Mary’s song of joy and prophecy is none other than a manifesto of mercy. Threaded through the Magnificat are these affirmations: “Your mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear you” (Luke 1:50), and “You have come to the aid of Israel your servant, mindful of your mercy . . .” (v. 54).
Pope Francis is in the news once again; actually, is he ever not in the news? He has declared the coming year to be a Jubilee Year, a year where mercy triumphs over judgment. Walking through the Vatican Holy Door with his predecessor, symbolizing the pilgrimage undertaken by the church, he proclaimed the desire to “rediscover the infinite mercy of God who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them.” In a time of fear, he proclaims mercy.
Rather than waiting the customary 25 years for a year of Jubilee, he called for this new one just 15 years after the previous one. What a wondrous thing to think of the urgency of mercy! Like the father of the prodigal who cannot wait for him to get all the way to the house or even finish his confession, this spiritual leader is eager to acquaint all with God’s forgiving embrace.
“How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we speak of sins being punished by his judgment before we speak of their being forgiven by his mercy,” he said. “We have to put mercy before judgment.” Far too often we have reversed this ordo salutis (order of salvation), not only for others whom we deem only fit for condemnation, but for ourselves.
It requires humility to believe that we “good folk” need saving and, even more, to accept God’s lavish mercy. We often judge ourselves harshly, and we continue to think of God keeping a tally of our sins. Martin Luther saw through this form of legalistic self-righteousness and wrote: “God’s wrath has been submerged in mercy.” Luther also described mercy as the “first work of God.”
Mercy and forgiveness are closely linked, as Advent teaches us. Even the thundering voice in the wilderness preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and opportunity for all to change direction so that they might recognize and welcome the coming one.
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,” the canticle of Zachary intones (Luke 1:78). By shining forth in mercy, God awakens us to the ways we still sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. Refusing to forgive the trespasses of others erodes the soul, and we live at too great a distance from God’s merciful desire. The hardest temptation we struggle against, according to the desert monastic, Dorotheos, is judging our neighbor.
Mercy is not an optional expression of being a Christian; it is learning to deal with others as God deals with us. Mercy does require us to hold possessions more lightly, grudges more briefly, and self-protection more rarely.
In this coming year, I invite the Central community to a year of mercy. What if we viewed each other and all those we encounter through the lens of mercy? I believe we would more nearly reflect the grace of the gospel.
In a time of fear, let us be mindful of mercy. In this season of Advent, let us welcome God’s tender mercy breaking upon us.
Molly T. Marshall