By Clare Ruff
Major Christian celebrations had octaves by the end of the fourth century. It seems rejoicing could not fit into one 24-hour period. So, octaves were established to prolong the festivities, first for Easter, then Pentecost, Christmas and Epiphany. The eighth day echoed the first day theme but with greater emphasis, just as an octave on the musical scale repeats the same note only one pitch higher.
On April 30, 2000, in the Jubilee Year of Redemption, Pope John Paul II declared that every Octave of Easter would be designated Divine Mercy Sunday. He was motivated by the true story of a Polish nun and Christian mystic named Faustina Kowalska who lived in Warsaw, Poland as a member of the Congregation of Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. She died on October 5, 1938, but warned her religious sisters to pray much for a terrible war that would start in their homeland. Nazi Germany invaded Poland September 1, 1939.
Sister Faustina was instructed by her superiors to record the appearances of Jesus Christ to her; she penned the mystical experiences in her diary called Divine Mercy in My Soul. Christ gave her a mission in these apparitions: remind the world of the truth revealed in Holy Scripture about God’s infinite Mercy, introduce a 3 o’clock prayer recalling Christ’s agony on the cross, promulgate the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and promote an annual liturgical feast of Divine Mercy. Sister Faustina was a contemporary of Pope John Paul II, once archbishop of Krakow, Poland; he established the Feast of Divine Mercy and greatly assisted the worldwide expansion of this devotion.
Mercy in the Old Testament is expressed by two basic words: Hesed and Rahamim. Hesed references a reciprocal, covenantal love, alluding to God’s nuptial relationship with his people. Rahamim is derived from the root rehem, which means literally “from the mother’s womb.” This kind of mercy recalls a love radical in bond and unity, the relationship between a mother and the child of her womb. This love is not earned, but one of pure gift. It invokes tenderness, patience, compassion, readiness to forgive -- a universal identification with maternity. Mercy, the Old Testament authors propose, comes closest in expression to a mother’s love.
That was then. This is now. In light of the abortion-on-demand culture, God offers, “Even should a woman forget her child, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). These ancient, biblical texts emphasized relationships when describing Divine Mercy, the act of sparing someone’s guilt, wiping away transgressions, washing the slate clean.
Perhaps, no one more desperately needed his slate cleaned than Bernard N. Nathanson, MD. He is the poster child of Divine Mercy! The son of an emotionally sterile father and equally emotionally battered mother, the young Nathanson was extremely intelligent and desired to pursue medicine. When he attended his father’s alma mater for medical school, he lost more than faith in God.
Dr. Nathanson describes in his 1996 autobiography, The Hand of God, how he was introduced “into the satanic world of abortion.” In his third year of medical school, his girlfriend was about 16 weeks when Nathanson sent her via cab to a physician with $500 in her purse. “We lost our innocence that spring,” he said. Their trust in each other irrevocably broken by the brutal reality of abortion, they parted ways.
Years later, Nathanson crossed paths with Lawrence Lader and co-founded NARAL (National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, now NARAL Pro-Choice America). Together they plotted the extinction of legal protection for the unborn. Nathanson set records in the destruction of human life. He personally performed more than 5,000 abortions, trained abortionist on an additional 10,000, and supervised another 60,000 abortions during the two years he directed the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health (CRASH) in Manhattan.
Those numbers should shock you. That is the work of ONE man. Try to comprehend for a moment the bloodshed this represents. It’s staggering. I’ve met people in my pro-life work who find it hard to forgive Dr. Nathanson for what he initiated – even though he eventually converted to a prolife position. Thankfully, they are not God.
Jesus spoke to Sister Faustina and said, “My daughter, write that the greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to My mercy; urge all souls to trust in the unfathomable abyss of My mercy, because I want to save them all.” (Diary, 1182)
After 10 years of spiritual blindness, what he called his “decade of darkness,” Dr. Nathanson discovered God’s abundant MERCY could encompass even a sinner responsible for the death of 75,000 little souls.
Cardinal John O’Connor baptized Bernard N. Nathanson on December 8, 1996, in the basement, the “catacombs,” of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Afterward, Dr. Nathanson handed out a memento card to the guests in attendance. It read: “God, who is rich in Mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive in Christ” (Ephesians 2:4).
Mercy doesn’t mean God is morally neutral or sin is irrelevant. If we betray the code of love, deviate from the path of righteousness, defile ourselves or another, we find wholeness only through humble repentance and God’s gratuitously gifted Mercy.
What’s the appropriate response to such ineffability? Gratitude!
Dr. Nathanson himself articulated it after his baptism:
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am, what an unrequitable debt I have to those who prayed for me all those years when I was publicly announcing my atheism and lack of faith. They stubbornly, lovingly, prayed for me. I am convinced beyond any doubt that those prayers were heard.”
“Who loves more?” Jesus questioned his Pharisee host. “The one for whom he canceled the greater debt,” came the reply (Luke 7:43). “You have judged rightly,” Jesus affirmed. And in that spirit and knowledge we rejoice this Octave of Easter, and remember the Poster Child of Mercy, Bernard Nathanson, because no one is beyond God’s pardon. And, if our “sins be like scarlet, they can be white as snow”(Isaiah 1:18). There is rejoicing in heaven over each repentant sinner because God is truly rich in mercy!
and serves as Director of Events and Outreach for the Hosea Initiative.
She writes from her home in southeastern Minnesota.