Does the Mass Say Christmas Is About Justice?

Is Christmas about justice? B. D. McClay’s recent column in Commonweal, “Christmas is a Time for Justice” seems to suggest that Christmas is about justice, divine justice. She argues in an “admittedly lighthearted way” that the movie In Bruges is a Christmas movie because in some sense it is about justice and “accounts beginning to come in.” The movie is about an Irish hit man, Ray, who accidentally kills a child. For this mistake his boss Harry insists he must die to settle the account—justice demands it; Harry sends Ray to Bruges along with Ken whom Harry has ordered to kill Ray. It is in fact a wonderful though violent movie with a twist at the end very much worth watching. The movie’s theme functions as a metaphor for Christmas. So if the theme of the movie is about justice and accounts coming due, it seems that Christmas, when we celebrate the incarnation and birth of Christ, is ultimately about justice because our accounts have come due.

I cannot help but think that McClay is being rather more whimsical than lighthearted in her essay. The impression left by the essay that Christmas is about justice, divine justice, is so fanciful that she must be trying to startle us into thinking by contrast of what Christmas is really about.

This past year doing research, I had occasion to try to count the number of times that divine justice is mentioned in the Mass. It is certainly mentioned on some particular days in the antiphons and collects for those days; and of course it is a theme in various Old Testament readings that likewise occur on particular days throughout the year. What astounded me, however, was that divine justice is never mentioned in the ordinary of the Mass; the ordinary forms the backbone of any Mass, the part of the Mass that is the same always and everywhere that Mass is said. Divine justice is not mentioned even once in the ordinary. The result is that there are Masses in which divine justice is never mentioned. The only time the word “just” shows up at all in the ordinary is when the people respond that "it is right and just" that we should give thanks to the Lord our God, and the priest echoes “it is indeed right and just.” But that justice is not about accounts coming due and being settled in the way accounts are settled in In Bruges, if they are settled at all.

The fact that divine justice plays no part in the ordinary of the Mass, and is never mentioned in some Masses at all, seems worth pondering when asking what Christmas is all about. Certainly we should acknowledge and reverence divine justice. Indeed, it provides a frame or setting for what we celebrate when we celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas and through the Christmas season.

However, Christmas is about something quite other and much greater than divine justice. Many refer to Mary as the Mirror of Justice. But all call her Mater Misericordiae, Mother of Mercy. On Christmas Mary does not give birth to justice, divine or otherwise. Mary mothers Mercy to us. She gives birth to Mercy incarnate on Christmas day.

It is not just that Christmas is not about divine justice. Thinking that it is can also warp what we think mercy is about when we think of Mary mothering Mercy on Christmas day. “Mercy” is the term used to translate the Latin misericordia and the Greek eleison. In every Mass we pray, Kyrie, eleison; Christe, eleison; Kyrie, eleison. “Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy.” But what are we praying for? Mercy is an ambiguous term in English. It can mean judicial mercy or clemency that involves a judge or ruler mitigating or lessening a justly imposed punishment. This is pretty much the only sense it has in contemporary philosophy. The philosophical debate is about whether mercy, the mitigation or lessening of a just punishment, violates justice; if the punishment is appropriate and due, how can lessening it do anything other than violate the justice of the punishment?

This sense of mercy as judicial clemency is what Portia praises in The Merchant of Venice as a divine attribute of God, that when found in an earthly king is greater even than his crown. Interestingly, Aquinas thinks that the only place that God expresses this kind of mercy, divine judicial mercy or clemency, is in Hell, as he writes, “mercy is found even in Hell, because the damned reprobates are not punished as much as they deserve.” If we think that Christmas is about divine justice and accounts coming due in some sense, then we are very likely to think that the mercy mothered by Mary, made manifest by the Incarnation, is an act of divine clemency akin to what is shown to the damned in Hell; the only difference is that we get a lot more of this divine mercy than the damned because we get to go to Heaven if God grants it. If this is what we think mercy means, then when we pray Kyrie, eleison, it seems that we are asking for this judicial clemency, this mercy of a judge letting us off the hook, as it were.

No, the Mercy of the Incarnation, the Mercy we pray for in Mass, Kyrie eleison, is not this clemency, this lessening of punishment, since the punishment we deserve for our offense against God is not lessened. On the contrary, it is superabundantly paid or redeemed by Christ’s incarnate sacrifice that is to come on Good Friday. The debt is not mitigated or lessened, but rather paid in full and infinitely more besides.

Suppose I owe Gary Anderson 100 denarii. My friend Ed sees how I suffer under the weight of this “account that has come due,” and pays Gary 200 denarii on my behalf telling him to consider my debt satisfied. No doubt Gary’s claim to the 100 denarii is a just claim. His just claim has been answered in full by Ed and more besides; he no longer has a just claim against me. However, it would be passing strange to describe Ed’s act as an act of justice, despite the fact that it superabundantly settled Gary’s claim. It would also be clearly wrong to describe Ed’s act of paying the debt on my behalf as an unjust act, particularly if Gary accepts the money; nothing of what Ed did violated justice. His act is neither just nor unjust. So what is it? It is something entirely other, besides, and greater than justice, something that in a sense takes the question of justice off the table.

The term misericordia which is translated into English as “mercy” shows up eighteen times in the ordinary of the Mass, which does not even count the many times it shows up in particular antiphons, collects, and readings for particular days, and many times in the psalms, not to mention in the Salve Regina where we pray that Mary turn her misericordes oculos, her “eyes of mercy toward us” in hac lacrimarum valle, “in this valley of tears.” Listen for the term mercy sometime at Christmas Mass as opposed to the term justice; just try not to hear it now. Still, despite being a homonym in English for judicial mercy, this mercy of the Mass is very different. It involves the compassion of a friend who suffers with us and acts for us to alleviate our suffering.

