him both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36).  He is the prophet like Moses that all must listen to (Deut 18:15; Acts 3:22-23).  The Gospels tell us that after his resurrection his disciples spontaneously “paid him homage”: they worshiped him, finally grasping who had been in their midst (Matt 28:9, 17; Luke 24:52; John 20:28).

Fourth, the Easter readings explain how God is summoning every person to respond to the Risen Lord—“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ”—and the benefits he will bestow—“the forgiveness of your sins, and… the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

The outermost circle of significance of the Easter readings spells out the implications for the Church, the continuing community of Jesus’ disciples.  Since we the baptized have been raised with Christ, we are to seek things above, where Christ is, at God’s right hand (Col 3:1-4).  We are to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community life, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers (Acts 2:42).

Finally, we are to tell everyone: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”  To this end new power is manifest among Jesus’ disciples: “These signs shall accompany those who believe…” (Mark 16:15; Acts 3).  This power is evident immediately in the ministry of the apostles and is available to us today, the power of the Spirit, of the permanent presence of the Risen Lord in our midst “to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).

Will you dare to believe what Scripture tells us plainly?  What difference will Jesus’ resurrection make in your life today?

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A Scriptural Rosary for Good Friday

The rosary is, as Pope John Paul II said, a way of contemplating the mysteries in the life of Christ in “the school of Mary”—the one who knows him best. Accompanied by her, we can be present in the events of his life and see them with new eyes. Although the traditional rosary has fifteen mysteries, to which John Paul II added the five Luminous Mysteries, there is no need to limit ourselves to these. Christian tradition considers every event in Christ’s life a “mystery.” “From the swaddling clothes of his birth to the vinegar of his Passion and the shroud of his Resurrection, everything in Jesus’ life was a sign of his mystery. His deeds, miracles and words all revealed that “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.’” (CCC 515).

Below are five mysteries for contemplating Christ’s passion that I’ll call the “mysteries of Abandonment.” The traditional Sorrowful Mysteries focus primarily on Christ’s physical suffering, but the Gospels also say quite a bit—though in an oblique way—about his interior suffering. One of the keywords of the passion account in the Gospels is “hand over” or “betray” (Greek paradidōmi). Jesus’ whole passion was a process of being repeatedly handed over: Judas handed him over to the Jewish leaders (Mark 14:10), who handed him over to Pilate (Mark 15:1), who handed him over to be crucified (Mark 15:10). This theme evokes Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant, who “handed himself over” (paradidōmi) to death in atonement for the sins of the people (Isa 53:12 LXX). But the greatest mystery is that it is the Father himself who “did not spare his own Son but handed him over (paradidōmi) for us all” (Rom 8:32). The human handing over of Jesus out of sin, betrayal and hardness of heart becomes the instrument of the Father’s handing over of his Son in love for the redemption of the world! And, finally, as he laid down his life Jesus “handed over (paradidōmi) his spirit” (John 19:30)—so that those whom he redeemed might share his own divine life.

These mysteries center on the anguish that Jesus, as man, experienced in being successively handed over, climaxing in his human experience of feeling forsaken even by the Father.

The First Mystery of Abandonment: Judas’ Betrayal

Our Father…

As they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” (Matt 26:21)

Hail Mary…

And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” (Matt 26:22)

Hail Mary…

He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me.” (Matt 26:23)

Hail Mary…

“The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed!” (Matt 26:24)

Hail Mary…

“It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (Matt 26:22)

Hail Mary…

Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Is it I, Master?” He said to him, “You have said so.” (Matt 26:25)

Hail Mary…

Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me. (Ps 41:9)

Hail Mary…

But you, O Lord, be gracious to me, and raise me up. (Ps 41:10)

Hail Mary…

By this I know that you delight in me: my enemy will not shout in triumph over me. (Ps 41:11)

Hail Mary…

But you have upheld me because of my integrity, and set me in your presence forever. (Ps 41:12)

Hail Mary…

The Second Mystery of Abandonment: The Apostles’ Desertion and Peter’s Denial

Our Father…

They all forsook him, and fled. (Mark 14:50)

Hail Mary…

Peter followed at a distance. (Luke 22:54)

Hail Mary…

When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. (Luke 22:55)

Hail Mary…

Then a maid… said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” (Luke 22:56)-57

Hail Mary…

Someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” (Luke 22:58)

Hail Mary…

Still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are saying.” (Luke 22:59)-60

Hail Mary…

And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. (Luke 22:60)

Hail Mary…

And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. (Luke 22:61)

Hail Mary…

Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” (Luke 22:61)

Hail Mary…

And he went out and wept bitterly. (Luke 22:62)

Hail Mary…

The Third Mystery of Abandonment: The Condemnation of the Sanhedrin

Our Father…

The chief priests and the whole council sought testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. (Mark 14:55)

Hail Mary…

Many bore false witness against him, and their witness did not agree. (Mark 14:56)

Hail Mary…

More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies. (Ps 69:4)

Hail Mary…

The high priest stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” (Mark 14:60)

Hail Mary…

But he was silent and made no answer.

