I have always been drawn to Rembrandt’s painting of The Return of the Prodigal Son. To me it is a wonderful representation of ‘repentance’, ‘forgiveness’ and ‘hope’, virtues that are synonymous to our Christian faith. The wayward son had returned to his father seeking forgiveness and the father had welcomed him with open arms without even saying a word about his son’s wrong doings. The father did not have a list in his pocket of all the ‘sins’ the son had committed. Neither did he chastise or raise his voice at his son. Instead the father’s joy knew no bounds. His heart was filled with mercy and compassion in welcoming the son who had always remained in his heart. The father, with patience, love, hope and mercy had never for a second stopped thinking about his lost son. Similarly, God is always waiting for us to return to His warm embrace; and He never grows tired of waiting.
In March this year, Pope Francis announced that the Church will celebrate an Extraordinary Jubilee, a Holy Year of Mercy (8 Dec 2015 till 20 Nov 2016) to emphasise the Church’s mission of being a witness of compassion … of being a witness of God’s mercy. “Let us not forget that God forgives and God forgives always. Let us never tire of asking for forgiveness,” said the Holy Father.
So what does this Holy Year of Mercy mean to us as individuals and as a parish community? We are all familiar with the saying “Forgive and Forget”, and though some may argue that this phrase is not found in the Bible, there are numerous verses commanding us to ‘forgive one another’. Of course, it is impossible to truly forget the sins or transgressions that have been committed against us. We cannot selectively ‘delete’ events from our memory, especially incidents where we have been unfairly accused of proselytising, where the Cross has been regarded with suspicion, where our freedom to use the word ‘Allah’ in our worship has been deemed unlawful … and the list goes on. So in this instance, how do we become witnesses of compassion? Two of the beatitudes provide some insight into the way Christians are supposed to relate to their fellowmen. “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt. 5:7). If we want others to show mercy to us, should we not show mercy to others? “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Mt. 5:9). How many times do we agitate and irritate others when we ought to use every opportunity to promote peace in all relationships?
During this Holy Year of Mercy, we are also called to turn our focus toward God’s mercy closer to home, not just for us, but for our brothers and sisters in Christ. It should be a time of reconciliation with those who have walked away from the church. Perhaps sin has led them away, or maybe the sins of those in the church have pushed them away. It should be a time of reaching out to those who desperately need God’s mercy: the sick, the hungry, the persecuted, and the disenfranchised. It should also be a time of reflection on our own need for God’s love and mercy, and a focus on the unconditional love of our Creator.
A great German theologian, Romano Guardini, said that God responds to our weakness by His patience, and like the Prodigal Son, this is the reason for our confidence, our hope as Christians. So as we prepare ourselves for the Holy Year of Mercy, let us reflect on the theme for this Extraordinary Jubilee “Be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).