February 12, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Use Lent to celebrate, experience God’s mercy

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

During this Lenten season in the Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has invited and challenged us to reflect on the great gift of God’s mercy. In his official proclamation (or “papal bull”) titled “Misericordiae Vultus” (“The Face of Mercy”), the Holy Father calls our attention to the singular role that mercy plays in everything that God says and does throughout salvation history.

Mercy is not simply one of God’s many attributes such as being omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful) or omnipresent (present everywhere).

God’s mercy is also not simply something he does periodically, the way a president or governor occasionally pardons a convicted criminal.

Mercy is an essential feature of Who-God-Is. God is love, St. John the Evangelist tells us, and by his very nature he is ready to forgive us always and everywhere no matter what we have done, or failed to do, as his children.

Pope Francis goes further. He tells us:

“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him. The Father, ‘rich in mercy’ (Eph 2:4), after having revealed his name to Moses as ‘a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Ex 34:6), has never ceased to show, in various ways throughout history, his divine nature. In the ‘fullness of time’ (Gal 4:4), when everything had been arranged according to his plan of salvation, he sent his only Son into the world, born of the Virgin Mary, to reveal his love for us in a definitive way. Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions and his entire person reveals the mercy of God” (“Misericordiae Vultus,” #1).

When we look to Jesus in prayer, when we listen to his words in sacred Scripture, and when we encounter him in ministry, in care for others or in holy Communion, we see the Father’s merciful face. The loving kindness of our merciful God is constant and unrelenting. Even in instances where God appears as a just judge who punishes sinners, Pope Francis helps us see that God is never arbitrary, capricious or vengeful. On the contrary, the way God judges is through a tenderness that is not to be confused with weakness but is, in fact, a sign of God’s strength.

Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope Francis writes that “it is proper to God to exercise mercy, and he manifests his omnipotence particularly in this way.”

The Holy Father explains that God’s mercy, rather than a sign of weakness, is the mark of his power. “For this reason the liturgy, in one of its most ancient collects, has us pray: ‘O God, who reveal your power above all in your mercy and forgiveness. … ’ Throughout the history of humanity, God will always be the One who is present, close, provident, holy and merciful.” Justice and mercy, the pope tells us, “are not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love” (“Misericordiae Vultus,” #6).

In “Misericordiae Vultus,” Pope Francis challenges us to use the season of Lent during this Jubilee Year “as a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy.” He also invites us to use sacred Scripture during the weeks of Lent “to help us rediscover the merciful face of the Father!”

I want to support this special Lenten focus by making “God’s mercy” the theme of all my columns for The Criterion this Lent. I hope that my reflections will help, at least in a small way, “make God’s mercy visible” in the face of Jesus, in the words of sacred Scripture, and in the charitable works of our Church.

Pope Francis urges us to repeat the words of the prophet Micah and make them our own: “You, O Lord, are a God who takes away iniquity and pardons sin, who does not hold your anger forever, but are pleased to show mercy. You, Lord, will return to us and have pity on your people. You will trample down our sins and toss them into the depths of the sea” (cf. Mi 7:18-19).

What a wonderful image for this Lenten season! By our acts of penitence and charity, we allow God to utterly crush our sins and cause them to be swept away by the ocean of divine mercy!

May our all-merciful and all-powerful God take away our sins. May the Father’s tenderness, the Son’s compassion and the Holy Spirit’s loving kindness fill our hearts this Lent and prepare us for Easter joy. †

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