Mary, our Blessed Mother, has a special mission in the Church to help us discover the mercy of God in our own lives. God revealed his mercy in such a powerful way in her life. She became the “mirror” of God’s mercy and love. When we get close to Mary and try to love her and imitate her, then we can better understand what it means that God is merciful. For centuries, the Church has honoured her and trusted her as “the Mother of mercy”. In her life and experiences, God revealed – in the most special way – his merciful love and his fatherly care. For this reason, Mary now has a special task and mission in the Church today to help each one of us discover God’s mercy for ourselves. Cardinal Faulhaber, in the Marian Year 1954, famously commented: “The merciful Father didn’t place his grace in the stars, or in the depths of the ocean, or hidden in fine pearls; he put his grace into the hands of a Mother, because only a mother is always willing to give and keep on giving”. Mary becomes for the disciples of Jesus an example of faith and an educator in the spiritual life. Love is a reality that unites us to someone else and even makes us alike. If we learn to love our Blessed Mother in heaven then we unite ourselves to her and we become like her: We become someone who experiences God’s mercy, and we desire to be mediators or agents of that mercy to others. Matthew Kelly wrote about the “biggest lie” and he said the following: There is plenty of evidence that the joy we seek can be found by applying the teachings of Jesus to our lives. So, what is it that holds us back from fully embracing the gospel of Jesus Christ? Our fear and brokenness can be an obstacle. God invites us to a total surrender and we had afraid to let go. The culture in all its distractions can prevent us from seeing the beauty of the life God invites us to live. Self-loathing, unwillingness to forgive ourselves and others, biases and prejudices that have been born from past experiences, complacency toward others in need, selfishness – these are all real obstacles in our quest to authentically live the teachings of Jesus. There are also the lies that are always swirling around Christianity. These lies can sow doubt in our hearts and minds, and erode our faith. There are so many lies in circulation about Christians and Christianity. Most are the result of ignorance. Some are the result of intentional misinformation. A handful are a malicious personal attack upon Jesus in an attempt to discredit the Christian faith. Some of these lies are aimed at our theology and beliefs, and others are aimed at the Christian way of life. But one lie is having a diabolical impact on the lives of modern Christians. It is the biggest lie in the history of Christianity. It is worth noting that this lie is not one that non-Christians tell. It is a lie we tell ourselves as Christians. This is the lie: Holiness is not possible.The great majority of modern Christians don’t actually believe that holiness is possible. Sure, we believe it is possible for our grandmothers or some mediaeval saint –just not for us. We don’t actually believe that holiness is possible for us. It is astounding that just one lie can neutralise the majority of Christians. That’s right, neutralise. This lie takes is out of the game and turns us into mere spectators in the epic story of Christianity. It may be the devil’s biggest triumph in modern history. It is the holocaust of Christian spirituality. In thousands of ways every day we tell ourselves and each other: holiness is not possible. But it is a lie. And we cannot experience the complete joy that God wants for us and that we want for ourselves until we get beyond it. When did you stop believing holiness was possible for you? Here is a beautiful Prayer for the coming days: Jesus, protect me from all the lies that seek to build a barrier between you and me, and remind me of my great destiny. Amen.
One of the “masterpieces” of the spiritual life is how to deal with our own weaknesses, our sinfulness and personal misery before God. If we don’t find a good and healthy way to do this, we always run the risk that our spiritual lives never seem to grow and mature and that, in actual fact, they no longer do us any good, do not bring us closer to God, but even start to become a kind of obstacle. There are four simple answers to how do we can deal with our weaknesses and are limitations: i. Don’t be surprised! This means, don’t be surprised that we are weak, don’t be surprised that we make mistakes, don’t be surprised that we sin – we do all this because we are human, because we are “creation”. Don’t be surprised that we are tempted, don’t be surprised that we encounter difficulties, anxieties, fears and doubts – we experience all these things, because we are human, and we are fragile. If we want to be surprised at anything at all, then we should be surprised that we are not actually worse than we are. However, we should never be surprised that we are as we are. ii. Don’t get disappointed! We have to take seriously that we are people influenced by Original Sin. We are limited and we have problems, and we carry a lot of “baggage” around with us. Sometimes, if we try to do our best and try to be closer to God, we often get disappointed, or feel we have let ourselves down, or get confused if any hope of improvement is really possible. We realise that we have been given so many opportunities and received so many graces from God to change things and make things better, and we didn’t use them or profit from them, when we could have done. However, precisely in such situations, we must watch and be vigilant that we don’t allow ourselves to get disappointed or confused. If we allow ourselves to be disappointed, we often take away the necessary energy and resources that we need to “walk again” with the Lord. iii. Don’t get discouraged! If we allow ourselves to become discouraged, we actually put up the greatest obstacle to a new beginning. Discouragement drains our spiritual life completely, and can be even more dangerous than more serious sins and temptations. The experience of joy in the Christian life is essential to us. The person who knows that God loves them and accepts them as they are, has many reasons to celebrate and rejoice. This positive, happy and optimistic feeling about life and attitude towards life gives energy and courage in our daily Christian living. For this reason, it is so important that we never allow discouragement to find a home in us, or find a foothold in our souls. And then iv. Don’t give up! We give up and we start to become indifferent when we say something like: “This is the way I was made, nothing works, so I won’t even try any more”. Self-pity or constantly capitulating before our mistakes or limitations is no solution. By not giving up, we include in our spiritual lives, the element of perseverance – which was so important to Jesus. We should always remember this liberating message: No one needs to be perfect before God. We should and may bring all our failings and limitations to him. God also is very aware of who we are and he already reckons with our sins and mistakes before we even make them. Therefore, when they do happen in our lives, it is not a tragedy. What is important, is a positive way in dealing with sins and limitations. The experience of our own weaknesses and misery, the experience that we are all sinners, is the greatest means to open the “floodgates” of God’s mercy in our lives.
