In December, Pope Francis opened the holy door at St. Peter’s in Rome to begin the Holy Year of Mercy. During this year the pope asks us to focus our spiritual energies on the task of bringing mercy to the world in which we live. We are aware of the need not only for isolated merciful deeds but also for developing an attitude of mercy that will endure beyond any of our individual actions into a way of life. As a way of life, mercy always asks first not what is the right thing to do but what is the merciful thing to do? We do not ignore the right, but we clothe it in the merciful.
As we conclude the church’s Christmas season with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we can examine how this baptism inaugurates Jesus’s own mission of mercy. We remember that John’s baptism was one of repentance; and, strictly speaking, since he is sinless, Jesus had no need of such a baptism. Because he desires to identify completely with humanity, he presents himself for baptism by John. He knows that the Father is filled with mercy and part of his own message will be preaching that mercy, acting in merciful ways and giving everyone the means to spread mercy throughout our world. Indeed, one could say that one characteristic of Christians is that they are merciful to sinners and outcasts.
Since the voice from heaven points out that Jesus is his beloved son and admonishes all of us to listen to him, we take Jesus’ way of doing things as the pattern of our own lives. Jesus identifies with his brothers and sisters who are trapped by sin. Such identification has implications for his life and for the lives of all those who follow him. In this feast’s first reading, Isaiah lists some merciful acts by which to live, “Comfort, give comfort to my people,” “Jerusalem, fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God” and “Like a shepherd he gathers the lambs carrying them in his bosom.” As we follow Jesus through this liturgical year we will see him comfort, cry out and gather all into the mercy of God. He urges us to do the same in our own lives.
Jesus, by being baptized, initiates his public ministry calling all humanity to participate in the reign of God. Our ministry of spreading the good news is manifest in the words from the letter to Titus. “When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior.” With Jesus as our teacher we all learn to be merciful not only from time to time, but also as a way of life.
Jesuit Fr. Jack Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.