Monday, October 5, 2015

Mercy is Useless, Unless...

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Psalm 51

Reflection – So now we come to one of the ‘great’ psalms in our Monday Psalter, one which in its own way has been as influential in the Christian tradition as Psalm 23—Psalm 51, the Miserere. This is the great pattern of repentance in our lives – really, a whole theology of repentance can be derived from a careful examination of its text, verse by verse.

Well, we need to talk about repentance these days a little bit more, I think. The Year of Mercy, inaugurated by the Pope of Mercy, is just a couple months away. I was just joking with someone yesterday that I am now officially on the ‘mercy circuit’, going around to various groups in the diocese here especially and talking up the year of mercy and what it might mean in our lives. Mercy is the subject of the day.

But let it be clear, at least to ourselves primarily. Mercy will do us no good in the end without repentance. God is tender, compassionate, kind, gentle, a loving Father. All of this is true to a degree that we honestly are incapable of comprehending. We simply have no idea how much God loves us—we really don’t.

But His love is coming to us, not to creatures who are so awfully good and maybe a little wounded but really have no harm in us, and we’re all quite nice chaps once you get to know us. Uh… it’s not quite like that, is it?

We are rebels. We all have a store of natural goodness and graced virtue in us to some degree, but we have, well, other things too. Malice, impurity of mind and body, dishonesty, pride, vanity, anger, greed. I just wrote a whole book about all that we have churning around in our minds and hearts, and I have yet to have someone read it and say that they did not recognize themselves somewhere in it.
And so this tender, loving, gentle, compassionate God is continually before us—always, always, always. His mercy is unchangeable, unalterable. His entire immutable stance towards us is always that of the father in the parable of the prodigal son—always running out, always waiting to embrace, always clothing us with the robes of our shattered dignity and lost identity.

But… we have to accept that embrace, receive those robes. And that means we have to repent. In the talk about mercy in the Church these days, this sometimes becomes obscured, and we are left thinking that mercy means we never bother about sin and morality ever again. This is a horrible mistake, since our sins are what will drag us down to Hell forever if we do not abandon them. It is hardly an act of mercy to deny that fact, either to ourselves or to other people.

Yes, the presentation of the moral law, the call to repentance always has to be done with such a care for wounded souls—we are not to break the bruised reed or quench the flickering flame. But let’s be clear—mercy without repentance will do us no good. We have to change—all of us have to change, and the whole mercy of God is lavished upon us precisely to bring us to that deep conversion of heart, that profound metanoia of our whole person, to true and lasting repentance so as to enter our Father’s house and feast there forever.

For the rest of what I would say… well, just pray Psalm 51. It’s all in there.

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