Rejoicing in God’s Mercy
11 March 2018
SCRIPTURE READINGS: 2 CHR 36:14-16.19-23; EPHESIANS 2:4-10; JOHN 3:14-21
Today, we pass the mid-term of the season of Lent. During the last three weeks of Lent, the focus had been on penance, prayer, almsgiving and mortifications. But it can lead to a wrong understanding of the Christian Faith, as if we take joy in making people suffer inconvenience and be deprived of the legitimate pleasures of life. As we enter into the fourth Sunday of Lent, the Church invites us to rejoice. Hence, this Sunday is traditionally called Laetare Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing. Today, we also celebrate the anniversary of Pope’s Francis installation as the Vicar of Christ of the Universal Church.
What is the cause of rejoicing that seems to break the somber mood of the season of Lent? What is the cause of rejoicing as we celebrate the 5th anniversary of the installation of our Holy Father? What these two celebrations have in common is that both share the same message of giving hope to a broken humanity that is searching for peace, mercy and compassion. Both these celebrations proclaim in a nutshell, the joy of the gospel. Both proclaim the gospel of hope, forgiveness and mercy. Both messages are inclusive, as the gospel says, “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.”
Indeed, this is the theme of this Sunday’s celebration. The liturgy proclaims the love of God and His profound mercy in choosing us because He loves us. “God loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy: when we were dead through our sins, he brought us to life with Christ – it is through grace that you have been saved – and raised us up with him and gave us a place with him in heaven, in Christ Jesus.” His love for us is amazing and beyond any human calculation and expectations.
This is shown in the history of salvation. The Israelites were unfaithful to the covenant and as a result brought disasters upon themselves. “All the heads of the priesthood, and the people too, added infidelity to infidelity, copying all the shameful practices of the nations and defiling the Temple that the Lord had consecrated for himself in Jerusalem.” However, God in His mercy, “tirelessly sent them messenger after messenger, since he wished to spare his people and his house. But they ridiculed the messengers of God, they despised his words, they laughed at his prophets, until at last the wrath of the Lord rose so high against his people that there was no further remedy.” As a consequence, when they refused to heed God’s warning of destruction and continued with their immoral and sinful lives, God allowed the consequences of their sins to take place. Judgement followed. “Their enemies burned down the Temple of God, demolished the walls of Jerusalem. The survivors were deported by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon; they were to serve him and his sons.” They lost the kingship, the kingdom and the Temple.
Even in their sinfulness, God continued to show His mercy. Indeed, even His judgement and punishment of our sins is an act of mercy. If God allowed Israel to be punished by foreign powers, it was in order that they would come to their senses and return to God and the Covenant. Punishment and suffering are the means by which God disciplines His people, like a paternal father who disciplines His wayward children. It was not that God did not care for them or had abandoned them in their sufferings; rather, it was the way the Lord wanted to invite them to reflect on their lives, their mistakes and to learn from them. Indeed, this was done in order to help them repent of their sins and walk in the truth. Even in their sufferings, the Lord gave them hope.
This was true for the Israelites who disobeyed God when they were in the desert, grumbling against Him until God sent the serpents to bite them to death. They were taught a lesson by the Lord not to lament all the time, but to be contented with what they had. They had no reason to complain as they were given sufficient food. However, when they repented, God told Moses to tell the people to look at the bronze serpent erected on the pole for healing. By looking at their sins, they would come to realize God’s mercy and love for them, which they took for granted. So too, for the Israelites in exile. When 70 years had passed, God roused up “the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia to issue a proclamation” to invite the Israelites to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, the mercy and love of God is boundless and wise. That a pagan king would grant them permission and even help them financially to rebuild their kingdom and temple was something beyond their imagination. Again, this miraculous intervention of God shows the boundless mercy and love of God, something that no one expected.
Nevertheless, the wondrous mercy of the Lord does not stop here. His love and mercy extends not just to the Israelites but also to the whole world. This is what St John and St Paul proclaimed in today’s scripture readings. God loves the world and all in it. His love is not confined just to the Israelites but for all. God cares for humanity, our sufferings, our pains, the divisions and wars caused by selfishness in humanity. He sent us His only Son so that the world might come to know His love and mercy. Jesus’ death on the cross is a reminder of God’s unconditional and total giving love. It is the utter giving of God and truly the expression of God’s mercy for us. In Christ, God our Father suffers with us in our sinfulness and misery. The passion and death of our Lord reveals to us the infinite limits of God’s love. The incarnation, passion and resurrection of Christ again reiterates the unbelievable love and mercy of God. We need faith to believe and respond to His love. Indeed, Christ comes not to condemn the world but to show the world the light. He comes to show us the way to love and to find fullness of life. That is why the Lord said, “No one who believes in him will be condemned; but whoever refuses to believe is condemned already, because he has refused to believe in the name of God’s only Son. On these grounds is sentence pronounced: that though the light has come into the world.”