Receiving God’s mercy also gives us a clearer picture of ourselves. It guides us to seeing ourselves in a more accurate and truthful light. Too often, we almost run away from our true selves and we don’t take seriously enough our own limitations and our own helplessness. Weaknesses and limitations are often hidden or suppressed, or perhaps even categorically denied. Sometimes, we go around wearing a kind of invisible “mask” that changes, depending on who we are with or in what situation we find ourselves. This “personality mask” hides our true face and who we truly are. Sometimes when God intervenes in a hard way in our lives, it is because he has the aim to remove these masks once and for all and to help us move on from any kind of denial about ourselves. Receiving God’s mercy means that we feel the courage to see ourselves as we really are, and we no longer have the need or the intention of projecting an image of ourselves before God or before others that it is simply untrue. Unfortunately, when we do not acknowledge our own guilt and our own responsibilities, and how our words and actions have an effect on the people around us, then we run the serious risk of living a spiritually unhealthy life. If we keep saying to ourselves, for example: “Don’t worry, it’s not serious, there are worst things in the world, or this or that is not really a sin, or I’m not such a bad person after all, etc”, then we actually not only deceive ourselves, but we slowly close the door to receiving God’s mercy. Let’s face it, the person who is not willing to acknowledge any personal guilt or sinfulness, is not in need of salvation. And when that person feels he or she is not in need of salvation, then having a “saviour” becomes very quickly superfluous to requirements. The courage to see ourselves as we really are is one of the gifts of God’s mercy. When we deal properly with our own limitations, we actually walk the good path to discovering our own true identity. At the end of the day, our human nature desires truth and justice to remain whole and healthy. Truth and justice consists in the acknowledgement of our weaknesses and our sinfulness. For this reason, the sacrament of confession is so important and life-giving, because it gives us the opportunity to bring our sinfulness and our guilt to God and leave them with God. From the perspective of human nature, the confession of our sins strengthens us, sets us free, and enables us to reconcile with the people around us in a much quicker and better way than before. When we go to confession we actually acknowledge who we really are, and we accept the responsibility for who we are. Through the sacrament, we also open ourselves to God and open ourselves to the community of the Church, so that a new beginning and a better future is possible. The sacrament of confession, for this reason, is a source of joy and renewal in people’s lives. In the sacrament, everyone can experience God and receive his blessing and healing from the “ocean of his mercy”. God wants to inwardly touch each one of us, so that confession becomes the place where we all experience the merciful love of God, our Father. Confession is not just a source of grace or mercy, it is also a means of formation and growth in the spiritual life.
