Last April, Pope Francis published a letter announcing an Extraordinary Jubilee Year dedicated to the mercy of God, beginning on December 8, 2015, and ending on November 20, 2016.
In his letter, Pope Francis repeatedly emphasized his point that mercy is a chief characteristic of God, a key aspect in the ministry of Jesus, and a central foundation in the mission of the Church: “The Lord asks us above all not to judge and not to condemn” and to “be instruments of mercy” (The Face of Mercy, 14).
The Holy Father went on to identify the season of Lent as “a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy.” This is a very good time for us to “rediscover the merciful face of the Father,” he wrote (The Face of Mercy, 17).
Well, here we are at the beginning of this special season—in the midst of a special Jubilee Year. What a wonderful opportunity to learn more about God’s mercy and, even more important, to experience that mercy firsthand! This is exactly what we want to do in this special Lenten issue. We want to talk about our Father’s mercy and love and compassion. We want to talk about how his mercy can remove our guilt and shame and how it can move us to be more merciful to the people around us.
Works of Mercy. The word “mercy” can have two basic meanings. On the one hand, mercy is a decision to show forgiveness or compassion to someone in need. This form of mercy expresses itself through acts of kindness, generosity, and love. It’s the kind of mercy that the Good Samaritan showed to the man who was beaten and left for dead (Luke 10:30-35). Our Catholic tradition has identified fourteen “works of mercy” that illustrate this kind of compassion and solidarity—seven “corporal” and seven “spiritual” works of mercy. You can find a brief description of them in the sidebar on page 17.
Jesus displayed these works of mercy throughout his public ministry. In fact, he saw these works as central to what God had called him to do. At the very beginning of his ministry, he visited the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, where he read from the Book of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19)
Then he told everyone there, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). For the rest of his life, then, Jesus traveled the length and breadth of the land putting these words into practice.
It was mercy that moved him to heal Bartimaeus of his blindness, to raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead, and to dedicate himself to teaching and preaching to the people (Mark 10:46-52; Luke 8:40-56; Mark 6:30-34). He never stopped treating people with mercy and compassion.
Mercy and Pardon. The second basic meaning of mercy is the decision to pardon someone who is guilty. This is mercy in the form of forgiveness. It shows itself when someone sets aside judgment, overlooks an offense, and offers peace to the wrongdoer instead of punishment or vengeance. It’s the kind of mercy that “triumphs over judgment” and treats the guilty not according to what they deserve but according to the overflowing love that God has for them (James 2:13; Psalm 103:10).
Jesus constantly displayed this kind of mercy as well. He forgave a woman who was caught committing adultery (John 8:3-11). He forgave Peter for denying that he knew Jesus (21:15-19). He forgave a Samaritan woman who had been divorced five times and was living with another man who wasn’t her husband (4:5-42). He even forgave the people who put him to death (Luke 23:34)! Over and over, Jesus demonstrated the saying from Scripture “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).
Finally, Jesus showed his mercy when he offered himself for us on the cross. This sacrifice of his very life for us is the culmination of all the individual merciful acts that he has performed. In fact, all of these acts would lose their deepest and most powerful meaning if it weren’t for the love and compassion that Jesus demonstrated when he won our salvation through his own death.
A Father’s Hope. When he announced the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis highlighted three parables of Jesus that are “devoted to mercy” (The Face of Mercy, 9). They are the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (prodigal) son (Luke 15:1-32). In all three parables, Pope Francis said, “Jesus reveals the nature of God as that of a Father who never gives up until he has forgiven the wrong and overcome rejection with compassion and mercy” (9).
So use your imagination for a moment. Picture the look of concern on the face of the shepherd as he left the ninety-nine sheep and went into the wilderness in search of the one sheep that had wandered off. Visualize the determination of the woman who scoured her entire house, inch by inch, in search of that one lost coin. Picture the combination of hope and worry that the father felt as he looked out over the valley each day, waiting to see his son come home.
Perhaps the poet Charles Péguy describes this mercy of God the best. He wrote that anyone who is lost cuts deeply into the heart of God and causes him to tremble, just like a human father who faces the loss of one of his children. It’s this possibility of being lost forever that moves the father to take action to win back his child. And taking action, the father is filled with hope that the child will respond. Then, when the child does come home, the father cannot help but rejoice and celebrate because his hope has been rewarded. Thus, Péguy writes, “Each time a man repents, a hope of God is crowned.”
Now, visualize yourself in these three stories. Imagine God, your heavenly Father, with the same determination to rescue you when you become lost in sin. See how full of hope he is as he sets out to find you and bring you back home. He won’t rest until he has embraced you again. He knows you are looking for him too, even if you don’t know it yourself. And so he has great hope that you will find each other!
A Father’s Joy. In addition to telling us about how our Father’s heart is full of hope, these parables show us how he rejoices in being merciful. Again, visualize the stories. Look at the joy that the shepherd, the woman, and the father felt as their hopes were fulfilled and as their resolve was rewarded.
Picture the shepherd putting the lost sheep on his shoulders and carrying it all the way home, where he calls his friends together and shares his joy with them. See how the woman who found her prized coin did the same thing. “Rejoice with me,” she announces excitedly (Luke 15:9).
Finally, think of how happy the father of the prodigal son was. The moment he saw the boy, he ran to him and kissed him. He didn’t question him or upbraid him for having wasted himself. Rather, he treated him with great dignity, dressing him in one of his finest robes, placing a ring on his finger, and calling for a huge celebration.
In each of these stories, hope won out over anxiety, joy won out over fear, and mercy triumphed over judgment. This is exactly how our Father treats us—no matter how big or small our sins are. As the prophet Micah wrote, “Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt and pardons sin. . . . Who does not persist in anger forever, but delights rather in clemency” (Micah 7:18).
A Father’s Love. Through these parables, Jesus tells us that our Father is “merciful and gracious. . . slow to anger, and abounding in mercy” (Psalm 103:8). Through them he urges us to turn back to God for mercy, and he gives us confidence that God will not reject us.
If you are plagued by guilt and shame or if you think your life is a failure because of some dramatic sin you have committed in the past, look to your Father. Know that he can forgive everything. Believe that everyone is welcome, regardless of their past. Forgiveness, healing, restoration, hope, and, ultimately, salvation—all of these gifts are available to us as we let the Father find us.
If you are not going to Mass regularly, no matter the reason, give God a chance to come back into your life this Lent. Try to take some time away from your day-to-day activities, and ponder these parables. Try to let the determination, the hope, and the love that God has for you become a reality. Even now, he is standing before you, telling you how much he loves and treasures you.
God loves you so much that he will do anything to help you become the person you were meant to be—a kind, compassionate, and loving person who is a light to everyone you meet.