Lent: A privileged moment to celebrate mercy

February 8, 2016
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Pope Francis says that in this Year of Mercy the season of Lent "should be lived more intensely as a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God's mercy." He points us to the Scriptures as the place where we can "rediscover the merciful face of the Father."

Meditation on God's Word is not a common activity in our overly busy society. We meditate on many other things, but not on that which lasts, on "every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4.4).

God's word reveals the many dimensions of mercy for God is mercy; he breathes out mercy into our lives.

Join with us through the 40 days of Lent and the 50 days of Easter as we meditate on God's mercy revealed through the readings from the Bible that form the liturgy of each day.

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Return to me with all your heart

February 10: Ash Wednesday

Joel 2.12-18 | Psalm 51 | 2 Corinthians 5.20-6.2 | Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18

'We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.'

2 Corinthians 5.20

Jesus wants us close to him, not far away. He became human to bridge the infinite divide that separates the Creator from his creatures, a divide that grew even wider with the scandal of sin.

The prophet Joel proclaims that it is time to blow the trumpet and sanctify a fast. It is time, the Lord says, to "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and mourning" (Joel 2.12).

Outside of funerals, one does not see much weeping and mourning in our churches. Yet, we should mourn our sins, realize how much they divide us from God, from others and, yes, even from ourselves. Even our very selves are shattered by the presence of sin.

Be made whole again. Be reconciled to God. It is God who brings wholeness; it is he who bridges all divides. Experience the mercy of God through the sacrament of Reconciliation.

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Happiness is delighting in the Law of the Lord

February 11: Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Deuteronomy 30.15-20 | Psalm 1 | Luke 9.22-25

"Happy are those . . . (whose) delight is in the Law of the Lord."

Psalm 1.1-2

Delight in the Law!? Isn't the Law a necessary evil, something to prevent chaos, but not something of value in itself? The Law may keep me from destroying myself and others, but isn't it really just a burden?

That's not how the people of Israel saw it. They saw the Law not as a wagging finger and a source of repression, but as a sign of God's compassionate love for his people. The Book of Sirach praises the wisdom found in the Law of Moses: "Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more" (24.21).

To learn and obey God's Law is to be overflowing, "like the Tigris at the time of the first fruits" (24.25).

In today's First Reading, Moses says we must choose between the life and prosperity of following the Law, and the death and adversity of rebellion. "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days" (Deuteronomy 30.19-20).

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Undo the thongs of the yoke; let the oppressed go free

February 12: Friday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58.1-9 | Psalm 51 |Matthew 9.14-15

'Is not this the fast that I choose: to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?'

Isaiah 58.6

The pope's bull for the Year of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, quotes fully half of this long reading from Isaiah, including the verse above. This section of Isaiah has long been seen as a clear statement that reconciliation with the Lord is found, not in acts of piety, but in concrete acts that build a more just and loving community.

In his emphasis on performing the works of mercy, Pope Francis is at one with this interpretation.

However, in Misericordiae Vultus, he links Isaiah 58 with the sacrament of Reconciliation. Many people are turning away from the injustices that Isaiah details and turning back to the Lord.

"Through this experience they are rediscovering a path back to the Lord, living a moment of intense prayer and finding meaning in their lives," the pope writes.

Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is most fully present with us in the sacraments and in God's word. It is there we are empowered to undo the thong of the yoke and to let the oppressed go free.

We need to see that Isaiah calls for a social liberation; we also need to see ourselves as yoked to the oppression of sin. The sacrament of Reconciliation can undo the thongs of that yoke.

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Waters in God's river will never fail

February 13: Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58.9-14 | Psalm 86 | Luke 5.27-32

"If you remove the yoke from among you, . . . your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.'

Isaiah 58.9-10

The liturgy is not quite finished with Isaiah 58. What began yesterday concludes today. What yesterday might have sounded like a stern God ordering us to shape up, today reveals God's promise.