Receiving mercy and giving mercy are the two essential sides of the same coin. Let’s look at the first of four aspects of receiving God’s mercy: Discovering God’s Mercy for ourselves. What is it mean to receive God’s mercy? First of all, we need to acknowledge that we need mercy and that we want God’s mercy in our lives. The first and only step required to experience mercy, Pope Francis says, is to acknowledge that we are in need of mercy. “Jesus comes for us, when we recognize that we are sinners.” Then we can open our hearts to receive his mercy. Not unlike the prodigal son, we too must have a change of heart, and must get up and make our way back home to the Father. This requires a change of heart, making a decision, and then acting on that decision. It is so important for our own personal faith, that we really believe and live out of the conviction that God loves us – we want to experience that love and even feel that love. This encounter with God’s mercy cannot be taken for granted. We need to work at it and use our time and energy to discover the love of God in everything that is going on in our lives. Faith and a healthy spiritual life builds on the foundation, that we believe that we are loved and this conviction gives us an awareness and confidence of value and personal worth. We need to strengthen this feeling in ourselves in such a way that it offers healing and support in the many questions and problems of daily life. If we live from that knowledge that God loves us, then we don’t need the many distractions, sensations, and stimulations from outside or even constant attention. We live from the awareness and the experience: “God loves me as I am, and he accepts me as I am – with all my limitations, foibles and even wretchedness – God loves me and that will never ever change.” This conviction of being loved needs to be worked at often during our day. For example, we need to plan times in our day where we just stop for a moment and remind ourselves again how God is present in our lives, and how everything that happens to us has a purpose and is motivated by his love. Our real life will take on a new character and have a new feel about it, if we allow this reality to enter into our spiritual lives fully. Prayer starts to become a true “school of love”, where we consider and remember the many gifts of God that we receive during our day. Saint Ignatius of Loyola once wrote: “We want to search for God, discover God and then love God in everyone and in everything”. The people of Israel understood how to search for God and discover God in their journey and history, and for this reason, were able to celebrate God’s guidance and presence. This conviction grew stronger in them and they simply knew that God loved them passionately and that he had chosen them to be his special people. Prayer in the evening, for instance, is a wonderful opportunity to stop for a moment and consider the day that we have shared – asking ourselves, where have we experienced the mercy and love of God. The Church’s tradition calls this the “examination of conscience”. It is an opportunity to look back at the day with everything that went on during that day, remembering the people that we met and also taking seriously how the day went, including our strengths and weaknesses, our fears and anxieties, our prejudices and our generosity. On the one hand, we need to celebrate what was good and give thanks; and on the other hand, we also need to acknowledge our guilt and our sinfulness in an honest and upright way. Let us use this Year of Mercy to discover again God’s mercy for ourselves.
The Year of Mercy is an opportunity to translate our faith in the mercy and love of God into our daily lives. God’s mercy, and the teaching about God’s mercy, should motivate us to live well and to master daily life. Every Christian is called to receive the merciful love of God; i.e. to have an open heart for the workings of God’s mercy in his or her own life. And at the same time, every Christian is called to be a “mediator” of God’s mercy to others; i.e. to share God’s merciful and forgiving love with the people around them. When we speak about becoming “channels” or “mediators” of God’s love for others, then we are speaking, at the end of the day, about love for our neighbour. Love of neighbour should always be nourished and inspired by our love of God. We are called to look out for each other, and put the welfare of others before our own welfare. We are called to have a generous and open heart for each other and love each other mutually – and this love for each other also brings about a positive acceptance and esteem for each other. Love of neighbour, at the end of the day, is an act of service towards them: Everything that I am, and everything I have, is at the disposal of the people around me. In other words, following Christ means we give our hearts to each other – and the heart that we want to give to each other, is a heart which is full of mercy, and full of tenderness. The heart, has always been the symbol of the innermost core of someone’s personality. Whoever has our hearts, will have our entire self and everything that is important to us. To have a heart full of mercy means that we put each other first, and that we have a constant desire to look out for each other’s needs, and shows this by concrete acts of love. We look at each other in a personal way and we esteem each other, because we are all created “in the image and likeness of God”. Becoming “mediators” of God’s mercy, especially in this Year of Mercy, means that we also strive every day to let our love grow and mature – our natural love for each other and our supernatural love for God. If we want to grow in supernatural love, and take another step into the world of love, then we must pray and hope that the Holy Spirit – who is the “uncreated love” will take possession of our souls and be present in us. We have to feel more than more dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, otherwise it is impossible to grow in supernatural love. How do we grow natural love – the love for the people around us? We grow in natural love when we are willing to “swim” in the “ocean of God’s mercy” and also when we acknowledge our own personal misery and wretchedness. This Year of Mercy, can give us the gift to realise that we grow in our love of God through our own experience and acknowledgement of sinfulness and weakness. This is the great “masterpiece” of the spiritual life – something we know so little about. We have to learn again to accept our limitations and to use our sins and limitations as a “ladder” to reach God. They should never be an obstacle, but a means to “jump not the heart of God”, our Merciful Father.
