#8 of a Series on Psalm 50
I think we all have an idea about what mercy is – especially when we need it! So the person sentenced to prison or even death ‘begs for mercy’. An intervention is needed or else something disastrous will happen. We contrast mercy as leniency to justice as strict adherence to the law. If there is no mercy, then the lawyer has to contort the law to mean something merciful to get us off the hook. The plethora of TV shows like ‘Law and Order’ explore every facet of this.
The Oil of God’s Mercy
The Bible has a deep and intricate view of God and His mercy. The word used in the Greek scriptures for mercy is ‘eleos (Ἔλεος)’ – which means oil. So when we say, ‘Lord have mercy’, we’re saying, ‘Lord pour out your oil upon us.’ A brief review of a few of the scriptures and the practices of the early Church helps us appreciate this all the better.
Let’s begin with two stories of the mercy of God, as told in the Old Testament.
Justice or Mercy – Which will it Be? (Exodus 32)
The dramatic story of the reception of the Ten Commandments shows the emergence of God’s mercy even at the very moment that the Law is given! Even as Moses receives the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone, he is made aware by the Lord that the Israelites are concerned that he is delayed and are not satisfied with the LORD and prefer to make their own idol, in the form of a golden calf. Even Aaron demonstrates moral weakness at this failure moment of moral failure. Moses returns to the camp and finds this betrayal of the Lord, and of him, and casts down the Tablets in righteous anger. The nation would be punished, but not utterly destroyed as Moses himself, in the spirit of sacrificial love for his people would pray that the Lord relent. And so the mercy of God was extended and the entire nation not destroyed, although the Lord did punish the people with a plague. Even Aaron, despite the seriousness of his sin, was spared. God’s mercy.
Another example of God extending his mercy to those who repent is found in the Book of Jonah. While the narrative focuses on Jonah’s trials and shortcomings, as a prophet he is sent to warn Ninevah to repent of their sins. Ninevah does repent, a fast is called for by the rulers of the land, and God bestows his mercy upon them. And in the process the prophet learns how the God of mercy relents even when the prophet believed that strict justice was in order.
Notably, both stories contain certain common elements:
- The grace and blessing of God is revealed. (in the Law, in the person of the prophet)
- The sin of the people drives the narrative – it cannot be ignored.
- The prophet is called to give witness to God’s mercy and the justice.
- For those who hearken – mercy is offered, but those who persist in their sins will perish
God’s Mercy – Anointing of Kings with Oil
Those chosen as King of Israel were anointed symbolically by the pouring of oil over their head. This gesture of pouring or anointing was one both of identification (this is the King!), but also God’s visitation. The King could not anoint himself – rather if the Kingship was to be godly he had to be anointed by God – hence the prophets were the ones called upon for this sacred duty. Saul’s anointing by the Prophet Samuel is an amazing story of the grace of God poured out upon a man, though unworthy, to carry out a specific mission on behalf of God for His people. In a similar way, David was anointed King by Samuel.
The term ‘Anointed One’ eventually came to mean a man whom God had chosen as His ultimate leader and victor, set over His people as ruler but also servant. This term, translated as ‘Messiah’ (Hebrew) or ‘Christ’ (Greek) as The Anointed One – became the title of the long-awaited Savior of God’s people, Who we have come to identify as Jesus, the Christ.
New Testament Anointing
In the life and ministry of Jesus we see several anointing episodes. In the very beginning, one of the Magi present a gift of a special oil called myrrh, which would be a symbol not only of the Royal Kingship of Jesus, but in anticipation of His death and burial, when the myrrh and aloes were to be used to anoint His Body. This theme is repeated when Jesus was anointed by Mary Magdalene, and by Mary of Bethany. These anointings were acts of spontaneous love and mercy by these woman – and roundly criticized by some of the apostles, especially Judas Iscariat who thought it better not to ‘waste’ this oil. But Jesus rebuked Judas, and used the occasion to reveal that the Kingdom which He came to establish is about this very gesture – an outpouring of mercy from the heart. The Death of Jesus would be the occasion of the Outpouring of God’s mercy upon the world. And Jesus prophetically spoke of His death and this anointing as a preparation of His Body for burial.
Another powerful image from the New Testament was that used to describe the ‘spiritual athletes’ in the ‘arena’. Now these were allusions to the Greco-Roman games held in public arenas where the athletes, before competing, were rubbed down with oil. This oil brought vigor and strength, and was no small aid in helping him escape from the clutches of the enemy in the wrestling match![i]
The Anointing of God’s People
The image of ‘anointing’ is very much embedded in the prophetic title of Jesus – the One who is the Christ – the Anointed One – who also brings anointing to His people as well. In Christianity, this action of a ceremonial, liturgical anointing was powerfully symbolic as joining us to the Anointing of Christ. When a person was preparing for Baptism, he was anointed (oil of the catechumens) to give him spiritual strength to fight the enemy, the Devil. [ii] A second Anointing at Baptism, using the special oil known as Chrism, signifies and imparts the seal of the Holy Spirit received by a person within – effectively making all who have been baptized into Christ, ‘christs’ themselves, in the image of The Christ. The Holy Spirit brings a special dynamic grace to our souls, including our healing and strengthening for ministry and service.
The Church imparts not only the sacramental anointing at Chrismation, but also the special anointing for healing in fulfillment of the early Church practice as revealed by the holy Apostle James, who taught,
“Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.” James 5:14f
This is the anointing for healing and strengthening of the Christian not only in his daily life and spiritual battle, but also at special times when in need of special healing. Note as well the linking of the oil (mercy) to forgiveness of sins. The ‘pouring of oil’ as described in the Parable of the Good Samaritan becomes a sign not only of physical healing but also strengthening, encouragement and love. While the Orthodox (sacramental) Mystery ofAnointing service is done for people with special needs (including those near death), as a Church we celebrate the sacramental (Mystery) Anointing on Wednesday of Holy Week, where we encounter all of these themes of Christ’s victory and anointing, struggle against sin, strengthening for the days ahead (Great Friday) and healing of soul and body.[iii]
The Church’s understanding of the eleos of Psalm 50 is – ‘Lord, I will reveal my heart to you which is wounded and sinful. Pour the oil of your mercy upon me.– heal me.’ The anointing of God through his mercy brings healing of our spiritual sins and secondary psychological wounds from them as well.
So in seeking mercy, we’re really seeking the God of love who desires not our death (in sin) but that we repent and love. His forgiveness is poured out in abundance upon those who repent – this is the heart of Psalm 50.+
[i] God in His mercy has permitted a special oil to flow miraculously from the tombs of martyrs, and this oil becomes a source of healing for those who come to the shrine and receive it, through the intercession of the martyr. There are other examples of oil from the ‘weeping icons’ that are also miraculous beyond explanation and bring spiritual and bodily healing to people.
[ii] The Fathers of the Church frequently used this image when describing the value of the spiritual anointing in our wrestling against our Enemy – the Devil. So anointed and protected by grace we will be strong and victorious and He will not be able to ‘handle’ us in the battle for our lives.
[iii] Among the other anointings routinely carried out by the Church are the ones that take place at the feasts which have the vigils and the Litiya where we pray extensive prayers for God’s people and the world, for God’s mercy in their need. Traditionally at death, the body of the deceased Christian is anointed again. It was made holy and remains holy.