“Relationship.” The dictionary defines this word as “the way in which two or more people talk to, behave toward, and deal with each other.” Relationships can be formal, as in a business relationship, or they can be personal and intimate, as in a father’s relationship with his children. While we often think of our relationship with God in the first way, he wants it to be more like the second.
Do you know that you are cherished by God? Do you know that he enjoys spending time with you, showing you his love, and providing for you? This is who God is; he loves treating you as his child—so much so that he makes it a point to try to teach you and form you so that you can “grow up” to be just like him.
As with any other parent, part of God’s parenting involves discipline. It only makes sense that he would want to correct us when we stray—he loves us too much to ignore us. So often, when we think of discipline, we think of punishment and pain. But God’s discipline is life-giving. It doesn’t cause shame, it brings hope. It brings the promise of greater peace and contentment because it helps us become more of the person God has created us to be.
How does our Father discipline us? He may prompt us to ask a friend for forgiveness. He may give us a conscience twinge when we consider watching an inappropriate movie or wasting time surfing the Internet. He may allow difficult circumstances that cause us to look to him for grace instead of relying on our own strength. He may also allow us to suffer the consequences of our sin as a way of teaching us and forming us. In all these ways, our heavenly Father seeks to love us and teach us.
The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail. (Matthew 16:18)
The data can be troubling. Studies continue to show a decline in church attendance, especially among young people. Fewer and fewer people are calling themselves Christian, with many opting for the vague term of “spiritual, but not religious.” Each of us probably knows someone who is struggling with their faith or who has left the Church. And yet Jesus promised that the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church. How can we believe this?
Perhaps the best place to start is by taking these words personally. Remember, Jesus has placed his Church in our hands, so it’s worth asking what role we have to play in fulfilling the promise. “What can I do to make sure the Church remains safe?”
The answer is as simple as it is challenging: stay close to Jesus. He has already won the battle against the devil, so he can defend you as well. Try as they might, the powers of sin and darkness won’t be able to sway you if you keep yourself connected to the Lord. It doesn’t mean you’ll be free from temptation, but it does mean that you’ll find the strength to stand firm. Be faithful to daily prayer. Make the most of your time at Mass. Pursue the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And serve Jesus as he is present in the poor and needy.
Of course, these are the obvious answers. But have you ever thought about how, when you are praying or celebrating Mass, you are also pushing back the devil and his power? Remember, you are a member of the body of Christ. There are very real spiritual consequences to your prayer life—consequences for the entire Church! As you stay close to the Lord, you are strengthening and defending all of your brothers and sisters around the world.
It’s because individual believers all over the world are clinging to Jesus right now that his Church remains protected. So as you intercede today for the Church or for family members who are struggling in their faith, you can be confident in Jesus’ promise. You can pray from a position of trust because you are part of the answer to your own prayers!
“Jesus, you are victorious! You have given new life to each member of your Church. Strengthen your body on earth.”
A contemporary poet once wrote, “A good love is one that casts you into the wind, sets you ablaze, makes you burn through the skies and ignite the night like a phoenix; the kind that cuts you loose like a wildfire, and you can’t stop running simply because you keep on burning everything that you touch.”
Peter might agree with this description because this is the kind of love that he had for Jesus. From the moment he abandoned his fishing nets, he cast himself “into the wind” with Jesus, following him wherever he went and trying to imitate him. He even tried to walk on water for him! Though Jesus had to rescue him, it is inspiring that Peter got out of the boat in the first place. He couldn’t help himself; he just had to be where Jesus was.
In the same bold manner in which he stepped out onto the water, Peter promised at the Last Supper that he would never deny Jesus. But just as he foundered in the water, Peter gave into fear a few hours later—three times. But again, just as he did when Peter was sinking, Jesus rescued him, this time with a single glance (Luke 22:61). While that look made Peter aware of his sin, it also led him to repentance. According to Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household, it was a look of “kindness that offers forgiveness.” “Gentle and silent,” it helped Peter remember Jesus’ love and gave him the courage not to give in to hopelessness but to keep trying to follow the Lord.
Peter knew he wasn’t perfect, but he didn’t focus on his failings. Instead, he kept his eyes on Jesus and persisted in taking the next step toward him, whether that meant trying to walk on water or repenting for his lack of faith. Jesus’ love for Peter had set his heart ablaze, and his heart continued to burn precisely because Peter didn’t give up.
Today, picture yourself looking into Jesus’ eyes, and try to receive his gentle look of love. As Pope Francis likes to say, Dejàte misericordiar, “Let yourself be ‘mercy’d.’” Surely your heart can burn with love as well.
“Lord, enkindle in me a desire to follow you and remain close to you my whole life.”
