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Reflection for Catechetical Sunday on September 18 “Be merciful like the Father”

yom logo1The theme for this year’s Catechetical Sunday, “Be merciful like the Father” is both an ideal and an instruction. The older translation of the Collect for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time gives an indication that this ideal is embraced by going beyond oneself.

Almighty Father, the love you offer always exceeds the furthest expression of our human longing, for you are greater than the human heart. Direct each thought, each effort of our life, so that the limit of our faults and weaknesses may not obscure the vision of your glory or keep us from the peace you have promised.

Firstly, Sacred Scripture brims with instances of God’s abundant mercies—ideals that one can look up to. According to some scholars, the Parable of the Prodigal Son should be renamed as the Parable of the Prodigal Father to highlight the quality of God’s mercy as always more than what we expect. The Collect—both an invitation and an imperative, a call and a command—inspires the unlimited response that God is inviting us to.

Secondly, this ideal, invitation or call is situated in the earthiness of life and relationships. It is not without context because to be merciful as the Father is means that we are merciful with others.

Now, if looked at as a command or an instruction, we have done pretty well. Every Church we step into, we find the ubiquitous Year of Mercy logo festooned on banners, pasted onto walls or printed onto prayer cards, etc. Busloads of pilgrims make their ways to parish churches designated with the diocesan doors of mercy. Judging by what we are doing, there is no shortage of proof that this is the Year of Mercy. As a KPI-driven or result-oriented society we might be tempted to set benchmarks to measure how far we have achieved the ideal.

The question is how, in fact, do we measure our mercifulness? In desiring to be merciful as the Father is merciful to us, perhaps we ought to be merciful to the Father. At first glance, this is not possible as the Collect suggests that God’s love always exceeds the furthest expression of the human longing. We can never outdo God. But, what this proposed invitation is, is to go beyond what we have set as external measures. In short, the language of mercy has to move from the head to the heart. The measure of mercy is not the head but the heart.

The heart speaks the language of extravagance whereas the head is frequently limited by the language of caution. Think of the sinful woman with the alabaster jar of oil. Her extravagance towards God was both a recognition of who God is and an expression of her response. Judas, on the other hand, seemingly had good intentions but his was a love calculative.

A calculative spirit runs counter to the extravagance which God is inviting us to. Mirrored in the image and likeness of God, extravagance is the symphony of a generous  heart. The great Cathedrals of Europe are testaments of this kind of generosity and also an indication that we recognise not only God’s rule or God’s sovereignty but that we can image God’s magnificent mercy. The same woman who along with breaking an expensive alabaster jar of pure nard to anoint the feet of Christ the Lord, also dampened them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. The grand gesture of her heart manifested a trust in God’s mercy. Quite unlike Judas whose limited love for God revealed a narrow vision that settled on the mere fulfiilment of obligation.

In teaching Catechism, our children frequently hear that the Eucharist is the Source and Summit of Christian life. But, in our practice, Sunday is mainly reduced to a day of obligation, holy though it may be—an action that exposes a Judas attitude. When Judas plotted to have Jesus arrested, he sealed it with a kiss. The kiss as it were, got the act of betrayal over and done with. In a sense, Sunday (and its corollary requirement of Sunday Catechism) can also be an obligation to get-it-over-and-done-with. How easily does this kind of “obligation” flow into our other actions—love for family, love for neighbour or love for country?

The measure of our love for God will be the measure of love for each other. It is not our love or forgiveness of others that measures our love for God. Hence, doing good things is no indication that we are merciful and here, the Pharisees immediately spring to mind because the danger of “organised” religions is their ease in pressing external religious observances into their service—as if by fasting, giving alms or in our case, having the logo prominently displayed, leaflets printed, pilgrimages organised,  etc., we are as merciful as the Father is. Jesus shows us that His right relationship with His Father is the standard of His relationship with all and sundry. The example of Jesus reveals that the deeper our love is for God, the deeper will our love be for His world. There is a correlation between a deep love for God expressed through merciful outreach and also a corresponding link between a compliant love for God that fulfills the bare necessity of obligation.

The road to a mercy extravagant requires that we free our relationship with God from the clutches of “obligation.”  If like the obedient elder son, we have faithfully carried out the Pope’s command to organise this as a Year of Mercy, let us also recognise that more is needed. In the context of Catechetical Sunday, the Catechism we impart to our children is not restricted to the obligation of forming them in the truth of the faith, our duty is also to mould the heart. The evangelical endeavour of the Church may have been inspired by a grand vision of the intellect but the success of this thrust rides on the back of a heart passionate and courageous. Thus, catechesis is not just schola intellectus but also schola affectus. The challenge is not to remain at the level of “doing our job” but we are encouraged to go beyond simply teaching the facts and to recognise the need of forming the heart. Without a converted heart, catechesis will not go far.

Finally, Meister Eckhart, the Dominican mystic reminds us: “You may call God love, you may call God goodness, but the best name for God is compassion.”  It is to this compassion that the Year of Mercy beckons our hearts to be converted. – Fr Simon Poh, sj/MCC

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