A Gift of Advent: Mercy

Last Saturday I wrote about forgiveness. I started out the post as a reflection on the readings from Scripture for the first week of Advent, noting how the readings did not seem to fit the mood of Christmas coming. The column explained that they weren’t meant to be – it’s Advent, a time of waiting and reflecting despite what the commercial world of commerce would have you believe. But maybe the draw of Christmas is too powerful. The column sort of morphed itself into the idea of forgiveness as the gift you give. The end of the post said: “What ‘Christmas gift’ comes along with this life of forgiveness? Lower blood pressure, restful night, sweet dreams, peace, no longer being a victim, uninterrupted prayer, a new experience of God’s love… and so much more. Your gift is waiting right there under the tree, the cross of Christ. Go ahead, open your gift. `Tis always the season.’”

That is a pretty nice gift. And like any kid in the days leading up to Christmas you have to begin to peer under the tree, assessing the shapes, sizes and weight of gifts – and guessing what could possibly be under wraps. You have to wonder what else is waiting right there under the tree, the cross of Christ. Let’s open up another gift! And… bows tossed aside, wrapping-paper ripping, anticipation growing…we have Mercy. What a great gift!

Merriam-Webster offers that mercy is the “forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power.” Talk about not being the Christmas spirit. That seems a rather grim description. But then Advent is a time of reflection. So, let’s give this some thought. How have you experienced mercy? How would you describe the experience so as to offer a definition to someone? Sadly, the dictionary definition is the limit of how many understand God: the grim judge who is holding back power and punishment even though we deserve it. Such an understanding never gives any insight into the nature of God or his divine motivation or desire. But if we look in the best “dictionary” of God, we discover we can know about God’s desire – He desires that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4). Such as been the Divine Desire since the beginning of the Sacred Scripture. A desire rooted in mercy.

Hebrew does not have just one word to define mercy, at least not the Mercy of God. There are three Hebrew roots that are frequently translated as “mercy.” The first of these, hesed, carries a broad range of meaning. It refers to the kind of love that is mutual and dependable. It both initiates and characterizes the covenant bond between God and the people. This hesed always implies action, both on God’s part (Gen 2:12, 14; 2 Sam 22:51) and the part of humans (Josh 2:12, 14; 2 Sam 2:5). It is mutual and it is enduring (Ps 136; Hos 2:20–22; Isa 54:8). The second Hebrew word, rāhamîm is related to the word for “womb” (rehem). It designates “womb-love,” the love of mother (and father) for a child – that love that is intrinsic, intuitive, ineffable. The word is used to describe God who has mother-love (Isa 49:15; Jer 31:20) or father-love (Ps 103:13; lsa 63:15–16) for Israel. The “womb-love” of God leads to forgiveness for the wayward children. The third important Hebrew word that is translated “mercy” is hn/hnan with its derivatives. This word means “grace” or “favor.” It is a free gift; no mutuality is implied or expected.

God’s motivation is that all be saved – and mercy is the means by which he sets out to achieve it. It is rooted in the divine act of creation, the divine womb-love that gives life and desires peace, unity, and richness in life. It is the motivation that is not passive but acts to send grace into lives to be reformed and renewed – the core of forgiveness. Such actions begin in love and elicit a free response of love. It is the story of the Woman Whose Sins Were Forgiven: “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love.” (Luke 7:47)

There is a lot to reflect upon. It is why Pope Francis wrote, “We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy… the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.” (Misericordiae Vultus, 2)

In short, we are called to show this complex thing called mercy because mercy has first been shown to us. “Pardoning offenses becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves. At times how hard it seems to forgive! And yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart. To let go of anger, wrath, violence, and revenge are necessary conditions to living joyfully. Let us therefore heed the Apostle’s exhortation: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Eph 4:26) Above all, let us listen to the words of Jesus who made mercy an ideal of life and a criterion for the credibility of our faith: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Mt 5:7): the beatitude to which we should particularly aspire in this Holy Year.” (Misericordiae Vultus, 9)

What Christmas gift comes along with this gift of Mercy? Lower blood pressure, restful nights, sweet dreams, peace…lots of the same things as the gift of forgiveness. But also a deep abiding sense that you are loved, deeply loved. Loved before you were knit in your mother’s womb. Loved as though held for the first time in your father’s arms. Ever loved as a parent loves their child – without precondition, without keeping score, without a response from us. We are loved freely simply because we are. Mercy is the divine action which pours from life into life. In every moment, the gift that always is wrapped just waiting to be opened. `Tis always the season.

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