“I desire mercy not sacrifice.” –Matthew 12:7
We celebrate the feast of St. Nerses the Great today. As a saint, he wasn’t foremost a great thinker or teacher of God’s word, for that is relatively easy. He was instead a great doer of God’s word; that is rare and blessed, and why we call him great. Indeed, St. Nerses the Great was a great doer of God’s word, including this Sunday’s assigned reading, which reveals a fundamental tenet of God’s covenant with humankind; “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”
The great thing about the Saints is that we can see the ultimate meaning of God’s words as applied in the life they lived. You see, Nerses had everything going for him. He had the education and connections from the dominant Greek culture in Caesarea. He rose up through the ranks of military and government. He was the great-grandson of St. Gregory the Illuminator, an heir to Armenia’s most noble lineage.
But nonetheless, when royal magnates who held council with the king advised the king to persuade St. Nersess to become the spiritual leader of Armenia, he refused. Certainly, this was out of humility, but not only this. Nerses perhaps knew the passage from Samuel which says, “For the Lord does not see as people see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Nerses did not care for the approval of wealthy and powerful people, nor for the trappings of the office of Catholicos; he cared only what God willed and saw in his heart. Only after some time, and the repeated invitations of the King did Nerses discern his call to serve. In short order, he was ordained deacon, then priest, and ultimately Catholicos in 353 A.D.
The Armenian king and leaders of the church would have many opportunities to regret this. For when the new Catholicos Nerses ascended to the Throne of St. Gregory, he did not forget God’s word, but made it his oath. He rebuffed vested powers in politics and religion, to reform the church into a servant and defender of the people—especially for the weak and dispossessed. He built schools and orphanages; hospitals and shelters for the poor; monasteries and convents. At the bishops’ council of Ashdishad, which Nerses convened in A.D. 364, he instituted reforms in the church canons that placed Christian charity, moral cleanliness, sincere worship, marriage and childrearing at the heart of religious observance.
Nerses was also outspoken in defiance of Armenia’s impious leaders—and his unwavering moral integrity came at great cost. He was deposed from office; exiled from his homeland; eventually poisoned at the order of a depraved king. Nevertheless, his example of holiness and virtue left a lasting impression on the Armenian Church and people, who canonized and name him “Nerses the Great, Illuminator of hearts." For in his life he shed light on the heart of God—who above all things—‘desires mercy not sacrifice”.
St. Nerses’s life gives as an exemple on how we can be instruments of this mercy for others.
He understood what it means to have a merciful heart that responds to those most in need. He gave them far more than material goods. He gave himself by giving his time, his words and his entire life.
The fifth Beatitude declares that the merciful are blessed. I always like to link the Gospel Beatitudes with Matthew 25, where Jesus presents us with the works of mercy and tells us that we will be judged on them. Here are the corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, assist the sick, visit the imprisoned and bury the dead. Nor should we overlook the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, teach the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the sorrowful, forgive offenses, patiently bear with troublesome people and pray to God for the living and the dead. As you can see, mercy does not just imply being a “good person” nor is it mere sentimentality. It is the measure of our authenticity as disciples of Jesus, and of our credibility as Christians in today’s world.
Let us dedicate ourselves to doing corporal and spiritual works of mercy, emulating in our good and kind works for others, the great heart of Nerses the Great, now and always. Amen.