His mercy is from age to age on those who fear him. (Lk 1:49)
This is the first day of the new liturgical year. And the great figures of the Liturgy before Christmas are the prophet Isaiah and Mary, the mother-to-be of Jesus. Her hymn of praise, the Magnificat - proclaimed when the expectant Mary goes to Elizabeth's house – gives us an insight into the heart of one who is the Mother of Mercy as she prepares for the coming of the One who will turn her world upside down when he arrives. What might we learn from her?Firstly, Mary does not know what lies in front of her. She tried to get sense out of the Angel Gabriel - but had to end up shrugging her shoulders and saying, Let it be done to me according to your will. We can spend a lot of time trying to prove that there is God up there. But the invitation to have faith in God is not just an acceptance that there is some transcendent being who made everything and to whom I have to be nice. Christian faith is putting your hand and your future in God's hands, even though we have no idea what is happening or what will happen.
And saying let it be done to me according to your will is not merely a fatalistic helpless acceptance. In Mary, her joy and freedom come from trusting in the goodness of God – just as Jesus had to do on the Cross when he said, Into your hands I commend my spirit. Tonight, the Mother of Mercy invites you to say let it be done to me according to your will, not with a shrug of resignation or disappointment but with a free heart that believes in the wisdom of God, no matter how things seem to be working out.
Secondly, Mary's accepting heart can then give birth to a hymn of praise and gratitude. She proclaims His mercy is from age to age on those who fear him. Her reaction to the mercy of God is not the attitude of the Pharisee a few Sundays ago. In that parable, the Pharisee thanked God for his own pungent home-brewed holiness and looked down his nose at the sinner behind him. Mary's heart invites us to boast of God's mercy and to fight our own temptation to superiority or mercilessness.
It is easy to ration the forgiveness of God in order to knock people into line. A condemning heart is far from that of Mary and not inspired by the Jesus who died on the Cross.Can you tell a story about your own life that tells of the goodness of God? If my story is full of loss and pain, if I am a permanent hurting victim of what somebody else or circumstances have done, if God is only there to provide the solution that I want to my problems, then I have not heard the Mary of the Magnificat. Mary had to face an unexpected pregnancy, a lonely birth, exile and a gradual loss of her child – from the time he got lost in the Temple till his death on the Cross and then his leaving them at the Ascension. In the midst of the sword piercing your own heart, can you learn to say, My soul proclaims the greatness of God and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour?
Thirdly, we face many challenges to church and to Gospel values. Church people can get upset that many words such as marriage, gender, good and bad seem to have lost any agreed meaning. And there is the temptation to try and kick people back into line, to bring them to their senses. Like the prophets and Jesus, we have to call people to recognise the often uncomfortable Gospel truth. But we have to be the first ones to recognise how uncomfortable it is to seek to be a disciple of Jesus. Mary certainly had to! A Gospel voice in the 21st century has to avoid the spirit of much public discourse that is full of anger and scorn for the opponents. The prophetic voice has to be characterised by love of the people with whom you are disagreeing. It does not help to be angry, even when somebody else is spewing out bitter words. Winning arguments is less important that pouring the balm of mercy on places where people are hurting. Nasty words do nothing to heal wounds. They only harden hearts – including ours!It is true in any relationship. Children have to know that their parents love them, not just when they are good but also when they go astray.
People whose lives are in a mess often hate themselves. More anger will not help them to forgive themselves. They need to come to believe that they are loved, that they can love themselves so that they can then make the necessary changes. The alcoholic or the addict has to decide personally that change is possible. Love, consistency, truthfulness will warm a heart. Bitter words will not. It is love that will touch hearts.You can't kill people in order to make peace. You can't hate people into loving life or marriage. True conversion can never come about by coercion, physical or intellectual arguments. Hearts only change when they're touched by love. The Mother of Mercy asks us to be merciful, to reveal the loving kindness of the heart of our God – as Zechariah said (Lk 1:28). Only that will bring about true conversion. Anything else risks creating more self-loathing or frightened faith.
Last Sunday Pope Francis closed the Year of Mercy and published a letter reflecting on the way forward . In the first paragraph he makes clear that Mercy cannot be a mere parenthesis in the life of the Church; it constitutes her very existence... Everything is revealed in mercy. (M+M,1). As well as talking generally about the need for the Church to be merciful, he proposes two things.
Firstly, he asks that we do every year what happened this year. There should be an Annual '24 hours for the Lord' on the weekend of 4th Sunday of Lent to help Sacrament of Reconciliation to 'regain its central place in the Christian life'. So many people need to know mercy in their lives. It is fine to say that I quietly say sorry to God. But is makes a huge difference when I say 'I did x'. Naming the problem lies at the heart of all counselling and Catholic confessions. Name it and shame. Use the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Unlike counselling it does not cost £50-£100 a time - It is free!
Secondly, Pope Francis calls for an annual 'World Day of the Poor' on the Sunday before the Feast of Christ the King to underline 'the social character of mercy, promote a culture of mercy' (M+M 19-20). Our churches can sometimes be very comfortable places where the poor and the messed-up, the smelly and the failures do not feel that they would be welcome. How can we reveal the face of the Father's mercy to them? How can they meet the Mother of Mercy?
The main question for Parish Pastoral Councils and parish planning is not just we to raise money for building projects but how to distribute God's mercy that is there in abundance. Maybe the question we need to be asking as how you can mainstream mercy in church and society. Condemning people and doing so with an angry voice is not what Mary would want us to do.
We have four weeks left till Christmas. We have lots of jobs to do. But can we make space to know the mercy of God in our own lives – and make sure that those who are hurting most can see the effect of God's grace in our hearts. And then we will have something Christian to offer others at Christmas.