Probably most of us have heard that Pope Francis has published another book. I don't know how he does all this when he travels all around the world and is meeting with people all the time. He has this book called The Name of God is Mercy. It's a very small book. You could read it in a couple of hours, but it would be worth taking a number of hours to read it and reflect on it because I think in a marvelous way, this book The Name of God is Mercy is really a long reflection on today's readings.
Third Sunday of Lent
If we listen to those readings carefully, we discover how deep and extensive, unlimited is the mercy of God. You start with the first lesson: the Chosen people had been driven out of their own land and had gone to Egypt for safety, but then had been put into slavery. For hundreds of years they were treated with cruelty. Their lives were that of slaves; it was horrendous. But now, as we heard in the first lesson, God has been watching over them all this time and loving them, wanting them to be converted and to bring them back.
We hear how God begins to do this with the call of Moses. Moses has that extraordinary, and as I mentioned before, mystical experience of God's presence. It's described for us in terms of a bush that is burning. It's alight with fire, but never consumed. Moses approaches, but then God warns him, "You're on holy ground. Be careful." Moses bows in adoration. But then God speaks to Moses and allows Moses to know that God is looking on God's people with mercy and love and wants to free them from their slavery.
Moses is the one who will be given that task to lead them out of Egypt. Later we learn in the Hebrew Scriptures, as with any prophet, someone called to do a very difficult task, Moses is a little bit hesitant. But God reassures him. Moses tries to stall, in a sense, by saying, "Who shall I say sent me?" He's afraid that when he tries to go and tell the Pharaoh that the people must be freed, "Who am I? Whom shall I say is asking this?" "I am who I am."
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A very profound understanding of God -- I am who I am, which means God always is -- no beginning, no end, infinite, unlimited God. Beyond our human capacity, really, to understand, but in a certain sense, that name does help us -- I am who I am. All the rest of us exist because God has drawn us into existence. We haven't always been. God always has, is, and will be always, ever. So Moses, now enlightened, is ready to take up his task. It's an example of how God is reaching out to God's people in mercy and love.
You find the same thing, actually, in the Gospel lesson. At first when you hear about those who had been killed by Herod and their blood mingled with the blood of the sacrifices and Jesus said, "Unless you repent, you will all likewise die," we think that they died because of their sins and that's what will happen to us. But it really isn't that bad. In the other example that Jesus uses, Jesus is simply saying, "You never know when you'll die."
So at any moment, at every moment, we should be ready to turn back to God and be in that process always of repenting, of returning to God who is love and who is mercy. That's at the end of the Gospel passage -- that short parable. It's very revealing of God. "This fig tree -- no fruit for three years. Destroy it." That's what the owner said. But the one who tends that fig tree and loves it wants to nurture it back into health, to make it fruitful. That's God. That's the way God is towards every one of us. He wants to draw us into fullness of life and of love, which is who God is. It's so clear in other parts of the Scripture.
What I think is one of the most beautiful lines in Scripture is in chapter 30 of the book of the prophet Isaiah where the prophet has been urging the people not to go against God's way by going to war in alliance with others, but rather to work for peace. They refuse, they're destroyed, but what does Isaiah say? He says at that point, "God is waiting to be gracious to you." What kind of a God is that, if not a merciful God? God is waiting to be gracious to you. Turn back and God is there.
It's the same as the parable of the prodigal son. The son has gone off and squandered all the goods, lived in sin. But when he's still a long way off, the father sees him. Obviously, he has been on the lookout every day for that son to come back. He loved that son. He's trying to draw that son back. God is love, reaching out to us first. It's proclaimed in the first letter of John, which I'm sure you're familiar with, "God is love. We must love one another as God loves us. What do I mean by the love of God? God first loved us." Before anything, God first loved us. This is who God is.
I hope today as we listen to these Scriptures, we reflect and try to experience how God loves me. Pope Francis' book is very personal. In an early part of the book, he speaks about a moment of profound change in his life when he was 17 years old and he was beginning to try to understand where God was leading him. He had been away at school, but had come home. He went to confession to a very merciful priest, one who exhibited God's mercy in the confessional. He was deeply moved by that experience.
He felt in that experience, he had come to know the mercy of God in a way he never had before. He often reflected on that in his life. Later on, he explains how he understands what happened to him that day. The day was Sept. 21, which is the Feast of St. Matthew. The Gospel lesson of that day was the calling of Matthew, who was a tax collector, a sinner. Jesus had, in spite of the Pharisees and scribes who objected to his dealing with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus reached out to Matthew.
The words that are used in the Scripture -- I'll give them to you in Latin: miserando atque eligendo. That's how Jesus looked on Levi. Pope Francis says he didn't think of that at the time, but later on in a reflection of St. Bede, St. Bede speaks about this. What those words mean and Francis said, "I'll make up a word for miserando." In Latin that's a gerund, a part of a verb form. It means reaching into somebody with mercy.
Francis says, "I'll describe it as mercifying." We would say something like Jesus looked upon Levi with mercy. But it's stronger than that. Jesus entered into him with mercy -- miserando. He is being mercied, if you could say that. That is a beautiful way of thinking of how God reaches into us, and then being chosen -- atque eligendo. Matthew was mercied and then chosen and becomes a disciple. Francis says, "That's what happened to me."
He uses that; that's his motto on his coat of arms: Miserando Atque Eligendo -- I am mercied and picked or chosen, loved. Each one of us could say that. We have been mercied and loved by God, who is mercy and love. The name of God is mercy and when we all understand that deeply, it will change our lives as we follow God with love, return that mercy and love by loving one another and loving God with our whole heart and mind and soul. Try to remember each of us has been mercied and loved and will be forever.
[Homily given at St. Philomena Parish, Detroit, Mich. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]