A Year of Mercy, Badly Needed

“The mercy of God is not an abstract idea but a concrete reality,” writes Pope Francis.

Well thanks be to God for this emphatic good news, and for the nearly here Jubilee of Mercy. That it begins one week into Advent — the sweet and lonely season of anticipation for the coming of the All Merciful — seems especially appropriate and hopeful, given our times, for at the Incarnation Mercy was delivered, in fragile and human form, to a brutal world of tribalism and inequality, where life was held cheap and public shaming the norm. The Church’s Year of Mercy arrives into a world that may be all-too-similarly described. Kyrie eleison.

In recent months, we have gasped in horror at videos in which doctors discussed procuring and selling intact organs from aborted babies and demonstrated organ retrieval while casually observing, “It’s another boy.” We watched, confounded, as the press attempted to downplay the revelation, even as they went wall-to-wall with the story of a big-game-hunting American dentist who became “the most hated man in the world” for killing an innocent lion. Christe eleison. The death of innocence is always noteworthy, but no longer with a predictable sense of priority, either by the news media or by the shaming mobs, who would drive a dentist-villain into hiding for fear of his life, even as their taxes were used to fund abortionists. Meanwhile, the persecution of ancient Christian societies went barely mentioned; meanwhile, the slaughters in the Sudan progressed, unimpeded by public outrage; meanwhile, governments seemed curiously unwilling to address any of that, to little criticism. As all manner of horrors were (and are) being perpetrated against humanity, by human beings, we seemed content to totter in benumbed ignorance. Kyrie eleison.

Lately, when I am asked for prayer, it is this small Greek prayer for mercy, recited at every Mass, that bubbles up within me: Lord, have mercy. God’s mercy endures forever, but 2,000 years into our redemption it seems we are still trying to wrap our heads and hearts around what “mercy” means — and upon whom it should be bestowed, or denied. As Christians, forgiveness is part of our spiritual DNA, but too often you wouldn’t know it. Perhaps our inability to process the mystery of mercy is what keeps us from making better use of the confessional. We see a world of darkness and wonder how it is possible that God could have such mercy upon us, when we have so little mercy for ourselves, and even less for one another.

Some of our confusion is the product of media-prompting. We do not “know” God, but often we relate to God by what we know of ourselves, and the truth is, we hate ourselves. We hate ourselves for not being what Madison Avenue tells us we ought to be, and we judge others pretty harshly, too, when they also fall short of these ideals — of slimness, or career success, or perfect parenting — which are pure illusion. But we also hate ourselves for the sins we commit, because even if the world tells us they are not sins — that “everyone uses porn,” that cheating is just “a bad decision,” that narcissism is merely “self-respect” — deep down, we know they are. We know we are sinful. Measuring God as we measure ourselves, we wonder how God can forgive such willfully obtuse dishonesty as we perpetrate upon ourselves and the world, every day?

With confession, we can begin to find the answer. In a kind of reciprocation of the Nativity, we bring to God our fragile human forms, with all of our brutalities, our destroyed innocence, our insular cruelties, and God — who has given all judgment to Jesus, so as to be for us all Mercy — renders us pure.

As he did at the first Christmas, God delivers mercy, again and again, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation — in the absolution carried on in the name of Christ. The more frequently we encounter this mercy, the more we may begin to understand its “concrete reality,” and the more perfectly we may come to know God, not as a reflection of ourselves, but as the Image in whose likeness we are formed; suggesting our infinite potential. Kyrie eleison.

Elizabeth Scalia is a Benedictine oblate and editor-in-chief of the U.S. division of aletia.org. She is also a weekly columnist at First Things and a regular panelist on the Brooklyn-diocese-produced current events program, In the Arena, seen at NETNY.net. Contact Elizabeth at theanchoress@gmail.com.