As Thanksgiving draws near, many Christians find themselves reflecting on the end of another church year as we prepare to celebrate Advent on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. For Catholics, this past church year was unique, as Pope Francis declared a special theme for it: 2016 would be a year of mercy.
And, oh, how we’ve needed that mercy this year.
I am not a Catholic, but I’ve been a fan of Pope Francis from the start, and when I saw this book, a collection of interviews with Francis on the theme of God’s mercy, I was immediately intrigued. It became an important part of my devotional time this fall, and even though the “official” year of mercy is drawing to a close, I would recommend this lovely book for anyone wanting to meditate on this key attribute of God and theme of Christianity. Here are three of my takeaways:
Mercy is God stooping to embrace us
When God shows us mercy, He humbles himself in order to do so. The Latin word from which “mercy” derives means “opening one’s heart to wretchedness,” and that is what Christ does for us (8). He bends down to care for and embrace us, to “forgive us by caressing us” (xvii). I love this beautiful picture of a God who bends down low to take us in His arms. What a wonderful idea to reflect on as we move into Advent and consider the God who humbled himself to become a baby, who called ordinary people and shepherds to worship him, and who, in his adult ministry, touched the traditionally untouchable and unclean in order to show them mercy and healing. Jesus does the same for us today and, as we grow more like him, we ought to follow in His example.
God never runs out of mercy
Time and again, Francis emphasizes the overflowing well of God’s mercy. Speaking of Jesus’s encounter with the woman caught in adultery in John 8, he says that the only advice Jesus gives the woman is to go and stop sinning. He goes on to say, “If things haven’t changed in a month…we go back to the Lord. The Lord never tires of forgiving: never!” (xi) This may sound awfully basic. Most Christians are taught to count on God’s abundant mercy. But it can so easy to forget, to get locked into our own destructive patterns, and to believe that we can never go back. But we can always go back. And God always forgives.
Humans, on the other hand, grow tired of showing mercy. But Francis encourages the church not to “condemn people, but to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God’s mercy” (52).
Mercy displays God’s holiness and His love
I’ve found that many Christians love to talk about grace — as well we should. God’s undeserved favor to us is something to celebrate! But mercy is a little less fun to talk about because if we need mercy, then there must be something in our lives that needs forgiveness. To acknowledge our need for mercy is to acknowledge our brokenness and our sin. But herein lies the beauty of God’s mercy. When God withholds a deserved punishment from us and instead provides healing and forgiveness, God is able to display both His perfect holiness and His endless love.
A year of mercy
2016 has been a tough year for a lot of people for a lot of reasons. Mercy — both from God and from others — sometimes seems to be in short supply. But we can have hope in God’s continually renewed mercy. And as we experience that mercy, we can learn to open our own hearts to wretchedness, knowing that God’s compassion will never turn up empty.