“Hear this, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, and you have raised false confidence in this people.” (Jeremiah 28:15)
Imagine you’re walking into a performance evaluation. This evaluation is unique because you can choose what feedback you’ll be hearing. On the one hand, you can choose an honest review. Your hard work will be recognized. But your weaknesses will also be identified, and strategies for improvement will be outlined. On the other hand, you can choose to hear only glowing praise of your work, with no insights on how you can do better or hold onto your job.
You know you probably should opt for an honest review, right?
Today’s first reading offers us a dramatic example of contrasting spiritual evaluations. Hananiah probably wanted to boost morale among his countrymen, who were facing a threat from the Babylonian army. So he prophesied that they would triumph, and very soon. But because his “prophetic” words didn’t really come from the Lord, they didn’t help. By contrast, Jeremiah offered God’s honest assessment of the situation in the hopes of preparing the people for the challenges to come.
How about you? How have you experienced the Holy Spirit’s “honest assessments”? Maybe you’ve discovered that more than any supervisor, he appreciates and values you even when your “performance” isn’t stellar. He sees the potential in you and wants to help you reach it. And whether or not you always feel it, he honors you for all the ways you are serving him—even if they seem small and imperfect to you.
Of course, the Spirit is no stranger to your weaknesses. Even as he honors you, he also calls attention to your thought patterns and attitudes that don’t represent him well. But he’s careful not to condemn. Neither does he leave you feeling mired in your weaknesses. Instead, he offers grace to change and encouragement every step of the way.
So try to be extra aware of the Spirit’s helpful convictions today, both the positive and the negative. Try to look on them as divine opportunities for advancement and transformation.
After hearing Jesus read from the Prophet Isaiah and say: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21), the congregation in the synagogue of Nazareth might well have burst into applause. They might have then wept for joy, as did the people when Nehemiah and Ezra the priest read from the book of the Law found while they were rebuilding the walls. But the Gospels tell us that Jesus’ townspeople did the opposite; they closed their hearts to him and sent him off. At first, “all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (4:22). But then an insidious question began to make the rounds: “Is this not the son of Joseph, the carpenter?” (4:22). And then, “they were filled with rage” (4:28). They wanted to throw him off the cliff. This was in fulfillment of the elderly Simeon’s prophecy to the Virgin Mary that he would be “a sign of contradiction” (2:34). By his words and actions, Jesus lays bare the secrets of the heart of every man and woman.
Where the Lord proclaims the Gospel of the Father’s unconditional mercy to the poor, the outcast and the oppressed, is the very place we are called to take a stand, to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim 6:12). His battle is not against men and women, but against the devil (cf. Eph 6:12), the enemy of humanity. But the Lord “passes through the midst” of all those who would stop him and “continues on his way” (Lk 4:30). Jesus does not fight to build power. If he breaks down walls and challenges our sense of security, he does this to open the flood gates of that mercy which, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, he wants to pour out upon our world. A mercy which expands; it proclaims and brings newness; it heals, liberates and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favour.
The mercy of our God is infinite and indescribable. We express the power of this mystery as an “ever greater” mercy, a mercy in motion, a mercy that each day seeks to make progress, taking small steps forward and advancing in that wasteland where indifference and violence have predominated.
This was the way of the Good Samaritan, who “showed mercy” (cf. Lk 10:37): he was moved, he drew near to the wounded man, he bandaged his wounds, took him to the inn, stayed there that evening and promised to return and cover any further cost. This is the way of mercy, which gathers together small gestures. Without demeaning, it grows with each helpful sign and act of love. Every one of us, looking at our own lives as God does, can try to remember the ways in which the Lord has been merciful towards us, how he has been much more merciful than we imagined. In this we can find the courage to ask him to take a step further and to reveal yet more of his mercy in the future: “Show us, Lord, your mercy” (Ps 85:8). This paradoxical way of praying to an ever more merciful God, helps us to tear down those walls with which we try to contain the abundant greatness of his heart. It is good for us to break out of our set ways, because it is proper to the Heart of God to overflow with tenderness, with ever more to give. For the Lord prefers something to be wasted rather than one drop of mercy be held back. He would rather have many seeds be carried off by the birds of the air than have one seed be missing, since each of those seeds has the capacity to bear abundant fruit, thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold.
As priests, we are witnesses to and ministers of the ever-increasing abundance of the Father’s mercy; we have the rewarding and consoling task of incarnating mercy, as Jesus did, who “went about doing good and healing” (Acts 10:38) in a thousand ways so that it could touch everyone. We can help to inculturate mercy, so that each person can embrace it and experience it personally. This will help all people truly understand and practise mercy with creativity, in ways that respect their local cultures and families.
Today, during this Holy Thursday of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, I would like to speak of two areas in which the Lord shows excess in mercy. Based on his example, we also should not hesitate in showing excess. The first area I am referring to is encounter; the second is God’s forgiveness, which shames us while also giving us dignity.
