2005—Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time —A
The season of Lent is almost upon us. It begins this Wednesday on Ash Wednesday. In today's readings, Isaiah tells us that more important than fasting or giving something up for Lent is what we do positively. Isaiah calls us to share our bread with the hungry, to shelter the oppressed, and to clothe the naked. These acts ultimately came to be referred to as the Corporal Works of Mercy: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the imprisoned; tend the sick; bury the dead. In last week's gospel, Jesus told us in the Beatitudes: blessed are the merciful. If we do these works of mercy, we will be truly blessed by God. According to Isaiah, our "light will break forth like the dawn." If you treat each other with merciful love, Isaiah says, the glory of the Lord will surround you, going before you as your defender and following behind you as your protector.
Doing these works of mercy can have radical consequences. Look at two heroines of recent church life who really practiced the works of mercy. Dorothy Day opened a soup kitchen for the hungry, lived with the homeless people in the shelter she opened for them, and gave her entire life aiding them. Mother Theresa spent her life caring for the dying on the streets of Calcutta. Both of these women are regarded as saints.
Calling them saints, of course, is a good way of saying that people with family and work responsibilities like us couldn't live the way they did. So what can we do? One tendency is to translate the call to do works of mercy into a call to be "nice" to other people. Open doors for them. Say "thank you" a lot. Middle class America today values "being a nice person" very highly. It helps retain some humanness in the midst of the harshness of our world. But niceness and mercy are really not the same. Another word for mercy is com-passion-to undergo another's passion with him or her. Mercy is entering into the suffering of another, seeking to lift it while accompanying the one who is suffering. Seen this way, mercy is not "nice." It can be very disruptive.
Another response is to "try harder" and "do more." But the idea that we can respond to Jesus's call to do mercy by exerting more will-power is fundamentally wrong. It is a formula for burn out and ultimately despair. No matter how hard we work at it, we can't save the world by our will power. Nor can we become the merciful, holy people Jesus calls us to be all by ourselves. To heal the world, and to become doers of mercy, we need help from God.
Fortunately, niceness and will-power are not our only options. God's help is there for us. In Luke's gospel, Jesus tells us where the power to do the works of mercy comes from: "Be merciful, as your Father [in heaven] is merciful." Our ability to do the works of mercy grows out of God's mercy toward us. A theologian at BC, James Keenan, has defined mercy as "entering into the chaos of the life of another." God enters into the chaos of our lives, into our weakness and confusion and helps us help each other. God accompanies us in our struggles. Whatever we try to do, and whatever limits we face, we don't have to rely on our own power. We can be merciful because God is merciful.
Being able to do the works of mercy comes from first allowing God to do the work of mercy for us. It comes from allowing God's love for us to be the source of our love for our neighbors, God's service to us to be the source of our service to each other. That is what God's mercy will do if we are willing to let go of the illusion that we can do it on our own. When we let go of ourselves this way, amazing things can happen. We can begin to feel the needs of hungry or homeless people and get some insight into how we can respond. This is the beginning of the sort of amazing things that happened in Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa. The mercy from God they experienced in the chaos of their lives flowed over into the way they entered the chaos of the lives of the people they helped. It can be that way for us too. The way God's mercy flows over into our works of mercy will doubtless be different from the way it did for Dorothy Day or Mother Theresa. But whatever our distinctive way of mercy, it begins by receiving God's merciful love. Let's open our hearts to this love throughout Lent, and give thanks for it now in the Eucharist.
David Hollenbach, S.J. St. Ignatius Church February 6, 2005
Homily for 5th Sunday of Year A, 2005
Readings: Is 58:7-10; Ps 112:4-9; 1 Cor 2:1-5; Mt 5:13-16