Mercy and truth have met,
Justice and peace have embraced.
Truth has sprung up from the earth,
and Justice has looked down from heaven.
When the Fathers of the Church wanted to speak of the mystery of the Incarnation, and of the Divine Motherhood of Mary, they would often seek their inspiration, their images, and their words, in Messianic texts of the Old Testament. So it was that Psalm 84 was very frequently cited in ancient Christmas homilies. We still sing this Psalm in our Christmas Vigils before Midnight Mass, with its own Antiphon (in the VIII mode): Veritas de terra orta est, et iustitia de caelo prospexit. We sang it also at Vigils this morning. The quotation I began with, incidentally, played an important part in the Film Babette’s Feast.
Psalm 84, or 85 in the Hebrew numbering, is generally classified as a Psalm of lament. It’s a cry of people in serious trouble: people who are tempted to think that God has forgotten them. They believe that God is good, and merciful, and faithful; yet just now there seems to be rather little evidence of this. Nevertheless, they turn to him with confidence, asking for salvation and for life. And then: it’s as if the clouds suddenly lift. Light pours in; an astonishing vista opens up, and there is revealed a future wonderful beyond all hopes or expectations, beyond all imagination.
The qualities or characteristics of God, mentioned so frequently in the Psalms, are here personified. They meet, they kiss, they spring up, they look down, they march, they form a pathway. The Hebrew words we translate as Mercy or Truth or Justice are very rich in meaning, so that no simple English equivalent can be substituted for them. They refer to God’s loving kindness towards Israel, his fidelity and loyalty to his Covenant, his will to save. And the singer of Psalm 84 looks to encounter them directly, concretely, manifestly, here on earth, when God comes to visit and to save his people.
It was not difficult for the Fathers of the Church to apply this text to the Incarnation. Already Isaiah had spoken of the Messiah as a shoot springing up (e.g. 4:2; 11:1), and Jesus had spoken of himself as the Truth. We believe, we know, that Jesus is himself God’s blessing upon us, God’s visitation, God’s loving mercy towards his people; Jesus is himself the superabundant fulfilment of all God’s promises. Jesus, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14), has come to break down the barriers of sin that separate us from God and from one another; he who, as St. Paul says, is our peace, and also God’s Justice (cf. Eph 2:14, 1 Cor 1:29 etc.)
According to St. Augustine, the Truth which was from all eternity in the bosom of the Father (Jn 1:18) has in Jesus sprung up from the earth, in order to be in the bosom of his Mother. Augustine is astonished at how such sublimity and humility can be joined; for at one and the same time the eternal Son of God as Justice looks down from heaven, and as Truth he springs up from the earth.
St. Jerome beautifully notes that the mercy of the Saviour manifested by the Incarnation was itself an act of justice; for it was only right that, like a potter, he should take great care of his own handiwork, and that he should come to seek out and save what was lost. In his Justice he fulfilled the promises made of old to the people of Israel, and in his Mercy he extended that salvation also to the gentiles.
Mercy and truth have met. Normally in the Psalms these two characteristics of God go together; they are presented in parallel, as two aspects of the same thing. Today, though, on the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God, we rejoice that God’s mercy met with a response of perfect fidelity in a human being. Of course Our Lady’s divine Motherhood, and her Immaculate sinlessness, and the fullness of her grace, were all fruits of God’s mercy.
Nevertheless, most wonderfully in Mary, in a way that was utterly unique, God’s mercy met with an appropriate human response. He came to his Mother, and he found her ready: all holy, innocent, good, pure, loving, humble; receiving him in abundance of joy, and of gratitude. God’s mercy, bending down, in Mary met with perfect human fidelity, looking up, and the result of that union was our salvation, our life, our hope, our sanctification, our glorification, our eternal beatitude, and our eternal joy.