Sigmund Freud once said that the purpose of psychotherapy was to get rid of, and be healed of, our psychic demons and hang-ups from the past so that we can live an ordinary life of unhappiness. ‘An ordinary life of unhappiness!’ Is that all you can offer us Mr. Freud? What a dreary outlook on life! Compare this with the prophet Baruch today. “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.” I like that word ‘forever’. Forever we are to wear the beauty of the glory from God. Baruch goes on to describe a wonderful future where God will level out a highway so that God’s people will return to Jerusalem and their splendour will shine everywhere under heaven.
Advent is a time of promises, of God fulfilling his promises to us. But that does not mean we are not involved. On the contrary we are to repent. Mention of the word repentance usually has us scurrying back into the darkness of our past, acknowledging our sins and beating our breasts in sorrow. While some of this is necessary, this is not what Isaiah and John the Baptist want to emphasise. When they call the people ‘to repent’ they want them to look forward, not backwards. To repent is to start anew, to make sure that the former ways disappear, that a new way of living appears. The repentance is the act of preparing the way for the Lord to come along. Repentance is change so that in the future all can see the salvation of God.
Christians have never been in doubt that humanity had fallen into sin and needed a redeemer. But to say it needed a redeemer is to look forward. God’s justice was not the destruction of the sinful people, but the sending of his Son. When Jesus came he was not here to punish for the past, but to be the redeemer who would open up the future after sin and its effects. Jesus called us to a new way of living. He did not come to call us to account for our past demeanours.
December 8, just two days away, marks the opening of the Jubilee of Mercy, a yearlong celebration of God’s compassion. Pope Francis, who has made mercy the motto of his papacy, hopes this year will be ‘a true moment of encounter with the mercy of God.’ His letter promulgating the Holy Year is called ‘The Face of God’s Mercy’. He begins with the sentence: ‘Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.’ The Pope is utterly convinced that God’s mercy is what is most needed in today’s turbulent world and we find that mercy above all in Jesus. Thus Advent is very special this year as we look forward to the coming of the face of God’s mercy into our lives.
Paragraph 14 of his letter tells us that the practice of pilgrimage has a special place in the Holy Year, because it represents the journey each of us makes in this life. We are all pilgrims on a journey. The destination of the journey in a Holy year is to reach the Holy Door in Rome, but he adds (so you don’t have to break a bank) ‘or in any other place in the world’. Last Sunday, for instance, the Pope opened the Holy Door of Bangui’s Cathedral in Central African Republic. Crossing the Holy Door is more a way of being than a place. We cross its threshold, the Pope tells us, when ‘we find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us.’ In other words God’s mercy is always there, always a given. But we need strength to cope and make this mercy our own.
The notion of pilgrimage ties in with John the Baptist call to prepare the way of the Lord. We may well ask what are the potholes, the obstacles, the hills and valleys that block us and hold us back from making our way to the Lord. Each of us will all have our own personal take on this as we struggle with our faults and failings. Pope Francis, however, goes deeper and wants us to consider in particular the words of Jesus. ‘The Lord Jesus shows us the steps of the pilgrimage to attain our goal: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Lk 6:37-38).
Judge not, condemn not, forgive and give. Putting these words into action will bring us to the Holy Door where we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy. Let’s dwell on the first of these. By not judging we celebrate difference, be it culture or religion. It’s all too tempting to see the good in our own religion and culture and see the wrongs in those not of our faith. What if we were more critical of our own dispositions and more willing to celebrate the goodness in other religions. Today a huge polarisation is taking place between Christianity and Islam. Some heinous crimes have been done in the name of Islam of late tempting us to believe that all Moslems are of like mind, which, of course, is not true. At the heart of Islam is belief in a God of mercy. The oft-cited saying of Muhammad echoes this picture of God. He said, “God says: When a servant of mine draws nearer to me by the length of a hand, I draw toward him an arm’s length; and when he draws near to me an arm’s length, I draw near to him the distance of a wingspan; and if he comes to me walking; I go to him running.” Is not this akin to the father rushing headlong to welcome home his long, lost prodigal son?
May this Jubilee of Mercy provide the space for the God of mercy to come to all of us running so that we can leave behind for good and all an ordinary life of unhappiness and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.
Sunday, 6 December 2015