Just 10 days ago, the religious world was electrified by the Pope’s proclamation of an Extraordinary Jubilee Year, a Holy Year of Mercy, to start on December 8. Once more, Rome’s 4 Holy Doors will be opened, with all the symbolic power that that dramatic gesture has historically carried with it.
Some 30 years ago, at a particularly unhappy juncture in my life, I made a long-distance phone call (which in those days was still a somewhat serious thing to do) to a friend, who challenged me to remember what we had all learned in school - that God is a God of mercy - or, as we just head Saint Paul say [Ephesians 2:4-10] in his famous sentence that Saint John Paul II used as the title for his second encyclical, God is rich in mercy. Not just mercy, but rich in mercy!
Rich is often relative. We judge what is rich by comparison with what is not - often by comparison with how we see ourselves. That’s part of the power of the familiar gospel story [John 8:1-11] which we just heard, where at the end Jesus was left alone with the woman before him. After all the hubbub and noise that the story starts with, all of a sudden it’s just Jesus alone with the woman before him. Just the two of them – as Saint Augustine famously put it, miseria and misericordia, misery and mercy.
In the sacrament of penance, we come to Jesus like the woman in the story, and we may measure the richness of God’s mercy, as she did, by the extreme extent of our need. The sacrament of penance is a perpetually open Holy Door, through which we are constantly invited to pass, so that - as Saint Paul put it – we should live. Like the woman in the story, quite literally saved from death, we come poor and needy to the riches of mercy made to flow through this sacramental door, so that we should live – the fullness of life, now and forever.
Human compassion is inevitably selective - favoring some, but judging others more harshly. Our public life is like that as well. We readily excuse or tolerate certain behaviors, but treat others are matters of major magnitude – according to whatever notions are in vogue at the moment. But God is not like us! God's mercy is richly infinite. It is open to all of us. All we have to do is come through the open door.
Homily at the Lenten Penance Service, Immaculate Conception, Knoxville, TN, March 23, 2015.