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Signposts: Daily Devotions

Written by Susan Hanson

Tuesday, December 21

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
—Luke 1:78-79

With the exception of the ancient reference to God as Sophia—“Wisdom”—most of our names for the divine—Lord, Father, Master, King—suggest power and authority rather than compassion. They don’t rule out the fact that this God can also be loving, but they don’t emphasize it either. Perhaps that is one reason why Thomas Merton’s reference to God, in the Epilogue of The Sign of Jonas, as “mercy within mercy within mercy” carries with it such a liberating sense of lightness.

One of his earliest works, published five years after he entered Gethsemani Abbey, The Sign of Jonas follows Merton’s attempts to sort out his priestly vocation. “[L]ike Jonas,” he writes in the book’s Prologue, “I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.” Conflicted about his motives for becoming a monk, confounded by God’s silence and his own sense of unworthiness, Merton ultimately comes to the place where he must approach God without words and with nothing in his hands. It is here, in poverty and solitude, that he knows real intimacy with the divine.

On the book’s final page, Merton takes comfort from God’s words to his children in Paradise:

What was cruel has become merciful. What is now merciful was never cruel. I have always overshadowed Jonas with My mercy, and cruelty I know not at all. Have you had sight of Me, Jonas My child? Mercy within mercy within mercy. I have forgiven the universe without end, because I have never known sin.

What we celebrate at Christmas is more than human redemption, more than God’s great conciliatory gesture toward the world. What we celebrate, along with Thomas Merton, is the tender mercy that underlies our very lives, a mercy that needs no explanation or restitution, a mercy that asks for nothing but our love.

O God, deliver us from the struggle to earn your acceptance and love, and lead us into that place where all is Mercy, and Mercy is all we know.

These Signposts originally appeared on explorefaith in 2004.