December 1, 2014
‘Give Thanks to the Lord, For He Is Good! For His Mercy Endures Forever!’
That chant of praise from the psalms is a fitting prayer as we celebrate our national feast of Thanksgiving.
Of all the many gifts from God inspiring our gratitude, His mercy is at the top of the list.
It’s the attribute of God most mentioned in the Bible.
It’s the one petition that always caught the ear of God’s Son, Jesus: “My Jesus, have mercy on me!”
God has mercy on us in our sins, our trials, our setbacks, our worries.
Our beloved Pope Francis has become the “troubadour of mercy.” From his address on his first Sunday as our Holy Father, until now, he reminds us that we have a God who is rich in mercy, that we are never beyond the scope of His mercy, that the only limit on the Lord’s mercy is our reluctance to trust in it and ask for it, never in His hesitancy to give it. Pope Francis has shown a radiant sensitivity to those people who feel unworthy of God’s mercy, who are burdened by their own sins and regrets, or who feel the Church would never welcome them back with the tenderness God promises.
The saints and theologians call this awful sentiment despair, a belief that I am so horrible, so unlovable, so sinful, so unworthy, that God could never forgive me, nor His Church accept me. Pope Francis, like the great prophets of the Bible, like Jesus Himself, has been constant in his eloquent reminders that God’s mercy is a lot more powerful than any sin of ours, and that the Church is, as a matter of fact, made up of sinners who admit their need for God’s mercy.
I sometimes wonder, though, if, in our American culture, the problem is not so much that we feel that we are not worthy of God’s mercy, but that we don’t even need it!
If my read is accurate, most of our people do not come to Church because they feel unworthy of God and His Church, but because they think the Church is not worthy of them!
Our folks drift in their faith, grow lax in Sunday Mass attendance, drop prayer, and haven’t been to confession in ages, not because they’re languishing in oppressive guilt, but because they figure they can get along fine without God, religion, and the Church.
Mercy? Some others might need it—poor, superstitious, guilt ridden, simple people—but not me, they reason. I recall Mary Gordon’s description of her main character in her wonderful book The Company of Women. “ ‘Domini, non sum dignus’ [“Lord, I am not worthy”] She said the prayer but did not mean it. She believed she was worthy.
Let’s admit it: most of us no longer believe we really need God’s mercy.
The saints and theologians call this presumption, and it’s as toxic as its opposite, despair. And, it’s mortal: God never forces His gifts upon us. So, if we believe we have no need of His mercy, we won’t get it. Oh–oh...
As Pope Benedict XVI often pointed out, this presumption results in a “practical atheism,” since we have convinced ourselves that we can get along just fine without God.
Despair and presumption ... As St. Augustine writes about the two robbers crucified on either side of Jesus: “Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved; do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.”
Which brings us to Advent, that holy season of spiritual preparation for Christmas that begins Sunday.
We prepare for the coming of our Savior, whose birth the world celebrates at Christmas.
But, it’s all a sham, or, just a winter cultural celebration, if we figure we really don’t need a Savior.
Many comment these days that Christmas has lost its primary, religious meaning.
No surprise: God the Father sent His Son to save us from sin. If we have concluded we have no sin, if we are convinced we do not need mercy, we’re really telling God He’s wasted His time. What a nice idea to send a Savior to bring us mercy Lord, but that’s really not on my gift list. Haven’t you heard? We don’t need it.
I’m no Scrooge, but a splendid Advent practice is to examine our consciences and discover our sins! In our Christian worldview, as Pope Francis reminds us, this hardly leads to gloom and sadness, but to a humble prayer for mercy, which is ours for the asking. Then comes real joy and peace.
Then, everyday is Thanksgiving, as we whisper, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good: for His mercy endures forever!
Then everyday is Advent, as we long for a messiah to bring us mercy.
Then everyday is Christmas, as we welcome the birth of the Savior in our lives.