Most of us are very happy to have mercy shown us and to be forgiven when we are conscious of wrong-doing. We are not always quite so happy to show mercy to others or forgive them their failings when we are the injured party, and least of all are we happy when mercy and forgiveness appear to be poured out indiscriminately on those we think unworthy of it. Perhaps I exaggerate and everyone reading theses pages is already much more saintly than I am, I can only speak from my own experience.
When Pope Francis announced an Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy, to begin on 8 December 2015 and end on 20 November 2016, there was some muttering in certain quarters. First of all, the whole concept of a Holy Year is widely misunderstood. The first was proclaimed in 1300, but its origins are much older since it is a form of the Jubilee, and I cannot do better than quote from the document which ushered in the Great Jubilee of the Millennium (2000):
A Holy Year, or Jubilee is a great religious event. It is a year of forgiveness of sins and also the punishment due to sin, it is a year of reconciliation between adversaries, of conversion and receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and consequently of solidarity, hope, justice, commitment to serve God with joy and in peace with our brothers and sisters. A Jubilee year is above all the year of Christ, who brings life and grace to humanity.
The origin of the Christian Jubilee goes back to Bible times. The Law of Moses prescribed a special year for the Jewish people: ‘You shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim the liberty throughout the land, to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. This fiftieth year is to be a jubilee year for you: you will not sow, you will not harvest the un-gathered corn, you will not gather the untrimmed vine. The jubilee is to be a holy thing to you, you will eat what comes from the fields.’ (Leviticus 25, 10-14) The trumpet with which this particular year was announced was a goat’s horn called Yobel in Hebrew, and the origin of the word jubilee. The celebration of this year also included the restitution of land to the original owners, the remission of debts, the liberation of slaves and the land was left fallow. In the New Testament, Jesus presents himself as the One who brings the old Jubilee to completion, because he has come to ‘preach the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Isaiah 61: 1-2). . . .
The Jubilee is called Holy Year, not only because its begins, is marked, and ends with solemn holy acts, but also because its purpose is to encourage holiness of life. It was actually convoked to strengthen faith, encourage works of charity and brotherly communion within the Church and in society and to call Christians to be more sincere and coherent in their faith in Christ, the only Saviour.
A Jubilee can be ‘ordinary’ if it falls after the set period of years, and ‘extraordinary’ when it is proclaimed for some outstanding event. . . . The custom of calling ‘extraordinary’ Jubilees began in the 16th century and they can vary in length from a few days to a year. There have been two extraordinary jubilees in [the twentieth century]: 1933 proclaimed by Pope Pius XI to mark the 1900th anniversary of Redemption and 1983 proclaimed by Pope John Paul II to mark 1950 years since the Redemption carried out by Christ through his Death and Resurrection in the year 33. In 1987 Pope John Paul II also proclaimed a Marian year.
So, why the fuss about proclaiming a Holy Year of Mercy?
Saying he has ‘thought often about how the Church can make more evident its mission of being a witness of mercy,’ the Pope announced the new Jubilee Year during a Lenten penitential service in St Peter’s Basilica.
‘I am convinced that the whole Church — that has much need to receive mercy because we are sinners — will find in this jubilee the joy to rediscover and render fruitful the mercy of God, with which we are all called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time. . . . Let us not forget that God pardons and God pardons always, the Pope continued. ‘Let us never tire of asking for forgiveness. We entrust it as of now to the Mother of Mercy, because she looks to us with her gaze and watches over our way . . . Our penitential way, our way of open hearts, during a year to receive the indulgence of God, to receive the mercy of God.’
The Pope also said he wants the Church to live the upcoming holy year ‘in the light’ of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Luke: ‘Be merciful, just as your father is merciful.’
Part of the problem, of course, is that some people think Pope Francis too soft on matters they regard as central to their understanding of Catholicism. Part of the problem is confusion about the very meaning of mercy and forgiveness. What do all those Resurrection gospels where Jesus confers the power to forgive sin really mean?
We have to begin with a little exegesis of the language and concepts underlying the gospel. Biblical Hebrew has two closely related words which are sometimes translated in the same way. In the first place there is hesed, which denotes God’s unfailing loving kindness to his people. It expresses God’s fidelity to his covenant with Israel, his bride. See, for example, the references in Hosea 2.18 and Isaiah 54.5. It is a word that contains overtones of tenderness, love and strength, which the scriptures often link with experience of morning. We awaken to God’s loving fidelity which will accompany us through the day, e.g. Ps. 142.8
In the morning let me know your love (hesed)
for I put my trust in you.
make me know the way I should walk
to you I lift up my soul. (trans. Grail)
There is also the word racham, which corresponds more closely to mercy or compassion in English. The differences can be seen more clearly in these sentences:
In an outburst of anger I hid my face from you for a moment; but with everlasting loving kindness (hesed) I will have compassion (racham) on you,’ says the Lord your Redeemer. (Is. 54.8)
For the mountains may be removed and the hills may be shaken, but my loving kindness (hesed) will not be removed from you, and my covenant of peace will not be shaken,’ says the Lord, who has compassion (racham) on you. (Is. 54.10)
The Lord’s loving kindnesses (hesed) indeed never cease, for his compassions (racham) never fail. (Lam. 3.22)
The Septuagint (Greek Bible) usually translates the word hesed as eleos, while the Vulgate (Latin Bible) usually renders it as misericordia, a word which links ‘mercy’ with ‘heart’. The fundamental idea to grasp, however, is that hesed, God’s loving kindness, is sheer gift — completely undeserved but bestowed on us from the first moment of creation and tenderly, faithfully, strongly maintained thereafter. Exodus proclaims the God who is rich in love and fidelity at the very moment the people of Israel have broken their covenant with the Lord. He goes on being faithful when we have failed to be. (cf Ex. 34.6) It is, ultimately, fidelity to a relationship that God has called into being, and in likening it to a marriage bond, the scriptures stress both the obligations it imposes and the huge dignity conferred on us by God.
When we come to the New Testament, mercy and forgiveness come to the fore. God sees our distress and weakness, like that of the straying sheep, and has compassion on us. It is the love of a parent for a child, a tenderness that can never be completely reciprocated. We cannot earn it, we cannot deserve it, it is simply lavished upon us. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post on St Anselm (I hope), connecting mercy and forgiveness with the idea of indebtedness may have blunted our appreciation of what is really going on. We repent of sin, that which destroys (mortal sin) or impairs (venial sin) the relationship with God, because we have been forgiven, not because we seek forgiveness. But because that statement may read to some as heretical, I’ll attempt to explain more fully tomorrow.