Peter Espeut: A year for mercy
The idea that God could become human is a "scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles" (1 Cor 1:23). How could the Creator become part of the creation? Ah! The mystery of Christmas!
But not so strange. For we are told that God made humanity "in his own image and likeness" (Gen 1:27); so we resemble each other. God is all good, and he made humanity "very good" (Gen 1:31). God is omnipotent, and humanity has the power to choose; but we used that gift of freedom to reject original justice, and to choose separation and alienation from the Creator and each other and the earth given, our home.
How would humanity and the Godhead be reconciled? How could original justice and right relationships be restored? Humanity made a choice. Surely, justice demands punishment and oblivion?
The God in whose image we have been created is a just God, but is also full of mercy and compassion, slow to anger, and rich in kindness (Ex 34:6, Psa 103:8). The response of the just God to our malfeasance was mercy and forgiveness, even before we asked for it.
"The Word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us" (John 1:14). Heaven invaded earth. God became human to teach us how to be like God. Jesus humbled himself to share our humanity, so that we might share his divinity. We are called to be merciful as the heavenly Father is merciful (Luke 6:36). We most resemble God when we are merciful to others.
Two weeks ago, on December 8, Pope Francis inaugurated an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy under the theme 'Merciful like the Father'. Each individual, and the church as an institution, was called upon to show the mercy and forgiveness of God in tangible ways. For he says love and mercy "can never be just an abstraction".
'Door of Mercy'
For the next 12 months (and, hopefully, beyond), Catholics and others around the world will focus on mercy: both giving it, and receiving it. We are being asked to reawaken our consciences, which may have grown dull. Each cathedral around the world is to have a special symbolic 'Door of Mercy' for the duration of the Holy Year. Those who seek to enter into the spirit of the Year of Mercy should make a special pilgrimage to enter through the 'Door of Mercy' as a sign that they seek mercy for themselves, and that they wish the grace and the strength to show mercy to others. Pilgrims should seek to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation (formerly called "confession") for the forgiveness of their sins, and should seek to reconcile themselves with anyone they have offended, or who has offended them.
I know I have a lot of work to do!
"When we go through that door, it is good to remember that we must also open wide the doors of our heart," said Francis, suggesting people can even stand before the holy door and ask: "Lord, help me to open the doors of my heart!" He said: "The Holy Year won't be very effective if the doors of our heart do not let Christ enter, who pushes us to go towards others, to bring him and his love".
"The door indicates Jesus himself, who said: 'I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture,'" said Francis. "Going through the holy door is the sign of our trust in the Lord Jesus, who did not come to judge, but to save."
In proclaiming the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis reminds us of the parable of the 'ruthless servant' who, called by his master to pay back a huge debt, begs on his knees for mercy - for extra time to pay. His master cancels his debt. But he then meets a fellow servant who owes him a few cents, and who, in turn, begs on his knees for mercy; but the first servant refuses, and throws his colleague in jail. When the master hears of it, he becomes furious and, summoning the first servant, says, "Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?" (Matt. 18:33). In this parable, Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father; it is for us, too. In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy was first shown to us. For us Christians, pardoning offences is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves. To let go of anger, wrath, violence, and revenge are necessary conditions for living joyfully.
Jamaica is a country where vengeance, retaliation and reprisals are not unknown. Many of us do not possess peaceful hearts, and show little mercy to others. You don't have to be Catholic to celebrate the Year of Mercy. Joyfully celebrating the mystery of Christmas is a good beginning.
- Peter Espeut is a Roman Catholic deacon and a development scientist.