Homily for Advent 3
December 16, 2018
The Joy of Mercy
The classic French novel Les Miserables starts out with one of the most famous acts of kindness in all of human history. The main character, Jean Valjean, had just been freed from nineteen years of prison, but because of his criminal background he is rejected by society, poor and homeless. The kindly local Bishop gives him shelter for the night, but Valjean responds by stealing all of his silverware. When the police catch Valjean, the Bishop, out of mercy, fabricates a story about how the Bishop had given Valjean the silver. To make the story believable, the Bishop goes on to give him two silver candlesticks that he “forgot”. The police believe the Bishop’s story and release Valjean. The Bishop – obviously a saint – tells the former criminal that it was God who spared his life, and that he should take the silver candlesticks and sell them, using the money so that he could live an honest life. Jean Valjean takes to heart the Bishop’s admonition and turns his life around, becoming the hero in the novel.
A little mercy goes a long way. And this is precisely the kind of mercy we rejoice in today. I find it interesting that the end of today’s Gospel features John the Baptist “preaching the good news” to the people. Why is the message of salvation “good news”? And why is there so much focus on rejoicing in today’s readings?
Jesus came to offer us mercy. Justice requires us to receive what we deserve – the punishment for our sins. But mercy gives us what we do not deserve – forgiveness, freedom, love. Mercy turns a slave into a son; it turns a sinner into a saint.
And this is the “good news” that John proclaims – that the Savior of the world is on His way! Looking back from the other side of the Cross, we know that because of Jesus’ death, we now have access to complete mercy and forgiveness!
Our world lacks mercy. Just this week I was reading about two people – an actor and a Heisman trophy winner – who have been attacked in the media for tweets that they had posted on Twitter years ago. Yes, their tweets were inappropriate and wrong – no doubt. But even after they apologized for them and took them down, the blogs and the news continued to rip into them, to criticize them and slander them. Where is the mercy? The football player’s tweets were posted when he was fourteen – for heaven’s sake, haven’t we all said things we regret when we were teens? The media is always on the lookout for shame, for scandal, for juicy details of someone’s past…never for mercy.
And some of us feel that way, too. Maybe it’s a big sin you have never confessed; maybe it’s small things but you just feel unloved or unlovable. Have you ever seen one of those ball-and-chain devices that was used in England for centuries? A prisoner would have a chain secured around his ankle, and he would have to walk dragging a 20-pount iron ball behind him. For many of us, we feel like we’ve got something in our life that is dragging us down and preventing us from running freely after Jesus.
But the Lord Jesus offers us mercy. There was a wonderful story of a nun who was having visions of Jesus. She told her mother superior about them, but the mother superior did not believe her. She said, “We will put these supposed ‘visions’ to the test. The next time you see Jesus, ask Him to tell you what I said in my last Confession.” Later that day, the nun did have a vision of Jesus and she asked the Lord what the Mother Superior had confessed. Jesus responded, “I don’t remember.”
I don’t remember! It says in Scripture that our sins are taken from us as far as the east is from the west. East and west go on infinitely – unlike north and south, there is no “east pole” or “west pole”. If you go north far enough, eventually you hit the north pole and you start heading south. But you can never go so far east that you start going west – no, east and west are infinitely distant from one another. And that is how far our sin, our shame is taken from us because of the love of Jesus!
So what is our response? Two things. First, get to Confession so we can lay down that sin! My friends, we are offering Confessions here three times every week during Advent – Mondays from noon to 1pm, Wednesday from 7-8pm, and Saturdays at the usual time, 4:15-5:15pm. Break the ball and chain, lay down the burden and sin – come to Confession.
The second response is to extend that mercy to others. When the people asked John the Baptist what they must do, he replied that if they had two cloaks, they should share one with someone who had none, and likewise with their food. We extend mercy by generously giving freely, to people who may not deserve it but who need it anyway. So that person who cuts you off in traffic, you extend mercy and respond with a smile. We do our chores even when it’s the other person’s turn. We let people go ahead of us in the shopping line, we make the extra effort to be kind to the barista and the mailman. As we have freely been given mercy, we extend mercy to others.
With all the craziness that is always happening in the world – and in our busy, frantic lives – it’s easy to feel dragged down. The Church gives us this Sunday to rejoice – not in holiday office parties and gifts, but in the ultimate gift of God’s mercy freely given. With everything else that might be happening this season, we must not forget that Christ came to offer us His mercy – and that should bring us joy.