Without doubt, one of the most powerful images of God’s mercy is the parable of the Lost Son – sometimes called, the parable of the Merciful Father. We see here how God’s love and mercy is something that you cannot earn or deserve. And even if we haven’t merited mercy, God still pours out his love in our lives anyway. We see this in how the merciful Father deals with his son. He doesn’t turn him away, he doesn’t even scold him. He waits for him, he hopes for him and when his son finally returns, he celebrates with his son. We have here the most tremendous example of God’s amazing and endless mercy. We have here the faithful love of a father for his lost son. The son did not only leave his father’s house, he also left his father’s heart. However, the father never gives up. In the parable of the merciful Father, we see–in such a powerful way–the essential attribute of God–mercy. This parable is like a “pearl” amongst all the various parables that Jesus taught. It is often called the “gospel within the gospel”, because it is the most beautiful parable of the love of Jesus to the sinner. The love of God and the mercy of God, which is already proclaimed in the Old Testament – for example in the Prophet Hosea – becomes real and concrete again in this parable of Jesus. The parable of the merciful Father is preceded by two other stories, which express the joy of finding what was lost: we can read about the parable of the lost sheep and also the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:1-10). God rejoices when the lost are found. This theme, and this important message, goes through all these parables. The two sons, that are presented to us in the parable, represent two different types of people. The youngest son runs away from the house of his father, and he goes to a strange land – without the father. The older son remains at home, outwardly with the father, but his heart is not with his father – his heart has another agenda, namely, how can you get the most out of his father for his own life and his own enjoyment. Jesus directs our gaze firstly towards the younger son. He asked his father for his inheritance. It is interesting, that the younger son excepts the inheritance as something self-understood, and at least in the telling of the parable, the younger son never expresses any gratitude towards his father. He takes the generosity of his father for granted. The father, at the beginning of the story, says absolutely nothing. He remains silent and offers no comment. The son finds refuge with the pagans, and after a time of pleasure and plenty, he is forced to look after the impure animals, the pigs, in order to survive. These two details of the younger son’s predicament represent symptoms of his distancing from faith, and the religion of his ancestors. However, his misery brings him to a new realization, that he discovers in a kind of conversation with himself. In verse 17, it says that the younger son “came to himself” and realized that even the servants of his father were having a much better life than he was. It is interesting that the son does not complain or point the finger at his friends, or the owner of the pigs, or even his own father; he points the finger at himself and he gives himself the blame. Behind the outward sign of misery and need lies hidden the drama of the lost dignity of the younger son, and how he has allowed his relationship to his father to wither away, because of his own search for independence and pleasure. The lost son experiences in himself remorse for what he has done, however, the remorse is not because of the boundless and forgiving love of his father. It is much more remorse based on his own advantage, and how he can get out of this terrible predicament – in other words, it is a means to survive. However, at the same time this “conversion” is a healing one because one word is said that makes all the difference. This word is “father”. In the short conversation with himself, the son expresses how he wants to declare before his father and before heaven that he has sinned. He makes a distinction here between God – in heaven – and his earthly father. In other words, the lost son wants to make it right with his earthly father, but also wants to make it right with God, and renounce his sin. Continue reading “Year of Mercy – “I will never forget you” Part V”
Another example of the witness of mercy in the New Testament is Jesus as the Good Shepherd – If we look at the witness of the Gospel of Luke, particularly in this Year of Faith, we see that the whole Gospel of Luke is just one the hymn of praise, sung to the mercy of God. Luke praises God’s merciful love! This is the love and the mercy that is given to us in abundance, even though we haven’t earned or merited it. One of the symbols of this praise is the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Jesus shows himself as the Shepherd of merciful love who comes to the aid of the sinner and looks for those who are lost. How often does Jesus call himself the Good Shepherd? How often did he tell the story, for example, of the lost coin, or the lost sheep, or the lost son? God’s love and mercy reaches out to the lost and also reaches out to the poor and marginalized. Jesus introduces himself and presents himself as the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his sheep. He is the Good Shepherd who is always with the sheep. What does a Good Shepherd do? A good Shepherd protects the sheep, and leads them to good meadows and good pasture (Ezekiel 34:15f): “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak” (Exekiel 34:12-16) The Good Shepherd is the one who gives his life for his sheep (John 10:11.15). The Good Shepherds knows his own, cares for them, loves them to the end and will always be faithful to them: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:11-15). Jesus, the Good Shepherd, continues to show and reveal and prove his endless merciful love in the celebration of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, we see the same realities over again. Jesus is always with us. We have a living God in our life, who knows about us, cares about us and is interested in us. We have Emmanuel! He is the God who is with us, who is in our lives and wants to be involved in every aspect of our lives. He is always with us, and we should always strive to be with him. He is also the one who brings us to good pastures. He gives us his own Body and Blood so that we can eat and drink. It is this good Shepherd who takes each and every one of us into his sacrifice of love to the Father: “So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:53-56).