Hail Mary…

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61)

Hail Mary…

And Jesus said, “I am.” (Mark 14:62)

Hail Mary…

“And you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:62)

Hail Mary…

The high priest tore his garments, and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy.” (Mark 14:63)

Hail Mary…

And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:64)

Hail Mary…

The Fourth Mystery of Abandonment: The Condemnation of Pilate

Our Father…

They bound Jesus and led him away and handed him over to Pilate. (Mark 15:1)

Hail Mary…

Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” (John 18:29)

Hail Mary…

They answered him, “If this man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over to you.” (John 18:30)

Hail Mary…

Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?” … And they said, “Barabbas.” (Matt 27:17)

Hail Mary…

Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?” (Mark 15:12)

Hail Mary…

And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” (Mark 15:13)

Hail Mary…

And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” (Mark 15:14)

Hail Mary…

But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” (Mark 15:14)

Hail Mary…

Pilate took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” (Matt 27:24)

Hail Mary…

And having scourged Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 15:15)

Hail Mary…

The Fifth Mystery of Abandonment: The Father’s Absence

Our Father…

When the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. (Mark 15:33)

Hail Mary…

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

Hail Mary…

Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? (Ps 22:1)

Hail Mary…

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. (Ps 22:2)

Hail Mary…

All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads. (Ps 22:7)

Hail Mary…

For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet. (Ps 22:16)

Hail Mary…

I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me. (Ps 22:17)

Hail Mary…

They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. (Ps 22:18)

Hail Mary…

But you, O Lord, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! (Ps 22:19)

Hail Mary…

I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: (Ps 22:22)

Hail Mary…

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Reflecting on the Gospel for Easter Sunday

From The Gospel of Matthew by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 28:5-8:

With such a display of heavenly majesty, it is no surprise that the angel’s first words to the women are: Do not be afraid! The angel knows that the women intend to pay their last respects to the crucified Messiah. But they will not get the chance. He is not here, declares the angel, for he has been raised. The power of death, which holds the human race captive, has been overpowered. And this is just what Jesus said. His passion predictions, which included reference to his rising from the grave, have come true (16:21; 17:23; 20:19). This is the joyful proclamation that stands at the center of the Christian message (see Acts 4:2; 1 Pet 1:3). Should there be any doubt about its truth, the women are invited to peer into the tomb and see the vacant slab where his body had once lain.

Attached to the angel’s announcement are instructions for the disciples. The women are to be “apostles to the apostles,” the first to bear the message of the resurrection to others.

© 2010 Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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Feasting through Holy Week

At the beginning of Lent I urged feasting on Scripture and suggested reading through one of the Gospels during Lent.  Regardless of whether you took my advice then, I say again, feast from the rich table of the word of God this Holy Week!

These days the main course is the liturgical readings.  Palm Sunday’s Gospels, the account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the breathtaking account of the passion from Matthew, give plenty to ponder.  When I heard the passion proclaimed today, somehow Judas, Peter, Barabbas, Pilate, and those who mocked our crucified Lord caught my attention.

How does Judas’ betrayal differ from Peter’s denial?  Judas’ sin is deliberate, premeditated, the betrayal of a friend for financial gain, betrayal with a kiss! What nevertheless makes Judas a sympathetic character is that he is not all bad. After Jesus was condemned Judas “deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.”  Tragically, he despaired and took his life, rather than seeking forgiveness from the one who shed “his blood of the covenant… for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28).

Peter who wanted to be strong and die for his Lord succumbs to human weakness at the moment of his test.  Had he prayed like his Lord urged him to (Matt 26:41), he just might have passed the test. Instead out of fear he denies his Lord three times, then repents, and weeps bitterly.

Barabbas is the murderer who walks free because a just man dies in his place.

