The Mercy Seat

Iconic Monstrance, Our Lady of The Sign - Ark of Mercy at St. Stanislaus of Kostka Church, Chicago, on June 13. (Catholic New World/ Karen Callaway)
“Our Lady of the Sign-Ark of Mercy” St. Stanislaus, Chicago the largest monstrance for the Eucharist in the world

When I first became familiar with the term, The Mercy Seat, it was around the same time that Pope Francis announced in a Papal Bull that beginning December 8, 2015 on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (a feast of Mary) that there would be an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. He announced it on the eve of the Feast of Divine Mercy of this year in this way:

“I have decided to announce an Extraordinary Jubilee which has at its centre the mercy of God. It will be a Holy Year of Mercy.”

“This liturgical feast day recalls God’s action from the very beginning of the history of mankind. After the sin of Adam and Eve, God did not wish to leave humanity alone in the throes of evil. And so he turned his gaze to Mary, holy and immaculate in love (cf. Eph 1:4), choosing her to be the Mother of man’s Redeemer. When faced with the gravity of sin, God responds with the fullness of mercy. Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive. I will have the joy of opening the Holy Door on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. On that day, the Holy Door will become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instils hope.”

I believe that it is very significant that the Pope has declared a Holy Year of Mercy at this time, and that the Blessed Virgin Mary has an important role to play as well.

In relation to the Holy Year of Mercy, I wondered about the meaning of The Mercy Seat and found that it was the “seat” or “lid” of the Ark of the Covenant and the place where God “spoke” to his people. It was also named the propitiatory, where God was made “propitious” or “favorably disposed” to His people. At first I was thinking that The Mercy Seat was only related to God Himself, but then I remembered that Mary has been called by the Church the New Ark of the Covenant, and rightly so since she has carried in her womb, Our Lord, Jesus.

Mary, in whom the Lord himself has just made his dwelling, is the daughter of Zion in person, the ark of the covenant, the place where the glory of the Lord dwells. She is “the dwelling of God . . . with men.” Full of grace, Mary is wholly given over to him who has come to dwell in her and whom she is about to give to the world. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2676

There are many examples of typology and foreshadowing in Sacred Scripture that support this. In the following two examples, in the Old Testament Greek version, the word for “settled down upon” used in the Exodus quote is the same word that Luke uses for “overshadow” in the New Testament quote.

Exodus 40:34-35 “Then the cloud covered the meeting tent, and the glory of the LORD filled the Dwelling. Moses could not enter the meeting tent, because the cloud settled down upon it and the glory of the LORD filled the Dwelling”.

Luke 1:35: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”

Then in the next two examples, almost the same phrases are used:

2 Samuel 6:9 “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (David speaking of his unworthiness that the ark of the Lord is carried to him.)

Luke 1:43 “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Elizabeth speaking of her unworthiness to Mary who is “carrying” the Lord when she came to visit her)

The title, Kyrios, which means “Lord” is used for the first time in reference to Jesus Christ in Luke’s Gospel reading about Elizabeth and Mary, and was the title that translated YHWH in the Greek Bible.

Also, in the book of Revelation beginning with 11:19, and going into Chapter 12 John sees “God’s temple in heaven opened and in the temple could be seen the ark of his covenant…A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” John goes on to say that this woman “gave birth to a son—a boy destined to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and to his throne.” Now remember that this book, as John wrote it, was only later divided into chapters, so when he sees the ark of the covenant in heaven, there follows a clamor of lightening, thunder, hail etc…a storm, then in Chapter 12, he immediately goes into describing the “woman”, Mary, but there was no division in the text when John wrote this. His seeing the “ark of the covenant” and then the “woman” happen together. (Scott Hahn explains all of this in much greater detail in his book Hail Holy Queen.)

It seems to follow that The Mercy Seat, being a part of the Ark of the Covenant, would also be a part of the New Ark of the Covenant, Mary. And is it possible that this “storm” John speaks of that appears with the Ark of the Covenant  is more foreshadowing of Mary as the New Ark of the Covenant who appears during a period of darkness and trial in the world? Are the words of these popes prophetic? :

“Let the storm rage and the sky darken — not for that shall we be dismayed. If we trust as we should in Mary… we shall recognize in her, the Virgin Most Powerful who with virginal foot did crush the head of the serpent.”     ―Pope Pius X (Encyclical on the Immaculate Conception, February, 1904)

“It is precisely at the end of the second millennium that immense, threatening clouds converge on the horizon of all humanity and darkness descends upon human souls.”
— Saint Pope John Paul II (speech, December, 1983)

We implore [Mary’s] maternal intercession that the Church may become a home for many peoples, a mother for all peoples, and that the way may be opened to the birth of a new world. It is the Risen Christ who tells us, with a power that fills us with confidence and unshakeable hope: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). With Mary we advance confidently towards the fulfillment of this promise… —Pope Francis, (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 288,  November, 2013)

After pondering about Mary as the New Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat, it occurred to me that she may be called the Seat of Mercy. If you are a Catholic, you likely know that Mary has different titles, one of which is Seat of Wisdom, and one of the definitions of “seat” is the place where something rests, so the term Seat of Mercy, for me, first draws to mind the image of Mary pregnant with Jesus. She being the only place where He can “rest” because she is perfectly Holy, “full of grace”. She wasn’t just His physical place of rest when He came to us, though, but a spiritual resting place. No other human being could understand, comfort, or relate on a spiritual level to Jesus, who is God, better than Mary!

