“What should we do?”
That is the question of the day, isn’t it? In this gospel, we hear that question three times, from three different groups. John the Baptist, you’ll remember, has been calling people to repent and prepare the way of the Lord. And the people respond by asking again and again:
“What should we do?”
It was a burning question 2,000 years ago.
It’s a burning question this morning.
And to those of us seeking an answer, the church has—literally—opened a door.
Tuesday, we began a special Holy Year, a Jubilee of Mercy. You may have seen the pictures of Pope Francis pushing open the great doors of St. Peter’s Basilica, inviting us to pray more deeply and take advantage of that most precious of gifts, God’s mercy. We will have an opportunity to do that tomorrow, with “Reconciliation Monday,” when priests will be available around the New York area, including here in our church, to hear confessions and and pour out God’s mercy.
But we forget sometimes: mercy isn’t just something we receive.
It is also something we give.
A long time ago, we learned this. Remember the works of mercy? There are 14 of them.
The corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry…give drink to the thirsty…clothe the naked…shelter the homeless…visit the sick…visit the imprisoned…bury the dead.
And the spiritual works of mercy: counsel the doubtful…instruct the ignorant…
admonish sinners…comfort the afflicted…forgive offenses…bear wrongs patiently…pray for the living and the dead
Which brings me back to the question of this day:
“What should we do?”
Let me offer a few practical ideas.
Last week, as the Jubilee Year began, the Catholic website that carries my blog, Aleteia, offered a list of ideas for how we—every one of us—can bring mercy into our world. I want to share some of these with you. I found it a great help. It’s by no means definitive or exhaustive, but it’s a beginning. Maybe it will spark your imagination.
So, what should we do?
Resist sarcasm. It is the antithesis of mercy.
Pare down your possessions and share with the needy.
Call someone you know who is lonely.
Write a letter of forgiveness to someone. If you can’t send it, sprinkle it with holy water and pray for the person. Ask Christ to have mercy on both of you.
Do something kind and helpful to someone you don’t get along with.
Be mindful of your behavior online—on Facebook, or Twitter or social media. Ask yourself: is what I’m writing improving the world, or is it making others feel bad? Am I hammering others to make myself feel better?
Be generous enough to allow others to help you. People need to feel needed.
Take time in prayer to think of the good qualities of someone you dislike.
Hold your tongue.
If you didn’t mean to be a pain in the neck to someone, admit it—and ask forgiveness.
Make a list of your enemies. Write down their names. Every day, pray for them.
Pray the chaplet of Divine Mercy on the way to work. Hold these words close to your heart: “For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
Offer to babysit or run an errand for a busy parent or someone who’s homebound.
Do what Cardinal Dolan does: keep in your wallet a collection of $5 gift cards for McDonalds or Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts and give them to the homeless or people you meet begging on the street.
Keep holy cards, short prayers, or blessed medals handy and give them out to people you meet as you are inspired to do so. You could change a life. Or even save one.
Pray every day for the souls in purgatory—especially those who have no one to pray for them. Remember those whom others have forgotten.
Finally: Memorize those 14 works of mercy I quoted earlier and teach them to your children. If you don’t remember them, that’s okay. That’s why God made Google. You can find them easily online.
Those are just for starters. I’m sure all of us can think of others. But the point of this is to look for opportunities to be missionaries of mercy in a wounded and sorrowing world.
I think we can agree: the wounds and sorrows of our world run very deep right now. We see it in the news. We see it in our homes and families. So many need healing. So many need hope.
The works of mercy ask us to visit the imprisoned and feed the hungry. But not all prisons have bars and barbed wire. Not all hunger is for food.
But mercy can change everything. It can free those imprisoned by fear or loneliness. It can feed those who hunger for dignity or companionship or peace of mind.
Last week Pope Francis said, “This Jubilee is a privileged moment for the Church to learn what pleases God most. And what is it that pleases God most? To forgive his children, to have mercy on them, so that we in turn can forgive our brothers and sisters, shining as torches of God’s mercy in the world.”
Right now, we’re busy with shopping and wrapping and mailing and decorating. Our credit cards are getting a workout.
But I can think of no greater gift to offer than something so simple: mercy.
It’s something we all can give. But it’s also something we all want to receive.
This Sunday, as we look with joy toward God’s incarnation, let us resolve to incarnate, to embody and give flesh to God’s mercy in the world, here and now.
So if you can, take advantage of Reconciliation Monday tomorrow. And then take advantage of something else:
Carry the grace you receive from that sacrament to others.
As the Advent wreath grows brighter, may we grow brighter in hope—and be, as the Holy Father said, “torches of God’s mercy in the world.”
The people asked John the Baptist: “What should we do?” That burning question has a burning answer. I think John the Baptist and Pope Francis would agree:
With the light of Christ in our hearts, we can set this world ablaze.
Read more suggestions in “56 Ways to Be Merciful During the Jubilee Year of Mercy”
Photo: CNS photo / Maurizio Brambatti, EPA