Tracing the evolution of words is almost always an illuminating exercise. Let’s take the word “mercy” as an example. Our modern English word began its life as an early Latin word “merx/mercis” meaning “wares,” “goods,” or “merchandise.” This morphs into a later Latin word “merces” meaning “reward, wages, pay.” By the time St. Jerome uses it in the 4thcentury translating the scriptures into Latin, it has the meaning “favor, pity.” After six centuries of Christianity, the word is used to refer to the spiritual reward given to those who show kindness to the helpless and bestow gifts on those who cannot repay the favor.

Old French takes up the word in the 9th century and it becomes “merci,” meaning “reward, gift, kindness, grace, pity.” English makes it “mercy” in the 12th century, and by then it refers to God’s gift of forgiveness. All God’s gifts are given to people who cannot return the favor. There’s nothing we can do to truly merit God’s grace. When God shares His very life in us by bestowing grace upon us it is a true gift. Our only response can be honor, worship, and thanksgiving. It’s the only thing we can give back to God. And though our thanksgiving can never be equal to the gift, God delights in it nonetheless. Can a child ever repay every act of love bestowed on him by his mother by giving her wildflowers he picked in the field? Obviously not. But doesn’t his mother rejoice in the gift anyway?

I hope you’ll forgive me for this bit of linguistic history, but I think it is helpful as we consider the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy in a different light.

The works of mercy are the “wares” or “goods” of the Christian life, if you’ll pardon the commercial comparison. If the “wages of sin is death,” then what God has “on offer” is eternal life through the forgiveness of sin. In a word: mercy.

After we ourselves have become recipients of the divine mercy through the blood of Christ which gives us the sacraments of the Church, our own sense of indebtedness to God naturally spurs us on to “go, and do likewise.” Jesus himself exhorts us, “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Lk 14:13-14).

And that poverty, that blindness or disfigurement, may not be visible to the naked eye. St. Teresa of Calcutta is worth quoting at length: “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread, but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty – it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, a hunger for God” (“A Simple Path: Mother Teresa”).

We will soon be kneeling in thanksgiving and worship before the nativity scene. As we enter into the season of Christmas when we celebrate the incarnation, of “God with us”, let us meditate upon the freely given gifts of God to us through Jesus Christ. Though we realize that we can never repay them, we can nevertheless let that pattern of gift-giving be lived in ourselves. We can become icons of God’s love to the world if only we surrender to the humility of the Christmas crib. In performing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy, we merely pass on the “goods” God has first given to us. And this, above all things, will delight His heart of love.

— Father Steven Marchand is administrator of St. Ambrose Church in Bristol and St. Peter Church in Vergennes.

—Originally published in the Winter 2023 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.