By Fran Lavelle
This is a very special year and a very special Christmas season as we begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy. While “mercy” is a very common word in our vocabulary, what exactly does it mean? Mercy for many of us was the proclamation we were expected shout out when an older sibling had us in a death grip.
But for our purposes, mercy is the compassionate treatment of those in distress. Mercy is a virtue that, when possible, inspires us to alleviate their distress. The Church encourages us to exercise this virtue through the corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to shelter the homeless; to visit the sick; to ransom the captive; and, to bury the dead. We find these directives rooted in Christ’s teaching in Scripture:
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’” – Matthew 25:34-40
Christmas is a great time to focus on our many blessings and share our abundance with others. Some parishes participate in local community angel tree programs, purchase special holiday foods for food pantries, or purchase gifts for the children of inmates of our county and state penal institutions.
Some families have their own traditions by doing something special for a neighbor, friend or family member in need. Some of you may visit a local children’s hospital or old folks home to sing Christmas carols to the residents. All of these big and little acts are works of mercy. They are all lovely ways to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Moreover, they are intentional ways honor the directive he gave us in loving neighbor as self.
During the days of Advent between the Thanksgiving and Christmas it is easy to be reminded of our need to care for one another. There are bell ringers at every shopping outlet in town ringing clear that the time of giving is here.
But what do we do when the angel trees are put away and the bell ringers have gone home and all other outward symbols of the suffering of others are retired for another year? How do we keep ourselves accountable to the suffering and distress of those around us? For each one of us we must find our place of service as our gifts are different so they will be manifested in different circumstances.
We must make it a priority to give or do as we are called. Several years ago, when I was working as a lay missioner with the Glenmary Sisters, my brother lamented that he seemed to not have the time to “do” for others and felt like all he was doing was writing a check. He is a husband and the father of five beautiful (and busy) girls, he is a son, a brother, a friend, the assistant dean of a major university’s college of engineering, and is a textbook author.
I told him that people in the ministry of mercy need check writers and there are seasons of life when writing a check is totally appropriate. I reminded him that when his “sorority” house of daughters empties and the expectations of his professional life lessen he would have time to do more than write a check. Some times our expression of mercy is as simple as taking food for a luncheon after a funeral or driving an elderly neighbor to the doctor’s office.
The important thing is that we are intentional about making mercy a priority in our life. If we want to be better at something, we practice. In practicing these corporal works of mercy, we recognize and build up the dignity of the human person. We see God’s perfect imprint not only in ourselves, but in those not known to us.
They, then, are no longer strangers, they are members of the family of God. These are opportunities for grace in our daily lives. In exercising the works of mercy, we truly follow the commands that Christ gave us.
Merry Christmas and a Happy (Merciful) New Year!
(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)