The first area where we see God showing excess in his ever-increasing mercy is that of encounter. He gives himself completely and in such a way that every encounter leads to rejoicing. In the parable of the Merciful Father we are astounded by the man who runs, deeply moved, to his son, and throws his arms around him; we see how he embraces his son, kisses him, puts a ring on his finger, and then gives him his sandals, thus showing that he is a son and not a servant. Finally, he gives orders to everyone and organizes a party. In contemplating with awe this superabundance of the Father’s joy that is freely and boundlessly expressed when his son returns, we should not be fearful of exaggerating our gratitude. Our attitude should be that of the poor leper who, seeing himself healed, leaves his nine friends who go off to do what Jesus ordered, and goes back to kneel at the feet of the Lord, glorifying and thanking God aloud.
Mercy restores everything; it restores dignity to each person. This is why effusive gratitude is the proper response: we have to go the party, to put on our best clothes, to cast off the rancour of the elder brother, to rejoice and give thanks. Only in this way, participating fully in such rejoicing, is it possible to think straight, to ask for forgiveness, and see more clearly how to make up for the evil we have committed. It would be good for us to ask ourselves: after going to confession, do I rejoice? Or do I move on immediately to the next thing, as we would after going to the doctor, when we hear that the test results are not so bad and put them back in their envelope? And when I give alms, do I give time to the person who receives them to express their gratitude, do I celebrate the smile and the blessings that the poor offer, or do I continue on in haste with my own affairs after tossing in a coin?
The second area in which we see how God exceeds in his ever greater mercy is forgiveness itself. God does not only forgive incalculable debts, as he does to that servant who begs for mercy but is then miserly to his own debtor; he also enables us to move directly from the most shameful disgrace to the highest dignity without any intermediary stages. The Lords allows the forgiven woman to wash his feet with her tears. As soon as Simon confesses his sin and begs Jesus to send him away, the Lord raises him to be a fisher of men. We, however, tend to separate these two attitudes: when we are ashamed of our sins, we hide ourselves and walk around with our heads down, like Adam and Eve; and when we are raised up to some dignity, we try to cover up our sins and take pleasure in being seen, almost showing off.
Our response to God’s superabundant forgiveness should be always to preserve that healthy tension between a dignified shame and a shamed dignity. It is the attitude of one who seeks a humble and lowly place, but who can also allow the Lord to raise him up for the good of the mission, without complacency. The model that the Gospel consecrates, and which can help us when we confess our sins, is Peter, who allowed himself to be questioned about his love for the Lord, but who also renewed his acceptance of the ministry of shepherding the flock which the Lord had entrusted to him.
To grow in this “dignity which is capable of humbling itself”, and which delivers us from thinking that we are more or are less than what we are by grace, can help us understand the words of the prophet Isaiah that immediately follow the passage our Lord read in the synagogue at Nazareth: “You will be called priests of the Lord, ministers of our God” (Is 61:6). It is people who are poor, hungry, prisoners of war, without a future, cast to one side and rejected, that the Lord transforms into a priestly people.
As priests, we identify with people who are excluded, people the Lord saves. We remind ourselves that there are countless masses of people who are poor, uneducated, prisoners, who find themselves in such situations because others oppress them. But we too remember that each of us knows the extent to which we too are often blind, lacking the radiant light of faith, not because we do not have the Gospel close at hand, but because of an excess of complicated theology. We feel that our soul thirsts for spirituality, not for a lack of Living Water which we only sip from, but because of an excessive “bubbly” spirituality, a “light” spirituality. We feel ourselves also trapped, not so much by insurmountable stone walls or steel enclosures that affect many peoples, but rather by a digital, virtual worldliness that is opened and closed by a simple click. We are oppressed, not by threats and pressures, like so many poor people, but by the allure of a thousand commercial advertisements which we cannot shrug off to walk ahead, freely, along paths that lead us to love of our brothers and sisters, to the Lord’s flock, to the sheep who wait for the voice of their shepherds.
Jesus comes to redeem us, to send us out, to transform us from being poor and blind, imprisoned and oppressed, to become ministers of mercy and consolation. He says to us, using the words the prophet Ezekiel spoke to the people who sold themselves and betrayed the Lord: “I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth. Then you will remember your ways, and be ashamed when I take your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you. I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I forgive you all that you have done, says the Lord God” (Ezek 16:60-63).
In this Jubilee Year we celebrate our Father with hearts full of gratitude, and we pray to him that “he remember his mercy forever”; let us receive, with a dignity that is able to humble itself, the mercy revealed in the wounded flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us ask him to cleanse us of all sin and free us from every evil. And with the grace of the Holy Spirit let us commit ourselves anew to bringing God’s mercy to all men and women, and performing those works which the Spirit inspires in each of us for the common good of the entire People of God.