So, if Our Lord “spoke” from the Mercy Seat in Old Testament times, does He speak to us through Mary as the Seat of Mercy now? I believe so! First, there are a number of apparitions (visual appearances) of Mary approved by the Catholic Church as authentic, but I am going to focus on one, Fatima, Portugal. In this type of apparition, Jesus sent His mother to visionaries (often children) to guide or warn us, and urge us to pray, especially the rosary, amend our lives, and make sacrifices for others. Mary would often affirm that she is the Mother of us all, and request to “make these messages known”. There were many serious warnings as well.

An example from the messages given by Our Blessed Lady at Fatima to three children (Lucia who later became Sister Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta) with the approval of the Catholic Church as authentic and worthy of belief (no one is required to believe it however).:

I am the Lady of the Rosary. I have come to warn the faithful to amend their lives and ask for pardon for their sins. They must not offend Our Lord anymore, for He is already too grievously offended by the sins of men. People must say the Rosary. Let them continue saying it every day.”
—Our Lady at Fatima, Portugal 1917

In August of 1917, Our Lady told the children, “pray much and make sacrifices for sinners, for many souls go to hell because there is no one to make sacrifices for them.” As to the kinds of sacrifices Our Lady was asking, she revealed to Lucia on one occasion: “The good Lord is allowing Himself to be appeased . . . but He Himself complains most bitterly and sorrowfully about the small number of souls in His grace who are willing to renounce whatever the observance of His laws requires of them.”

Many persons,” Sr. Lucia explained, “feeling that the word penance implies great austerities, and not feeling that they have the strength for great sacrifices, become discouraged and continue a life of lukewarmness and sin.” Then she said Our Lord explained to her: “The sacrifice required of every person is the fulfillment of his duties in life and the observance of My law. This is the penance that I now seek and require.”

The Lord doesn’t require more than fulfillment of our duties in life and observance of His law. How far  many have gone from that! We have forgotten that it’s not our world and our laws, but His world and His laws!

At this apparition in Fatima, the great “miracle of the sun”, enlarged, moving, and “dancing” in the sky was seen by thousands of people, including Atheists, and was recorded in the newspapers. After the people had been standing in a soaking rain, they were instantly dry after the “miracle of the sun”.

I mentioned that the eve of the Feast of Divine Mercy was when Pope Francis announced this year of mercy. This feast day was declared and promoted by Pope John Paul II who was very devoted to Divine Mercy, and in fact died on the vigil of the Feast of Divine Mercy. Divine Mercy originated from a series of revelations from Our Lord to an uneducated Polish nun (now Saint) Maria Faustina Kawalska which her spiritual director commanded her to write. Her diary, Divine Mercy in My Soul, speaks of the great mercy of God, a time of Mercy unlike any other time in history, before there is a time of Justice. But most importantly it speaks of Jesus’ great love and longing for us. In it Jesus requests this Feast of Divine Mercy, a day when He calls all repentant sinners back to Him and promises that with repentance, sacramental confession, and reception of the Holy Eucharist there will be complete forgiveness of all sin and punishment. The book is 600 pages, and the primary message is for us to ask for God’s forgiveness and mercy, be merciful to others, and to trust Jesus. However, I want to note these words of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Saint Faustina when she appeared to her on March 25, 1936, the feast of the Annunciation:

“Speak to the world about His great mercy and prepare it for His Second Coming speak to souls about this great mercy while it is still the time of mercy.”

So this is another reason that I believe the Holy Father’s Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy is quite significant. Pope Francis has said the Catholic Church needs to “open wide the doors” of mercy, and of our Church. He is making it easy for us to invite in the poor, the lost, the spiritually sick and lame, the pagan….all of those who Jesus went and sought out, but he is asking us the faithful, just like Jesus, not just to invite them in, but to go out and find them.

“Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent.
— Pope Francis, 2013, July 28, World Youth Day Mass

This is what Pope Francis is trying to do I believe, and pastorally, he is giving the Church a breath of fresh air, but the process may be “messy”.

