|3/3/2016 9:00:00 AM|
Lift us up, o Lord!
Seeking mercy during Lent
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGERCall it what you will -- the parable of the prodigal son or of the forgiving father -- this Sunday's Gospel is really about a prodigal God whose mercy is almost wasteful.
In so many ways, Jesus tells His disciples of the prodigal nature of God's mercy: the sower who lavishly strews kernels of spiritual life, regardless of what terrain it lands upon...the sun and rain of God's compassion falling upon everyone, regardless of who or where they are...the healing and restorative touch of God's mercy extended to the most despised, unwelcome members of society -- lepers, adulterers, thieves and aliens.
The message is clear and consistent: God's mercy goes out to everyone. But will anyone receive it?
Last Sunday's Collect -- the opening prayer of the Mass - was an appeal to God's mercy, "O God, author of every mercy and of all goodness," from the position of the sinners we are. It is a plea to God "who, in fasting, prayer and almsgiving has shown us a remedy for sin."
It is noteworthy that the prayer acknowledges our Lenten sacrifices are themselves gifts from God -- not self-imposed penances by which we pay back for our sins, though there is an element of just reparation involved; but a way that Jesus has shown us by His example and gives us the grace to follow.
Every minute of Christ's life was a constant humiliation. He saw humanity -- His own and that of us all -- being debased by sinful patterns, both individual and structural, built into unjust societal customs and political practices which diminish the lives of those not deemed useful, powerful, wealthy, developed or "connected" enough to matter.
To overcome rifts among individuals and class-identities forced on persons by stereotypes, Jesus practiced and encouraged prayer, fasting and almsgiving, so we could acknowledge that we are connected with those who are debased, dehumanized and put down.
As the prayer continues, "Look graciously on this confession of our lowliness, that we, who are bowed down by our conscience, may always be lifted up by your mercy." In this phrase lies the key to our ability to receive the mercy God longs to give us. We can only know our need for mercy because we are "bowed down by our conscience."
Much time and artifice is invested by humanity into the suppression of conscience. We seek, as Jesus warned, preachers and "teachers" who will tell us what we want to hear and encourage feelings that will justify (we think) our own lifestyles and attitudes. Sometimes, we want to avoid altogether those who would challenge us to change or even challenge us to reconsider long-held opinions about certain people - even God, the Church and Christian teaching.
The battle wages on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, in particular, with the temptation to do anything but prepare for an hour of prayer and worship, let alone a day of reflection and restraint from commercial consumption so we can be present to God, ourselves and the people in our lives.
We need God's merciful deliverance from some habits and compulsions that are doing us no good -- and we know it if we only let our conscience speak through the din.
Beware of the wasteland that has grown so thickly around us that the voice of the one "crying in the wilderness" can't be heard, a modern-day prophet once observed.
Nothing, of course, can really diminish the power of God's mercy if we cry out from our lowliness. God will always hear us even if no one else can or will, even if we don't always want to listen to our own conscience! All it takes is the desire and will (love is always, fundamentally, an act of will) to place our trust in Jesus, put our deepest self into His heart and let Him lift us up.
Last Tuesday, as you are no doubt aware by now, I began to follow a 33-day retreat toward consecration to the immaculate heart of Mary. You can learn more about it at the diocesan website, www.rcda.org. No one knows the heart of Jesus better than Mary.
To those of you who are joining me, I am praying for you and with you that the graces of this Lent that have already begun will take deep root in your hearts as we make our journey to Holy Week and the Easter joy beyond. And whatever particular method or practice you have choose to enter into the heart of Jesus, I pray that you may experience God's mercy as never before now, following His own example of kenosis or self-emptying, as St. Paul would say: "Son though He was, He learned obedience by what He suffered" (Heb 5:8).
Jesus knows the human heart so well. He has one, after all! He knows us sinners better than we know ourselves, and He loves us, because He knows what we suffer. One like us in all things but sin, He knows the effects of sin better than sinners themselves do, and raises us up so that we can know His glory.
Lord Jesus, I trust in you!
(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)
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