This meditation was my contribution to the 2013 Advent magazine of the Catholic Herald (29 November 2013). It is reproduced here with the permission of the editor.
The Offertory antiphon on the Third Sunday of Advent, Benedixisti Domine, is taken from Psalm 84 (85): “Lord, thou art become gracious unto thy land, thou hast turned away the captivity of Jacob. Thou hast forgiven the offence of thy people, and covered all their sins.” The psalm is a profound hymn of the hope of the people of Israel at the end of the Babylonian exile, as they journey to Jerusalem. It also appears in the introit for the beautiful Rorate Mass, a Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary sung before first light on the Saturdays of Advent. The “land” which is the womb of the Blessed Mother, has become the place where man’s captivity – our bondage to sin – is first undone. As St Irenaeus reminds us, by Mary’s obedience, Eve’s disobedience is reversed: Ave is made from Eva!
In hope, too, the English composer William Byrd (d 1623) sets this text in his 1605 Gradualia, a remarkable collection of polyphonic settings of the Roman Gradual published in the same year as the Gunpowder Plot. The parallel with the Babylonian captivity is a strong theme in recusant literature, and in Byrd’s motets particularly, with a reserved yet confident hope. For Byrd, as for the people of Israel for whom such hope had become a reality, the mercy of God was not an abstract concept but an intrinsic aspect of the Christian life. Hope – trust in the Lord and in his providence – means experiencing first hand his mercy.
The psalm continues. In verse eight we pray: “Show us thy mercy, O Lord, and grant us thy salvation.” Here we begin to understand something of what the Lord’s mercy is. The mercy of God draws man to salvation; it is not simply poured out like a refreshing balm on the transgressions and pain of our human frailty, but also brings us to that which is the ultimate goal of the Christian life. By means of God’s mercy we return to the grace and purity given us in the waters of baptism, and so experience the fullness of God’s glory in the kingdom prepared for us. This is why in the confessional we plead God’s mercy, because absolution opens up once more the grace first given us at the font.
Mercy, then, is also linked to judgment. In recent years there has been something of a move from viewing the priest in the confessional as a judge. This is to apply human and natural concepts to a divine and supernatural event. We shy away from the notion of the confessor as a judge, because Dickensian depictions of red-faced administrators of justice are far removed from the God who freely forgives those who seek his mercy. But God’s judgment is real – if not, why would we need to be reconciled with him in order to enter his eternal presence? When we sin, though, his sentence is not one of condemnation (we do that ourselves when we choose our will over his) but of mercy. We are guilty of sin, but God’s response is to remit the punishment we deserve, and offer us instead eternal life in his presence. God exemplifies what he calls his priests to be in the confessional: iudices pariter et medici, equally judge and healer.
And if mercy is linked to judgment, and judgment to salvation, then mercy must also be linked to God himself. The Lord who is goodness and beauty is also truth. Here we return to the psalm: “Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” The faithfulness of the people of Israel – their embodiment of the truth of God’s omnipotence – is rewarded by God’s mercy on them, as they are led to the earthly Jerusalem. So for the Christian, fidelity to God, through honesty in the spiritual life and integrity in the moral life, is rewarded with God’s mercy when we seek his forgiveness for our failings. And by this mercy we are led to salvation, as we inherit the heavenly Jerusalem.
In a reflection on this psalm, Blessed John Paul II tells us that this verse “describes a new world in which God’s love and his faithfulness embrace each other as if they were persons. Similarly, justice and peace meet and kiss each other. Truth sprouts up as if in a new springtime and justice, which for the Bible also means salvation and holiness, appears from heaven to begin its journey in the midst of humanity.”
This reminds us not only of our prayer for this season of Advent – “Drop down ye heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness” (Is 45:8) – but of the personification of righteousness found in God himself, in his divine Son. Our minds are drawn not only to our hope for his coming, but to the reality of his Incarnation. This is the truth sent from above, says the well-loved English carol, the truth of God, the God of love. God, who is Truth, becomes Man.
St Augustine, Pope John Paul reminds us, firmly places this text in the context of the Lord’s Nativity. Augustine says: “Christ who said: ‘I am the truth’, is born of a virgin.” The reality of the Incarnation is that God has revealed to man the fullness of truth in the person of his divine Son. In the babe in the manger we gaze on the one by whom true mercy is administered to the world. By virtue of his life, death, resurrection, and glorification, Christ has become for us the culmen et fons, the source and summit, of God’s mercy to our fallen race. As the Dominican Fr Garrigou-Lagrange points out, the motive of the incarnation is the motive of mercy, because by it we are offered that which God has intended for us since the fall: salvation.
Mercy has been described as the watchword of Pope Francis’s first months in office. His actions are not the empty gestures of a moribund politician, but the natural expressions of one who knows God’s mercy in his own life and wishes to share that joy with others. The kairos of mercy which he described on his return from World Youth Day, is a reminder to us all that the Christian life is one rooted in charity. To be charitable toward others is to allow God’s mercy to be enacted through us. By exercising charity we become ministers of God’s mercy to our fellow men and women.
This charity, this mercy, is only as genuine as the truth that prompts it. As Benedict XVI reminded us: “When the Church has to recall an unrecognised truth or a betrayed good, she always does so impelled by merciful love, so that men and women may have life and have it abundantly.” May the truth of the Incarnation become ever-more realised in our world and in our lives this Advent, and may an authentic knowledge of God’s truth make us apostles of his mercy, that in us and through us our prayer may be fullfilled: Thy Kingdom come!