Only a Church that knows it is made up of forgiven sinners can reflect the mercy of Christ … The Year of Mercy gives us a great opportunity to remember death and battle with sadness, silence and forgiveness rather than with a vainglorious abuse of the past in the service of subliminal modern battles. Jesus was concerned with healing our memories of the past, not with exploiting them – Bishop McKeown
GK Chesterton was someone who had great insights in to how people work. Once he commented that the “Madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason!”
John’s contemporaries had a very logical, sensible approach to God. God was good and thus all his followers must be good. And if you wanted to be good, therefore, you had to keep the Law – in all its details. The core laws were hedged around with other laws to ensure there was no chance that a person would offend.
But there was a twofold problem. Firstly, it was based on the preference for religious certainty because that kept God nicely under control. And the religious leaders could then claim that they were the experts on the will of God. Now that is one dangerous form of reasoning! Secondly, that sort of logic proclaimed how good the Pharisees were for keeping the Law exactly – and they could then look down their noses at others who weren’t as good at keeping the Law.
That was the system into which John the Baptist speaks today. John comes to burst the pride of those who wanted to keep God under their control and to destroy the unbiblical picture of a God who was all justice and no mercy, so heavenly he was no earthly good.
The whole Gospel – including John the Baptist and the Nativity stories – asks us to be made in God’s image and likeness and not for us to make God in our image and likeness. Those who think that God has something to learn from us clearly haven’t learned much about God. We are called to serve God, not to use God’s name in the service of our pride and status.
Thus the way for the Lord is prepared, not in the Temple but in the wilderness by someone who is thought to be a bit odd. John comes in the desert and Mary gives birth in a stable. All John and Mary have to offer is their virginal nothingness, their irrelevance.
That message from today’s Scripture readings is very appropriate on this the first Sunday of the Year of Mercy. We see that John the Baptist was good news for many who were given no hope by the religious institutions of their day, the tax collectors and soldiers. They are not traditionally foremost in the ranks of the pious in their day, or in ours. The Gospel is an invitation, not just to prize what is inside the Christmas box, but also to think outside the box and be surprised by what cannot be neatly packaged.
Last Monday on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception – the opening of the Year of Mercy – another priest and myself were walking in the city centre and we met with five youngish men who each gave every impression of having many struggles in their lives. And what did they ask for? Money? No. Rather two said, “Pray for my mammy, she died a couple of weeks ago” and another one asked for prayer that he could get off the drink. And so in the middle of a city centre footpath, we formed a circle and prayed together.
The world is full of people, crying out for healing in their lives. They want to meet mercy and hope, not condemnation and scorn. And many of them have not found mercy every time they turned to people who say they have faith.
So the first Advent call for the Year of Mercy is not that notorious sinners turn back to the Lord but that those who claim to follow Christ to root out any hint of the Pharisaism from their lives. Only a Church that knows it is made up of forgiven sinners can reflect the mercy of Christ. A proud Church is a barrier to the Gospel. A strong Church that has lost the smell of the sheep cannot be a witness to the mystery of Divine Mercy.
And John the Baptist made another point. As Father Silvester O’Flynn puts it, we do not meet God in the great-out-there, but in the little-in-here, in the drafty caves and dirty feeding troughs of our lives, in the desert of our fears, regrets and frustrations, in the flooded smelly rooms of our lives where we have lost control of what comes in and goes out.
Our culture gives us numerous trite slogans:
– Don’t cook, just eat
– Obey your thirst
– Life is a beautiful sport
– Let’s feel good
– Christmas is looking good.
The implication is that the only real sins are bad breath, dandruff, body odour, and not having a good time. But that beguiling logic leads us to the madness that:
– Lives life only on the surface but seems to be afraid of the inward journey.
– Gives us the means by which to live but not the meaning for which to live.
– Pollutes the world today and doesn’t care about tomorrow.
The second Advent message is an invitation to be counter-cultural and to be proud of it.
Thirdly, we began our procession to the Holy Door in Christ Church across the road. That is not just a convenient spot from which to walk. It reflects a long standing shared mission between the various Christian Churches in this city. As we together approach the year of centenaries in 2016, together we will be giving a shared message that events from the past must be commemorated with mercy and never with arrogance, triumphalism or victim-hood. The Year of Mercy gives us a great opportunity to remember death and battle with sadness, silence and forgiveness rather than with a vainglorious abuse of the past in the service of subliminal modern battles. Jesus was concerned with healing our memories of the past, not with exploiting them.
There is nothing magical about our Cathedral’s Door of Mercy that has been opened today here and in cathedrals around the world. In the Gospel of Saint John, Jesus says that He is the door to the sheepfold – and elsewhere we are told that He stands at the door and knocks. This year, we are all invited to come back into the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd, to return even if we have been the stupid sheep that strayed, knowing that the Lord will lift you on His shoulders and say, ‘Rejoice with me, I have found the sheep that was lost.’ Christ is God of the past and of the future. We are never prisoners of who we have been or what has happened to us.
The Lord wants to come and clear up the mess of our lives and loves. The problems of the world will not be solved by bombs or merely by worthy international accords. They will be solved when we all come to know the God of Mercy and the Mercy of God, when we come to accept the foolishness of God that is wiser than human wisdom.
The question is not ‘will He come?’ but rather ‘will we let Him in through the door of our hearts?’
Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry
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