The theologians and metaphysicians will tell us that in God justice and mercy are identical, indeed identical with God himself; so it seems wrong to suggest, as I appear to be doing, that divine mercy is something other and greater than divine justice. However, Thomas Aquinas will tell us that we only know about divine justice and mercy in virtue of its effects in this world, particularly in our lives. As a result, what we understand and say about it is shaped by what we can say of those effects in our lives. However, the effects of God’s mercy and justice in this world are not simply identical, which is why Aquinas can go on to say that there is rather more of God’s mercy in creation than his justice, although he acts justly in creation, that justice strives after mercy, and that mercy exalts itself above justice. This mercy is misericordia that etymologically just means “a suffering heart.” While this misericordia does not lessen or violate justice, in its effects upon us it is something surpassingly greater than justice. Indeed, according to Aquinas justice strives after this mercy as its goal.

Aristotle says that friends are in no need of justice, but those who are just are in need of friends. Misericordia is the expression of friendship for another in the context of suffering. However much justice sets the stage for what we celebrate at Christmas, the Incarnation is about breaking the frame and the fourth wall of that stage. Christmas, the birth of divine misericordia amongst us is about the friendship that is in no need of justice; it does not deny justice but takes it off the table.

Philosophers argue about whether a judge acts unjustly, if, out of friendship for the guilty party, he grants judicial mercy and lessens a justly imposed punishment.

Arguably he does violate justice, as judicial mercy should be as blind as justice. The tragedy of Shylock is that Portia and her Venetian friends are ignorant of that other quite different kind of mercy that surpasses justice, the misericordia that is no mere attribute of God, no mere trinket greater than the crown of a king, but is God himself made manifest to us in the friendship of Christ born on Christmas day. The Venetians have not befriended Shylock and the Jews, which is what sets the stage for their tragedy.

None of this is to say that In Bruges is not a Christmas movie. A movie is a Christmas movie not because it is about justice, about accounts coming due and being paid, but because it is about friendship, a particular form of friendship, the friendship of misericordia that chooses compassion and acts to assist friends who suffer. “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”

The Little Drummer Boy, although a short film, is a great Christmas movie set on the day of Christ’s birth. Mary nods. The poor boy plays, offering the only gift he has to the newborn baby. The baby smiles, and in that smile the boy sees an incomprehensible beauty, Misericordia born of Mary and dwelling amongst us. He is transformed by that smile from hating all human beings to loving them, just as Christ does. Christmas is about Christ’s smile.

Groundhog Day is a profound Christmas movie, even though it is not set at Christmas. Phil, the groundhog, learns to come out of his burrow, the recurring everlasting Hell of his self-absorption to befriend those around him, observe their sufferings, many small but some great, and act in friendship to help them. His misericordia breaks the frame of the everlasting cycle of Groundhog Day. Christmas is about Christ’s compassion.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a great and profound Christmas movie. George Bailey, who has shown compassion to his friends throughout his life, and acted, somewhat begrudgingly, to help them, owes the bank $8000 he does not have. His friends respond in compassion to help him in return, and Sam Wainright authorizes his company to advance him “up to $25,000. Stop. Merry Christmas and Hee Haw!” What Sam does there is not an act of justice and neither does it violate justice; it surpasses justice. None of the characters’ acts of misericordia deny justice, because those who are friends are in no need of justice. Their misericordia takes justice off the table as something greater than justice is made manifest. “No man is a failure who has friends.” Aquinas commenting upon divine mercy emphasizes St. Paul in Ephesians, “therefore, give to one another as Christ has given to you.” Christmas is about Christ’s friendship.

If In Bruges is a Christmas movie, it is not because it is about “accounts beginning to come in.” If it is a Christmas movie, we should observe friendship and misericordia exhibited in it, a friendship that is in no need of justice.


Two of the main characters die in Bruges. One is Ray's boss Harry, who represents the demands of justice. The other is Ray's friend Ken, Ken who had been ordered to shoot Ray. What does Ken represent? Ken, having been shot by Harry, climbs to the top of the tower in the main square of Bruges. He offers his life for Ray by throwing himself off of the tower, warning Ray that Harry is coming after him. But before he does so, he deliberately drops coins off of the tower to the people in the square below. Symbolically, the debt is being paid. However it is not paid by those denarii, but rather by Ken’s life that when offered for a friend surpasses what was owed.

By paying our debt superabundantly beyond what justice demands, Christ does not act as divine judge lessening our punishment. He acts as a human friend offering his life for his friends motivated by his divine compassion. Before Christ raises Lazarus from the dead, he first calls him his friend and weeps for him. Christmas is about lacrima Christi, Christ’s tears.

In the end, Christmas is about Good Friday. When in the Mass we pray Kyrie, eleison, we are not asking for judicial mercy. We are asking for Christ’s compassion and misericordia. But of course the point of the Mass is that that prayer has already been answered, answered on Christmas day and fulfilled on Good Friday. The prayer is an act of memory in the context of the Mass, recalling for us what is already being made re-present for us in that very moment in the Mass, Christ’s as Mercy incarnate born of Mary on Christmas day. The birth of God with us is about the death of God amongst us; it is what he is born to. But Good Friday is not about justice; there is no need of justice among friends. On Good Friday, justice is taken off the table, in order to manifest something that was set upon that table long before even Christmas day, set in the beginning before the beginning of time: misericordia.

Merry Christmas.


Featured Image: Jan Baptist van Meunincxhove,The Burg in Bruges, c. 1700; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


John O'Callaghan

John O'Callaghan is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and a permanent member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

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