By Molly T. Marshall
Pope Francis is in the news once again; actually, is he ever not in the news? He has declared the coming year to be a Jubilee Year, a year where mercy triumphs over judgment. Walking through the Vatican Holy Door with his predecessor, symbolizing the pilgrimage undertaken by the church, he proclaimed the desire to “rediscover the infinite mercy of God who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them.” In a time of fear, he proclaims mercy.
Rather than waiting the customary 25 years for a year of Jubilee, he called for this new one just 15 years after the previous one. What a wondrous thing to think of the urgency of mercy! Like the father of the prodigal who cannot wait for him to get all the way to the house or even finish his confession, this spiritual leader is eager to acquaint all with God’s forgiving embrace.
“How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we speak of sins being punished by his judgment before we speak of their being forgiven by his mercy,” he said. “We have to put mercy before judgment.” Far too often we have reversed this ordo salutis (order of salvation), not only for others whom we deem only fit for condemnation, but for ourselves.
This past week I had a meaningful conversation with one I consider a spiritual friend. He recently had the opportunity to visit with Jürgen Moltmann over dinner at a meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. He sought to convey to this towering theologian the impact of his writings on his own persistence in faith. My friend quoted a favorite citation of Moltmann’s about Christ bearing our sins and the significance this held for him. To this Moltmann added, “Not only does God bear them and claim them as God’s own, but overcomes them.”
“I felt really saved,” my friend reflected. The extravagance of God’s grace washed over him, and he felt a deep sense of gratitude well up in him.
It requires humility to believe that we “good folk” need saving and, even more, to accept God’s lavish mercy. We often judge ourselves harshly, and we continue to think of God keeping a tally of our sins. Martin Luther saw through this form of legalistic self-righteousness and wrote, “God’s wrath has been submerged in mercy.” Luther also described mercy as the “first work of God.”
Do Baptists need a Jubilee year, also? I think so, for many of us cling to old wounds and refuse to receive or extend mercy. Persons of my generation bear some scars from our participation in a controversy that rent a part of the Baptist family. Many friendships did not endure, and the tendency to anathematize opponents has perdured far too long. What might it mean for the impulse of mercy to suffuse how we regard former colleagues?
Forgiving those who have spoken ill of us, and forgiving ourselves for the heated or cynical remarks we have made over the years, would be liberating. I remember a Benedictine monk advising, “You must forgive these people, Molly, or you will bind them to you and you will never be free.”
Mercy and forgiveness are closely linked, as Advent teaches us. Even the thundering voice in the wilderness preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and opportunity for all to change direction so that they might recognize and welcome the coming one.
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,” the canticle of Zachary intones (Luke 1:78). By shining forth in mercy, God awakens us to the ways we still sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. Refusing to forgive the trespasses of others erodes the soul, and we live at too great a distance from God’s merciful desire. The hardest temptation we struggle against, according to the desert monastic Dorotheos, is judging our neighbor.
I recently learned of a moral failure of a person I have deeply admired over the years. After astonishment and a brief inward smirk, I was chastened in spirit to recognize kinship with the sinner and eschew any pleasure at her personal betrayal. None of us is in a position to judge others from a position of superiority, and mercy flows best from humility. And we must go beyond refusing to judge another, Roberta Bondi writes, “one must also protect the sinner from the consequences of the sin.” That is truly merciful.
Mercy is not an optional expression of being a Christian; it is learning to deal with others as God deals with us. Mercy does require us to hold possessions more lightly, grudges more briefly and self-protection more rarely.
In a time of fear, let us embrace mercy. In a season of Advent, let us welcome God’s tender mercy breaking upon us. It is urgent, indeed.