Pilate is the spineless politician who cannot wash the blood of the innocent from his hands no matter how long he washes them in water, no matter what he says.

Finally, the chief priests, scribes, and elders and then the two revolutionaries crucified with Jesus mock him with words that recall those of the tempter, “if you are the Son of God” (Matt 4:3, 6; Wis 2:18)

One of the things I like best at Mass is to sing back the words of Scripture in response to the psalm:

Today:  “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

Thursday:  “Our blessing cup is a communion in the blood of Christ.”

Friday:  “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

 All of the lectionary readings this week are rich.  Whether or not you can make it to Mass, nourish yourself on them.

On Holy Thursday the Mass of the Lord’s Supper the first reading recounts the Jewish Passover festival that Jesus fulfills.  The second reading contains the earliest version we have of the Words of Institution, written by St. Paul twenty-five years after Jesus spoke them.  The Gospel from John describes Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, a prophetic gesture indicating how he would humble himself to make us clean.

On Good Friday I’m lucky enough to be able to take the morning off.  I’ll go to a little chapel at the DeSales Center in Brooklyn, Michigan, perhaps with one of my nieces or nephews, and read and pray.  I’ll read another account of the passion, probably Mark’s (got to read Luke’s for class last week).  I’ll read about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53.  Then on to Good Friday services to hear the passion in John’s Gospel proclaimed.

What a feast for the spirit—and I’ve said nothing of the readings of the Easter Vigil!

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Reflecting on the Gospel for Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

From The Gospel of Matthew by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, reflecting on Matthew 26:26-28:

The words of Jesus at the Last Supper inform not only our sacramental understanding of the Eucharist but also our theological understanding of the Messiah’s death. Were one to read Matthew’s Passion Narrative apart from this account, the death of Jesus would seem to be little more than an execution at the hands of Roman authorities. One could reason that Jesus died for an important cause, but the historical circumstances speak of a capital sentence carried out against a perceived troublemaker. Christianity, however, claims that Jesus’ death was a cultic act of sacrifice. It is principally the Eucharistic words of Jesus that give us this insight into the mystery of Good Friday.

First, the blood of Jesus is poured forth as an expiatory sacrifice that effects the remission of sins (see Jer 31:31–34). Second, Jesus offers his life to the Father as a vicarious sacrifice; his suffering is not for his own guilt, but for those he represents and has come to save (see Isa 53:4–5, 11–12). And third, Jesus’ death is a covenant sacrifice that establishes a new foundation on which the Father and the human family can be reunited in fellowship and love (see Exod 24:4–8). According to Matthew, the sacrificial interpretation of Jesus’ death, so prevalent in the New Testament, originates with Jesus himself.

© 2010 Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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“When you have lifted up the Son of Man…”

“When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he.” (John 8:28)

Just as in the Synoptic Gospels, so in the Gospel of John Jesus three times solemnly prophesies his passion (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). But the passion predictions in John are unique in that Jesus speaks of his crucifixion as a “lifting up,” alluding to the biblical story of the bronze serpent lifted up on a pole (Num 21:4-9; cf. John 3:14). Of all the images to use to reveal the meaning of his paschal mystery, why would Jesus choose this strange and disturbing one? The readings for Mass today, Num 21:4-9 and John 8:21-30, invite us to reflect on this question.

The story in Numbers 21 is rich and suggestive.

They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea in order to circumvent the land of Edom, and the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread and no water, and we are tired of this wretched bread!” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents against the people, and they bit the people so that many of the Israelites died. So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord to remove the serpents from us.” And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a serpent and set it on a pole. And anyone who has been bitten who looks upon it will live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone and he looked upon the bronze serpent, he lived.

The narrative presents us, first of all, with the figure of Moses, the model intercessor for God’s people. As Israel’s divinely-appointed leader, Moses routinely bears the brunt of the people’s complaints against God. Yet he perseveres as a passionate intercessor who repeatedly wins pardon for the very people who had insulted and rebelled against him (Exod 15:24-25; 17:3-4; 32:11; Num 11:2). His humility and self-effacement emerges most clearly in those incidents where the people’s hostility is directed against himself—when Moses is blamed for the Egyptian taskmasters’ cruelty (Ex 5:15-23), when Aaron and Miriam grumble against him (Num 12:1-15), when the unruly mob attempts to depose and stone him (Num 14:1-23), and when he is accused of causing the death of Korah and his followers (Num 16:41-50).