“Make a mess, but then also help to tidy it up. A mess which gives us a free heart, a mess which gives us solidarity, a mess which gives us hope,”
—Pope Francis message to youth in Paraguay July 2015

So, it may appear that Pope Francis is making a “mess” to many people, but I think we should have faith, trust and be confident that the Lord is still at the helm of His ship as He promised. Pope Francis has said “The teaching of the Church is clear… and I am a son of the Church”. (September 2013) And as Catholics we can be assured that God’s laws and dogmas of the Church always remain intact because they come from God and are protected by the Holy Spirit. “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.” John 16:13

Putting all of this together...The messages from Fatima, in which Mary says Our Lord is allowing Himself to be “appeased”  began almost one hundred years ago. There are many other apparitions or locutions (hearing but not having a vision) of Mary (some approved, some which still may be approved) which have similar messages and warnings. Then too, Our Lord has given messages of profound mercy and warning to Saint Faustina. In one of her diary entries she says:

I saw the Lord Jesus, like a king in great majesty, looking down upon our earth with great severity; but because of His Mother’s intercession He prolonged the time of His mercy…the Lord answered me, “I am prolonging the time of mercy for the sake of [sinners]. But woe to them if they do not recognize this time of My visitation.” —revelation to St. Faustina, Divine Mercy in My Soul, Diary, n. 126I, 1160

“In the Old Covenant I sent prophets wielding thunderbolts to My people. Today I am sending you with My mercy to the people of the whole world. I do not want to punish aching mankind, but I desire to heal it, pressing it to My Merciful Heart. I use punishment when they themselves force Me to do so; My hand is reluctant to take hold of the sword of justice. Before the Day of Justice I am sending the Day of Mercy.” —Divine Mercy in My Soul, Diary,  n. 1588

Is the time of mercy coming to a close? Is God ready to withdraw His protective hand, and allow us to reap the consequences of our indifference or defiance in order to correct humanity? It would seem that if it were, God would first “open wide the doors” of mercy. So, that is why I believe that Pope Francis’ Extraordinary Jubilee, the Holy Year of Mercy may be so important. In response, we need to, as faithful members of the Church, go and seek out the lost, the hurt, the downtrodden, everyone who needs Jesus, and spread the news that God wishes to draw all of His children to Him in mercy and love, and that He has given us Mary, The Seat of Mercy, as a mother to us all. She has given us a warning, but she has also given us a plan. Her plan for peace is prayer, reparation and consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She said, “If people do what I tell you, many, souls will be saved and there will be peace.”  Will there be a correction of the world, and a period of peace before the Second Coming of Jesus?

If Mary has repeatedly asked us to pray the rosary, it must be a very special prayer. Do we trust her and believe her when she says to do these things?  I believe that praying to and honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary, especially the prayers of the Rosary, help make us “favorably disposed” to the Lord who wishes to see His mother loved and honored. But she is also the Lord’s merciful gift to us, “Behold, your Mother”, Jesus said. She was the very last thing He had to give before giving His life for us! Her “fiat”, which wasn’t just a yes to being the mother of the Savior, but also being a Mother to us, continues through every generation until the last person on earth, just as the grace of salvation does. And as our Heavenly Mother, she doesn’t just care for her children in a collective way, but more perfectly than any good mother she gives individual love, attention, and guidance to each of us, and she can do this in a very profound way… through the prayers of the Rosary. The Rosary with its meditations on the life of Jesus, and the biblical origin of most of the prayers, when prayed from the heart, is a very important and expedient way to get closer to God. It is especially efficacious when prayed together in a family. Our Mother Mary has requested that we do this, so it must be very important!

When asked about the importance of the Rosary, Sr. Lucia (of Fatima) responded: “My impression is that the Rosary is of greatest value not only according to the words of Our Lady at Fatima, but according to the effects of the Rosary one sees throughout history. My impression is that Our Lady wanted to give ordinary people, who might not know how to pray, this simple method of getting closer to God.”

Mary will only lead you to her Son or bring you closer to Him, so there is nothing to fear in praying to or honoring her, and there are many other ways to do so which I have not mentioned here. Having her act as our mother is a great gift! Then just as she did at the Wedding at Cana, she sees and knows your needs, and only has to say to the Lord, “They have no wine.” Then miracles happen!

One last thing has imbedded this idea in my mind of Mary as the Mercy Seat and that is the image of her in the Pieta by Michelangelo. Pieta in Italian means “pity” or “compassion”. The meaning of this great work of art, goes beyond Mary’s feeling of compassion for her Son; it also portrays His great pity and compassion for us, so much that He would suffer unimaginable torments and die for us. In this famous sculpture, as if she is presenting Him to us; Mary is holding in her lap, the body of her only Son, our Savior…. Mercy, Himself.

Michelangelo’s Pieta

Sources and References:
Hahn, Scott, Hail Holy Queen, Doubleday, New York, NY April 2001
Kowalska, Maria Faustina, Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kolwalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul, Marian Press, Stockbridge, MA 2005
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