In a Lenten blog in 2014 we looked at the words of St John Chrysostom in the Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours about “getting our house in order”:
“Practice prayer from the beginning. Paint your house with the colors of modesty and humility. Make it radiant with the light of justice. Decorate it with the finest gold leaf of good deeds. Adorn it with the walls and stones of faith and generosity. Crown it with the pinnacle of prayer. In this way you will make it a perfect dwelling place for the Lord. You will be able to receive him as in a splendid palace, and through his grace you will already possess him, his image enthroned in the temple of your spirit.”
–St. John Chrysostom, Homily 6 De precatione: PG 64, 462-466; Second Reading of the Office of Readings for Friday after Ash Wednesday
Year of Mercy
This year we find ourselves entering into Lent in the Year of Mercy, a Jubilee of Mercy declared by Pope Francis in Misericordiae Vultus (“The Face of Mercy”). There are study groups, teams of service and outreach, and holy doors in every diocese around the world. Everywhere there are lots of “merciful things” to do.
But we will totally miss the heart of the Year of Mercy if we don’t realize that this is a gift for me first of all. I am the one in need of mercy, and when I really acknowledge that reality and allow myself to receive mercy, then I will wish to do nothing more than share that same gratuitous mercy with others.
St Paul sings this great refrain of mercy in Romans 5:6-8 when he looks at his own life of sin, violence, and persecution against Christ…and shows us how Christ takes the initiative in bringing us to Himself:
For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
What does it mean to believe that Christ really loves us like this? It means we have to honestly know who and what we are…creatures beloved by the Father who often forget Him and go mucking around in sin…who sometimes leave Him out of our plans and wind up in trouble…but who are never beyond the gaze of the Father who is watching and waiting. We are the Good Thief, we are the man beaten and abandoned on the side of the road to Jericho, we are the woman at the well. Let us seek out mercy first, and then give mercy to others.
Yes, this is the road home, the open wound into the Heart of Christ. We don’t have to be a major sinner like St Paul to experience transformative mercy when we admit our sins.
I have heard a priest describe in general terms one of the best confessions he ever heard: “During the Lenten confessions of the parish children, they were coming into the confessional one after another with a similar list of childhood sins and misdeeds. But at one point a little girl who had been making her confession in much the same way as the others suddenly paused. I thought maybe she was finished. Then with a trembling voice she said, ‘I don’t want to be so mean anymore.’ This was the greatest confession of authentic conversion I heard that Lent.”
Our Participation in the Year of Mercy Begins at Home
Those of us who want to respond to the beautiful call of the Holy Father to give mercy this year need to begin by receiving mercy in the “home” of our own souls. Real conversion and a balanced sense of our own sin and the power of God’s love makes us humble, grateful, and eager to help others. Being merciful means being humble and sober about human weakness and God’s grace. So, yes, let us go to volunteer in soup-kitchens! Yes, let us travel during our spring break to help build homes for poor in other countries! Yes, let us bind up wounds, and bring kindness and compassion! But let us do so as fellow recovering sinners who only can “give what we have” because Christ first gave it to us when we were in need.
As they say in the airplane safety messages, “secure your own oxygen mask first before helping others” — let us all get to confession and cultivate a Lenten reform which builds on humility so that we can go out and help others in a spirit of solidarity and understanding. Misericores sicut Pater – “Merciful like the Father”