Again, the Law is not a source of repression, but of liberation. When you are reconciled with God, "you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail" (58.11).

One day in the first week of our Camino de Santiago last fall, my wife Nora and I had walked with our backpacks for several hours in the foothills of the Pyrenees. We were tired. We sat down for a late lunch in the shade on the bank of a river, took off our boots and soaked our feet in the cool waters.

Along with our lunch, those waters refreshed and restored us. They gave us new energy to continue the journey.

God's mercy also restores us, even more than a beautiful fresh mountain stream. For the waters of God's mercy "never fail"; they renew us again and again.

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Lent is linked with global justice

February 15: Monday of First Week in Lent

Leviticus 19.1-2, 11-18 | Psalm 19 | Matthew 25.31-46

"Just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me."

Matthew 25.40

St. Matthew's account of the Last Judgment will be forever linked in my mind with the Mass St. John Paul II celebrated in a farmer's field north of Edmonton in 1984.

The wind was strong that September day, blowing over the processional cross and billowing up through the papal vestments.

The wind was no match for the pope, however, as he thundered out his warning: "In the light of Christ's words, the poor South will judge the rich North. And the poor people and poor nations . . . will judge those people who take [their] goods away from them."

In Canada, Lent has long been synonymous with Share Lent, the education and fundraising program of Development and Peace. Part of the culture of the Canadian Church has been the inextricable link between the penitential season and global justice.

Every year, we need to reflect on that central question: How can I become less of a source of the problems of global injustice and more a part of the solutions? How can I represent God's mercy to "the poor people and poor nations"?

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The Lord is near to the brokenhearted

February 16: Tuesday of First Week in Lent

Isaiah 55.10-11 | Psalm 34 | Matthew 6.7-15

'The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.'

Psalm 34.18

Three and a half years ago, my sister Carole committed suicide. She was a brilliant woman, earning a doctorate in biochemistry, and was a good friend to many.

Shortly after she finished her PhD, she had the first of many so-called breakdowns, symptoms of the schizophrenia that certainly wrecked a promising academic career and ultimately made life too much for her to carry.

Never a religious person, Carole called me a couple of days before her suicide and asked me to pray for her. I had no suspicion of what was coming and said I would come out to Regina the next weekend to see her. She didn't make it that long.

I prayed for her, and I still do. I also wonder what it means to say "The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit." It didn't seem like he was near when Carole's spirit was crushed.

This is when faith gets pushed to its limit. All one can do is trust that the Lord is faithful to his promise and that Carole is now in his loving arms.

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Every call comes with a mission

February 17: Wednesday of First Week in Lent

Jonah 3.1-10 | Psalm 51 | Luke 11.29-32

'God changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring upon them.'

Jonah 3.10

Like Jonah's preaching to Nineveh, my career with the WCR has been checkered. I experienced my being hired as editor here in 1981 as a call from the Lord. Maybe it wasn't, but at this point, I'm pretty sure it was.

Nevertheless, after four years, I left. It doesn't matter why I left just that I left without God appointing me to a new mission. No fish brought me back to the WCR, but there may as well have been one. The call for a return engagement was almost that direct.

When God calls, he includes a mission in the call. He doesn't just call you to faith; he calls you to do something. It doesn't matter whether your mission is great or small in the eyes of the world; your mission matters to God and that's what counts.

If you have faith, you will obey. You will not simply go to Mass on Sunday, read the Bible and say your prayers at night. You will do what God is asking of you, and you will remain faithful to that mission.

If you are faithful to your mission, it will bear fruit. You may not see the fruit. You may even think that you have wasted a good part of your life when you could have been out making money and having fun. But there will be fruit, fruit that God is aware of, even if you are not.

Jonah's mission bore fruit, abundant fruit. Even though Jonah rebelled against his call, his preaching led the people of Nineveh to repent and the city was spared a calamity. God took the little obedience that he had and saved a city.