In fact, Numbers implies that it is precisely because he is the target of the people’s anger that Moses’ intercession is efficacious. As he himself endures the people’s rebellion along with the Lord, Moses displays the total lack of ambition and self-interest that alone has power to move God’s heart. Each time God threatens to destroy his people, it becomes clear that God does not truly desire to do so, but is only waiting for someone to plead their case (just as in the story of Abraham’s intercession in Gen 18:22-33). When God tells Moses, “now let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation” (Ex 32:10), he receives precisely the answer he was looking for: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you led forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?… Turn from your fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against your people.” The story of the bronze serpent incident portrays Moses once again willing to plead for the people the moment they repent.

The story also portrays the profound connection between sin and its consequences. The mysterious fiery serpents (nechashim sepharim) who bite the rebellious Israelites recall the primordial deception by the serpent (nachash) in Gen 3:1-6. The people have succumbed to the perennial temptation that originated with the serpent in the Garden of Eden—the temptation to distrust and disobey God—and they thus experience the serpent’s own bitter toxin: death.

More surprisingly, the method of cure devised by God is also symbolically linked to the sin. That which heals is shaped like that which caused the wound. God did not remove the fiery serpents, as requested by the people. Instead he instructed that a bronze serpent be held aloft on a “pole” (the Hebrew word, nēs, actually means “ensign” or “standard”; cf. Isa 11:10, 12). The bronze serpent is a visible sign confronting the people with both their own rebellion and God’s gratuitous mercy. Thus the bronze image is able to stir up the repentant faith in God that is the necessary condition for the cure.

How, then, does the bronze serpent serve as a prefigurement of Christ, shedding light on his paschal mystery?

Jesus is the new Moses, who surpasses the leader of old in his role as suffering intercessor and advocate for his people. In fact, in comparison to Jesus it is now Moses who stands as accuser (John 5:45)! Moses is powerless to bestow the unconditional forgiveness and mercy that are needed in the face of the people’s transgression of the law (cf. John 1:17; 7:19). On the cross, Jesus brings to perfect fulfillment the role of the intercessor who stands solidarity with his people, accepting God’s just punishment. Jesus, in effect, says like Moses, “But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exod 32:32). Whereas Moses only expressed his willingness to share his people’s fate, Jesus actually took upon himself the just penalty of death in place of the people (cf. John 11:51-52).

The bronze serpent is fulfilled in Christ who is himself “lifted up” like an ensign on the cross. The expression “lifted up” signifies both his physical crucifixion and his simultaneous glorification as the obedient Son of the Father. The link with the bronze serpent is even closer in that the Hebrew term for “lift up” (nasa) is often associated with a standard (nēs) in the prophetic literature. Isaiah links God’s lifting up of a standard with the gathering of his scattered people: “He will lift up a standard for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (Isa 11:12). This prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus’ crucifixion, the means by which God will gather all people to himself: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32; cf. 11:51). Despite its external appearance as an image of pain and punishment (like the bronze serpent), the cross is the supreme “sign” that reveals the Father’s merciful love. It is a sign of death that paradoxically brings healing and life.

The sign value of the cross leads to one other dimension hinted at in John’s bronze serpent typology, namely, the necessity of “seeing” the sign. In Numbers 21, it is not simply the bronze serpent itself that heals, but the act of looking upon it. God requires his people to cooperate—in however passive a manner—in his healing action. John accents this aspect of human cooperation by replacing “sees” with “believes” in 3:15. The notion of “seeing” Jesus is one of the central themes of the Gospel. To “see” Jesus is not merely physical but a contemplative gaze that penetrates into the mystery of who he is. It is thus closely associated with believing: “everyone who sees the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life” (John 6:40; cf. 19:35; 20:8).

This theme culminates at the crucifixion, where the Son’s divine glory is most hidden from sight and yet, paradoxically, most revealed to those who believe. John quotes Zech 12:10: “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (John 19:37), suggesting a graced moment of revelation by which the rejected One is suddenly recognized and accepted in faith as the Messiah who is vicariously suffering for the people’s sins. As the people in the desert were restored to life by looking upon that which God provided for their healing, so those who look upon the Son with the interior gaze of faith are given the fullness of life.

Just as the image of the people’s punishment, lifted up on a pole and gazed upon, became the source of their recovery, so Christ, bearing upon himself the very apex of human malice and rebellion against God, lifted up on the cross and gazed upon, becomes the source of limitless divine mercy and healing.

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