As we begin this month of December, we find ourselves situated in the midst of two significant events. The holy doors at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome were recently closed, signifying the conclusion of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. At this time of the year, we also notice the candles on the Advent wreath beginning to burn with anticipation for the forthcoming celebration of Christmas.
Handing on the Faith
While it may not be obvious what a set of doors and a wreath with candles have in common, if we take a closer look, we can see how the events they represent are connected in a significant way.
Throughout the past year’s Jubilee of Mercy, we were invited to gaze upon the “face of mercy,” which is the face of Jesus Christ himself. For it is in the person of Jesus that we see the fullest expression of our heavenly Father’s mercy and love.
Our ability to contemplate the face of Jesus has been made possible only because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). That God himself took on human nature is the amazing event we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas. The invisible, all-powerful, eternal God has such an incredible love for mankind that he was willing to become one like us in all ways but sin.
Why would God do this? It would have been much more comfortable to stay in heaven than experience the hunger, thirst, tiredness and temptations that are part of human life. And remaining in heaven certainly would have been more pleasant than undergoing an excruciating passion and death on the cross. Just as God did not have to create man, he also did not have to redeem us. He did so not for his sake but for ours.
This “descent” of the Son of God gives us the greatest example of the meaning of mercy. God himself came to earth in order to fix the problem of sin that man had brought upon himself.
The Son of God came to remedy the harm caused by sin. He came to repair what was broken, heal what was wounded and search out what was lost. This is at the heart of mercy, which is an exchange of sin’s brokenness with the presence of God’s love.
Jesus’ whole life is really an act of mercy. Everything he did, from healing the blind to feeding the hungry to forgiving the sinner, was an offering of God’s merciful love.
Through his human flesh, Jesus Christ was able to show mankind the true meaning of love, which is sacrificial in nature. “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15).
Jesus shows us that extending sacrificial love requires the willingness to accept some hardship. This can include physical discomforts, along with such things as ridicule and mocking. Giving up some comfort for the sake of the Gospel is something we must accept if we are to announce God’s mercy to others.
Pope Francis refers to this when he says that one who evangelizes must be willing to “smell like the sheep” (Evangelii Gaudium 24). Literally, this can mean taking on the smell of the unbathed, homeless person, but it can also mean leaving the warmth, security and comfort of our home or office to visit the sick, feed the poor or encourage the imprisoned. It can also mean facing the awkwardness we may feel when catechizing a group of teens, the vulnerability we may experience when sharing the gospel with a coworker or the humility we must attain when walking with someone on their journey.
Our desire to show mercy to others can sometimes be hampered by our fear of taking on the smell of the sheep. We may feel more comfortable keeping our distance. Disdain for the poor, judgment of the imprisoned or blame on the ignorant can become roadblocks to our works of mercy. If we are comfortable, why should we be concerned about the physical or spiritual needs of others?
We only need to glance upon the tiny manger within our Christmas creche to remind us of the answer to that question. The Son of God cared enough about our needs not only to leave the comforts of heaven to meet us but also to suffer and give his entire life for us.
God has come to us in a very personal way in order to raise us up to him. He stooped down to our human lowliness in order to raise us up to the heights of his divinity. He became one like us so that we could share in the fullness of his life. “The Son of God became the Son of man: so that man … might become a son of God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 460).
Our acts of mercy are to mirror this action of God himself. We are called to reach out to those in need of mercy, in order that they may be drawn closer to God. We see in Jesus’ actions these two distinct movements. His descent from heaven was necessary in order for us to ascend with him to the “Father’s house” (cf. CCC 661)
If the Son of God had not come down from heaven, we would never have been able to encounter the Father’s mercy. We would have remained separated from God’s love and friendship. Celebrating the birth of our Savior makes it possible for us to truly contemplate the face of mercy.
Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.