February 19, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Opening our hearts to the Lord through prayer, sacraments, charity

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

As we celebrate the liturgical season of Lent, and prepare for the great joy of Easter, we find ourselves in what Pope Francis calls “a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy” (#17). The Holy Father has dedicated an entire year, the Holy Year of Mercy, to reflection on the magnitude of God’s mercy.

Yet in his document “Misericordiae Vultus” (“The Face of Mercy”), he singles out the season of Lent as perhaps the most appropriate time for us to “rediscover the merciful face of the Father,” which is a great mystery of our faith (#17).

The word of God reveals the merciful face of the Father in virtually every passage of the Old and New Testaments. “How many pages of sacred Scripture are appropriate for mediation during the weeks of Lent,” the Holy Father exclaims. He urges us to make our own the words of the prophet Micah:

“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” (Mi 7:18-19).

Last week, I called attention to the power of this image. 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! But it is not our actions that “trample down our sins and toss them into the depths of the sea.” It is the grace of God, the merciful Father, that causes the effects of sin to be crushed and swept away so that we can live freely and share in the abundance of God’s love.

Pope Francis is not content with a passive acceptance of divine mercy. He invites us to “celebrate and experience” God’s love and forgiveness, and he tells us that the season of Lent is an especially appropriate time to do this.

How do we celebrate and experience the merciful face of the Father? Where do we find God’s mercy manifested in ways that will allow us to be overwhelmed by it?

Pope Francis tells us that many people today, including the young, “are returning to the sacrament of reconciliation; through this experience, they are rediscovering a path back to the Lord, living a moment of intense prayer and finding meaning in their lives” (#17). All the sacraments provide us with tangible opportunities to experience the closeness of our God, but as Pope Francis so eloquently reminds us, the sacrament of reconciliation allows us “to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy” with our own hands!

Word and sacrament unite to show us the merciful face of the Father. Through meditation on the images in sacred Scripture, and through our direct experience of the presence of the triune God in all the sacraments, but especially in reconciliation and the holy Eucharist, we can celebrate and experience God’s infinite love and mercy.

Our experience of being loved and forgiven by God’s mercy can never be one-sided—all taking and no giving in return. As this penitential season reminds us, we must acknowledge both our sinfulness and God’s forgiveness by our prayer, fasting and charitable acts. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Pope Francis admonishes us:

“Is this not the fast that I choose: to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, here I am” (Is 58:6-11).

We celebrate and experience the merciful face of the Father in word and sacrament. We touch the grandeur of God’s mercy by our acts of penance and charity. And, as a result, when we call out to the Lord, we can hear the answer, “Here I am,” which is always given by God, but not always heard by us because we are distracted by our sins.

This Lent, let’s open our hearts to the Lord by meditating on God’s word, by encountering God’s love in the sacraments and by experiencing his presence through acts of penance and charity. †

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