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Prayer of desperation receives quick response

February 18: Thursday of First Week in Lent

Esther 14.1, 3-5, 12-14 | Psalm 138 | Matthew 7.7-12

'O my Lord, you only are our king; help me, who am alone and have no helper but you.'

Esther 14.3

Queen Esther's cry comes from the depths of her soul. She is caught in a desperate situation, and no one can help her. No one but God.

Everyone, I am sure, falls into the pit of desperation at least once in their life. At one point in my life, things had come undone, and there seemed no way out. One night, I sat down cross-legged - I was younger and more flexible then - in front of my icon of the Trinity.

My prayer was anguished. I was angry with God and began crying and pounding the floor with my fists, begging him to make things better. When I finished, there was silence. No epiphanies or promises from God.

One could say that my prayer was answered positively four years later, but four years is an extremely long time to wait when things are bleak.

Esther's prayer did receive a quick response. The evil conniving Haman was put to death and the Jewish people were saved from extermination. Esther had thrown herself and her people completely on the mercy of the Lord, and the Lord heard her cry.

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Be reconciled with those you have harmed

February 19: Friday of First Week in Lent

Ezekiel 18.21-28 | Psalm 130 | Matthew 5.20-26

'If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, . . . first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.'

Matthew 5.23-24

When you have harmed another person, it can be easy to forget the harm you have done. The perpetrator is the one with power and may blithely go on their way, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. The victim, however, does not soon forget.

Cases of sexual abuse sometimes take 10 or more years to come before the courts. The victim may have repressed the memory, the weight of it growing stronger every year until it can no longer be held within.

Likewise, our Church is called to build reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples who were harmed by the residential school system. This is a tough one because it is a corporate responsibility; few of us had any direct involvement in the schools. Yet, we must be agents of reconciliation, working to overcome the harm done by systemic racism.

We have an obligation to forgive, but there is also an obligation to seek reconciliation with those we have harmed. That obligation is stronger even than our religious duties. Seek out those you have harmed and be reconciled.

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Pray for those who persecute you

February 20: Saturday of First Week in Lent

Deuteronomy 26.16-19 | Psalm 119 | Matthew 5.43-48

'Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.'

Matthew 5.44

Nice words, these. But do we actually follow them? Do we actually pray for the rotters who have harmed us not once or twice, but numerous times? Not accidentally, but with malice.

There are many other worthy prayers. You can pray for Uncle Joe to be healed of cancer or for an end to the war in Syria. Why waste time praying for the boss who cut your salary and gave you a new office in a broom closet?

Or, if you do pray for him out of a noble sense of obligation, keep your fingers crossed. You don't really want something good to happen to that snake, do you?

Well, actually, you should. Maybe if we all started praying in earnest for the people who make our lives miserable, we might change. We might at least stop having those dreams of revenge or of wishing the guy would go away.

Perhaps it is too much to expect that, because of our prayers, the heart of the Dark Knight will be changed, and he will begin to spread kindness and light instead of death and destruction. Or, is it? Remember what happened to the people of Nineveh. They repented.

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You will never know unless you try. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful

February 22: Monday of Second Week in Lent

Daniel 9.3, 4-10 | Psalm 79 |Luke 6.36-38

'Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.'

Luke 6.36

Here is the linchpin of the Year of Mercy. The reason we should be merciful is because our Father in heaven is merciful.

The Catholic faith is not primarily a code of ethics. It is the story of what God has done to bring us salvation. God reached across the great distance that separates him from us to enable us to share in the unfathomable love of the Trinity.

So, if we give mercy, it is not out of a sense of moral obligation, it is because God has first shared his mercy with us. "Since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another" (1 John 4.11).

Pope Francis says Jesus' call to be merciful is directed to anyone willing to listen to his voice. To be merciful, we must listen to God's word.

"This means rediscovering the value of silence in order to meditate on the word that comes to us," he wrote in Misericordiae Vultus (13). "In this way, it will be possible to contemplate God's mercy and adopt it as our lifestyle."