When St. John* XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council almost 54 years ago, he set the tone for that great gathering with these words: "Now the Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up the arms of security. ... The Catholic Church ... wants to show herself a loving mother to all; patient, kind, moved by compassion and goodness."
Blessed Paul VI spoke in a similar manner at the council's close: "Charity has been the principal religious feature of this Council. ... A wave of affection and admiration flowed from the Council over the modern world of humanity."
|Fifth Sunday of Lent|
Instead of depressing diagnoses, we heard encouraging remedies; instead of direful predictions, messages of trust issued from the council to the world, whose values were not only respected, but honored. Its efforts were approved, its aspirations purified and blessed.
This same message of mercy, hope and solidarity with all of humankind has come alive again in Pope Francis, who bids us to look anew at God and at God's face of mercy as it is revealed in the biblical word, and ultimately in God's Word made flesh, in Jesus.
From beginning to end, both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures form a litany of God's countless and undeserved acts of mercy for sinners.
"It is hardly an exaggeration," Francis wrote as he announced the Jubilee of Mercy in April 2015, "to say that God's is a visceral love. It gushes forth from the depths naturally, full of tenderness and compassion, indulgence and mercy."
This same visceral love of God is underscored in each of today's sacred texts. Deutero-Isaiah was a comforter of his people and was their companion during their years of exile in Babylonia. He promised that God would repeat the wonders of their exodus from Egypt and lead the Israelites home.
When the circumstances threatened their hope and it seemed that all was lost, God, with great mercy, encouraged the people not to dwell on or drown in the sins of their past: "I am doing something new!" This newness meant forgiveness and reconciliation for all who would welcome God into their lives and respond to God's overtures of love and mercy.
In his letter to his beloved Philippians, Paul shares his love for and commitment to Jesus. Mercifully, the risen Lord had appeared to him on the Damascus road, and Paul allowed himself to be transformed; the persecutor of Jesus' followers became the preacher of the good news of salvation.
Paul had become aware -- and he shared that awareness with others -- that salvation was not based on any righteousness of his own that came from the law, but on the merciful gift of God, mediated by Christ on the cross and appropriated by faith. He knew that Christ had taken possession of him, and he attempted to live each day as an authentic reflection of the Lord to whom he belonged.
As believers, we are heirs of the same mercies extended to Paul. Like him, we are to count all else as "rubbish" so as to gain Christ.
In today's Johannine Gospel, we see the mercy of God incarnated in the words and actions of Jesus. While others were willing and even eager to stone the woman for adultery, Jesus asked them to look within themselves, to see themselves for who they were -- sinners. He challenged them to look beyond the law, which legislated such an action, and to look to God.
If they stood in truth before God, could they, in all honesty, condemn and execute a fellow sinner? How often had they known God's mercy? Shouldn't they allow the woman mercy, too?
Elsewhere in the Gospel, Jesus would say, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Luke 6:36-38).
With these challenges of Jesus in mind, how will we tend to the poor who need and deserve our mercy? How will Jesus' words affect the manner in which we forgive those who wrong us? Can we, in mercy and justice, deny a welcome to the world's refugees and seekers of asylum?
If we dare to pray to "Our Father" and profess to belong to Christ, then there can be no other way for us than the way of mercy. Pope Francis wrote that this mercy of God is "the beating heart of the Gospel, which in its own way must penetrate the heart and mind of every person. ... It is absolutely essential for the Church and for the credibility of her message that she live and testify to mercy."
Be merciful as God is merciful.
*An earlier version of this story included Paul in John XXIII's name.
[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]
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