A few years after the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, a Slovakian Jesuit priest, called Peter, came to the retreat house where I was working. He told me a story of Communist times. As persecution eased, he was at home with his parents on Christmas Eve. “It would be lovely to go to Christmas mass somewhere”, said his mother, “just like we used to do”. Peter said: “I will say mass for you”. His parents were stunned. Stunned! They didn’t know he was a priest. Secrecy during persecution was essential. Peter worked as an anaesthetist, alongside his provincial who was a surgeon. Few people knew he was a priest.
Recently I spoke to a friend on the phone. Her husband of 20 years has just left her. Today she faces Christmas with three angry student-aged children.
Christmas is a priceless gift but it can also be a time of distress. It was true of the first Christmas: “There was no room for them at the inn”. Saint Ignatius of Loyola puts it this way: “Christ comes to be born in extreme poverty, and, after much toil, hunger, thirst, heat, cold, insults and abuse, he dies on the cross – and all this for me”. For me, for you, for each one of us.
There are many beautiful passages in the Old Testament about God’s love for us. For example: “Does a woman forget her baby … yet even if these forget, I will never forget you”. Christmas and the incarnation go beyond this. God is here among us. The Word has become flesh. God now loves us with a human heart. God has become as we are.
We see this loving heart of Christ, healing and helping, when he grows up? Take one example. The Woman taken in Adultery - caught red-handed. How sensitively Jesus deals with her! “Has anyone condemned you?” Jesus asks. “No one,” she replies. “Neither do I,” says Jesus, adding gently: “Don’t sin any more”.
The Year of Mercy has started. Jesus is mercy incarnate. The story of the Woman taken in Adultery impels us to be merciful towards others; a mercy, the passage assures us, we can count on for ourselves. Yet will the Year of Mercy be fruitful. It is a gift for today but also a challenge. Will I allow God to be merciful towards me? Will I be merciful towards others?
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Ian Tomlinson SJ