God invites us to repent not through force but through grace. He wants us to repent not out of fear but out of love. This is the same appeal of St Paul when he exhorted the people to conversion. “God loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy: when we were dead through our sins, he brought us to life with Christ.” By reflecting and contemplating on the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, we will find the strength to give up our sins and live the new life of grace by walking in the light. As we follow Him in death by giving up our lives for our fellow men, we too come to share in His light and love. And this power is given to us when Jesus is raised from death, enabling Him to bestow on us the power of His spirit to do what He did.
So what is necessary today is that we have faith in His love and mercy, not on our own strength. St Paul wrote, “This was to show for all ages to come, through his goodness towards us in Christ Jesus, how infinitely rich he is in grace. Because it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it.” It is purely the grace of God through faith in Him and in the power of His Spirit that we are able to be saved and to do good. It is a gift from God, not something we earn or merit.
This is the heart of the gospel message. God intends for us happiness, and He forgives us our sins through His grace received by faith. All that is needed for us is to cling to His love and mercy as we continue to contemplate on His face in His passion and resurrection. This is the reason for our rejoicing because of the hope that is promised to us.
Rejecting Christ is to reject the light and the truth of love. If that were the case, it would not be God who rejects us or causes us to suffer. Rather, we choose to live in darkness and in evil. Indeed, the Lord warns us that “men have shown they prefer darkness to the light because their deeds were evil. And indeed, everybody who does wrong hates the light and avoids it, for fear his actions should be exposed; but the man who lives by the truth comes out into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what he does is done in God.” By refusing to accept the light because of fear and selfishness, we prevent the grace of God from entering into our lives. It is our sins that prevent us from seeing the light, just like a man with a pair of dirty spectacles is unable to see the light clearly. We need to recognize our sinfulness and our inadequacies so that we can surrender ourselves to the light and to His love.
This is the thrust of the pontificate of Pope Francis. He wants the Church to be a welcoming Church. For Pope Francis, “Evangelizing presupposes a desire in the church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents and of all misery.” The Church must go out of itself to proclaim God’s mercy and love for all. He wants “a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
He wants the Church to be a Church of mercy. Without compromising the truth, he gives emphasis to the mercy and love of God. He seeks to renew Catholicism by underscoring the Church as one of tenderness and mercy. His vision is of a Church with open doors welcoming all to share in the “joy of the Gospel”, rather than a Church that is legalistic and cold. His hope is that every parish would be a “field hospital”, in which everyone is led to an experience of the healing power of Christ’s forgiveness through discernment and accompaniment towards God. He stresses that confessors must be welcoming and merciful to the penitents.
He puts the existential needs of the people before doctrines, rules and canon law. He wants to move the Church away from “a catalog of prohibitions” to be enforced, or an exclusive club for the saved. Laws and doctrines must serve a pastoral and missionary Church and not stifle the growth of the Church or the joy of a Christian. In his famous response to the question of those with same-sex orientation, he answered, “Who am I to judge?” He seeks to reach out to those who are divorced and remarried, those of same-sex orientation and union. Instead of condemnation because they fail to live up to the ideals of the Church’s understanding of marriage, he calls for discernment, accompaniment and support from the community. Instead of presenting marriage in an abstract and idealized way, the Church must recognize that forms of marriage that do not meet the Church’s marital ideals are also signs of God’s love. Are sacraments for those who are healthy or those who are sick? Are they rewards for being good Catholics or means to conversion and progress in holiness?
He wants the Church to reach out to the peripheries. The Pope’s focus is on the “peripheries”. He has a preferential option for the materially and spiritually poor, for the lowly of society, the outcasts and sinners. He regularly visits the peripheries of Rome, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, prisons and centers for migrants and refugees. He would celebrate Mass for them and wash the feet of patients, residents and immigrants. He asks the Church to welcome refugees and to give them assistance and hospitality. He speaks for those suffering from injustice. He visits war-torn countries suffering from conflicts to bring hope and peace. He gives free meals to the poor and even gives the homeless private tours of the Sistine Chapel.
So the pontificate of Pope Francis is clear. He wants to change the Church such that she could remain relevant in its outreach to the contemporary world and yet remain faithful to the spirit of the gospel. Let us collaborate with him to proclaim the gospel of love, mercy and compassion, to be a Church that is welcoming and all embracing.
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