THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” Phil. 4:4
Many years ago I served as a parish priest. On a particular Sunday, the gospel of Luke for that day told the incomparably beautiful story that begins with these telling words: “A man had two sons.”
Most people through the centuries would agree that it’s arguably the most beautiful story found anywhere else in all of Sacred Scripture. It’s so profound in its message, in fact, that it is often referred to as containing the heart and soul of the entire New Testament.
And yet, it’s a story that features only two sons and a father.
I’m sure you’ve guessed already what story I’m referring to. But, even though it’s most often named the story of “The Prodigal Son,” it’s main character is really the father – a father who lavishes both of his sons with the most characteristic and the most endearing of all of God’s gifts: mercy.
So, back to when I was a parish priest.
On this particular Sunday, I spoke at all the Masses about the boundless, infinite graciousness of the God we believe in through Jesus, and how we are each called to imitate that same mercy depicted so unforgettably in that great gospel story. Or, as Luke reminds us very succinctly elsewhere: “Be merciful as your heavenly father is merciful.”
To put it mildly, the pastor was not pleased with my words.
In fact, he was so upset with my portrayal of a God immersed in a passionate love affair with His people, that the next week he got into the pulpit and ardently emphasized exactly the opposite: God’s eternal judgement, hell fire and damnation, the reality of sin, and how we are to be constantly on guard against the temptations of Satan.
To say that I was stunned by so open a rebuttal would be an understatement. Fortunately, a very kind lady approached me afterwards and said: “I like your God a lot better.”
So did Jesus.
Jesus liked his heavenly Father to such an extent, in fact, that he entered into a relationship so intense and so personal that he dared to speak of Him in the most intimate of terms, even addressing him as “Abba” – a familiarity unheard of in Jewish society.
Jesus liked the Father with such intensity that he adopted God’s primary characteristic of mercy and made it the hallmark of his whole ministry: mercy to the blind and the lame and the lepers; mercy to the woman caught in adultery; mercy to the good thief as he hung on a cross; mercy to Peter who betrayed him; mercy to the other apostles who abandoned him; mercy to the woman who washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.
Mercy. Always mercy.
Unfortunately, as expressed so sadly by that pastor in my story above, the primacy of God’s unrelenting mercy and love throughout both the Old and New Testament has, in the words of one author, been “criminally neglected” in Catholic theology.
That is why Pope Francis has just this week announced the beginning of a Jubilee Year of Mercy. He is trying to remind us in as powerful a way as he can that mercy is what best defines the God of Jesus. It is, in fact, the quality that most separates our God from any other deity believed in since the beginning of time.
And, what the Pope is urging each of us to do is to make the mercy of God come alive in the world we live in – a world immersed in fear; a world absorbed with threats of hatred and vengeance; a world intent on isolating itself and arming itself and locking itself into patterns of hatred and retribution.
In the midst of all of this, Pope Francis is calling us all to spend the next year reflecting on our most important values. He’s asking us to focus especially on the ethics Jesus preached and lived out: love, not hate; compassion, not revenge; peace not war; and mercy.
The Pope is also telling us what mercy looks like: “it consoles; it liberates; it gives courage; it brings light; it offers help.”
The season of Advent is the perfect setting for the Pope to introduce us to the unqualified importance of God’s mercy. Because Advent is a time specially dedicated to listening and reflecting and “preparing the way of the Lord.”
So let us together listen to the Pope’s words: “How much wrong we do to God when we speak of sin being punished by his judgment before we speak of their being forgiven by his mercy. We have to put mercy before judgment.”
And let us together also reflect on these words of Pope Francis which tell us that we must “rediscover the depth of the mercy of the Father, who welcomes all and goes out to meet everyone personally …. Let us become artisans of mercy in our lives.”
“Artisans of mercy ….”
When that happens in our hearts then we are truly prepared to welcome the Christ Child as the prophetic voice that summons us to fully embrace the values that mercy and compassion entail.
If we do that, if we make the remainder of this Advent a moment in our life in which we fling open the doors of our hearts to allow the Child to truly “dwell among us,” then the result will be the experience of yet another of the greatest of all Christian virtues: joy.
The kind of joy that that the father’s mercy brought about as he threw his arms around his son, killed the fatted calf, and initiated a gigantic “Welcome Home” feast. The kind of joy that resulted in angels singing in the skies: “Glory to God in the highest.”
It’s the very same joy that St. Paul speaks of in today’s reading:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!”
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.