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LENTEN NOVENA – SERMON 1

God of Mercy and Compassion

“BE MERCIFUL, JUST AS YOUR FATHER IS MERCIFUL” 

(Luke 6:36)

1 Thandi was young woman from Soweto who was detained during the apartheid era. In prison she was tortured and raped repeatedly. Later, during the TRC hears she told her story. One evening on national television she described how she survived her ordeal by taking her spirit out of her body and putting it in the far corner of the cell in which she was being raped. She then felt that her attackers could only harm her body but they could not reach her spirit -safe in the far corner of the cell. Asked if she was healed of these terrible experiences she replied: “Not yet. I will not be healed till I go back and find my spirit in the far corner of that cell”.

I am remembering this moving story, not in terms of mercy, but in terms of the gut-feeling that it evokes. No one seeing or hearing her testimony could fail to be moved by her experiences, by her integrity and by her courage. It is that gut-feeling which is so deep in us that we can enter into another person’s experience: a spiritual suffering-with/ sympathy.

We had another example of this raw “gut feeling” when the photograph of AYLAN KURDI, the 3 year old little Syrian boy whose body was washed ashore in Turkey. He and his mother and his older brother were all drowned trying to get to relatives in Europe. The picture of the little boy lying dead on the Turkish beach in his red top and blue pants, became a symbol of the terrible plight of the migrants: it is a gut-wrenching experience which transcends national and political boundaries. That photograph spoke to the heart, to the humanity within us.

We should not be surprised to find that such a gut-feeling is part of our human nature. Whatever the country, whatever the date, whatever the politics or circumstances, we can be moved beyond words by the plight of fellow human beings.

What may surprise us that God also has such gut-feeling.

The language of the First Covenant/Old Testament reveals God’s gut-feelings.

2Of course, The Word of God in the words of men will reflect humanity’s struggles with notions of the divine: some may see nothing to the Old Testament but a vengeful, angry and unattractive God. The reality is very different.

Actions speak louder than words. In the Bible, the actions of God reveal a God who wants to share divine life with all humanity. Despite humanity’s frailty and sin, again and again God offers to share divine life with all.
+ In the story of the BURNING BUSH we meet a God who wants to set his people free, and who has a plan (what we call ‘salvation history’).
+ In the story of the crossing of the RED SEA we encounter a God in the very act of liberating his people.
+ At the foot of MOUNT SINAI after the idolatry of the Golden Calf, we hear God insisting “I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19)
+ The COVENANT made with Moses is known as a Covenant of Mercy with “a God, merciful and gracious” (Exodus 34:6).

For me one of the most moving insights of the whole Bible, a passage which shows the divine gut-feeling, comes in a delicate and beautiful way in the 11th Chapter of the Prophet Hosea.

When Israel was a child I loved him
and I called my son out of Egypt.
I myself taught Ephraim to walk.
I myself took them by the arm,
but they did not know that I was the one caring for them,
that I was leading them with human ties,
with leading strings of love,
that, with them, I was like someone lifting an infant to his cheek,
and that I bent down to feed him.

This is the language of love, it is the language of a father and a mother, the language of tenderness, it is the language of that gut-feeling for the helpless and vulnerable.
Talking about “gut” feeling comes straight out of the Hebrew vocabulary of the Old Testament:
i) The root meaning of the Hebrew word for Mercy (RAHAMIM) is womb/bowels/gut – the seat of feelings and emotions.
ii) HESED, the Hebrew word for Compassion evokes the enduring faithfulness, abiding maternal love such as we read of in Isaiah:

“Can a mother forget her baby or a woman the child within her womb? Yet, even if these forget, yes, even if these forget, I will never forget you” (Is 49:15).

3What this means is not that (as we often say) God has mercy but that God IS mercy:
“The constitution of God’s essence is mercy” (Cardinal Kasper in his book ‘Mercy: the essence of the Gospel and the key to Christian life’. 2013)
“God cannot reveal himself otherwise than as mercy” (St John Paul in ‘Rich in Mercy/Dives in Misericordiae 1980).

When Jesus preached about his Father, God of Mercy and Compassion, he did not use philosophical categories of “essence” or “substance”. He told stories.
Perhaps the greatest story about the God of Mercy and Compassion is the story of the “prodigal son” which turns out to be a story of the prodigal Father: prodigal meaning generous to the point of extravagance, lavish in abundant kindness. In writing up this story St Luke draws attention to how the father, despite being treated so badly by his younger son, ceaselessly scans the horizon in the hope of seeing his son return to the father’s house; how the father is moved with pity (that gut-feeling again) and how he runs to the returning son, clasps him to his bosom, kisses him and prepares a celebration for him. And he tries the same divine charm on the surly elder son, but with what effect?
This glimpse of how God loves goes far beyond the demands of justice; it reveals to us a merciful love which restores dignity, which transcends all our mathematics of mercy: it is infinite because it is divine, it is God.

4Pope Francis has made Mercy the key to his Petrine Ministry. In calling for the Year of Mercy he has repeatedly said “Now is the time for Mercy”. He gave us a text to ponder throughout this year: MERCIFUL LIKE THE FATHER (cf.Luke 6:36) and he says that Mercy is a programme of life as demanding as it is rich with joy and peace. In our Novena of Mercy we will try to explore how to live Divine Mercy every day, not just during this Year of Mercy, but throughout our lives.
But Pope Francis is realistic: he insists that to be open to Mercy we must first of all dispose ourselves to listen to the Word of God. He says “This means rediscovering the value of silence in order to meditate on the Word that comes to us. In this way, it will be possible to contemplate God’s mercy and adopt it as our lifestyle” (Misericordiae Vultus/ The Face of Mercy. 13. 2015).
Let’s make that first step together: silent contemplation of God’s Mercy and Compassion before we do anything else. May the Holy Spirit reveal to us tonight something of the beauty of the Mercy and Compassion of our God.

Sean Wales, C.Ss.R.
February 11th 2016

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