Close of the Holy Year of Mercy
St. Robert Bellarmine Church, Freehold | Nov. 20, 2016
St. Luke’s Gospel today begins with the sentence: “The people stood by the cross of Jesus, watching” … watching. What were they watching? They were watching the final, dramatic moments of the Lord Jesus Christ as he hung on the Cross. Above his head, the Gospel tells us, was an inscription that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” It isn’t a very royal scene that we hear described in St. Luke’s narrative, at least, as most people think of royalty. Usually, “watching” a King presents a vision of triumph, pageantry, majesty. The only triumph we see today is that he succeeded in carrying the Cross to Calvary. The only pageantry we witness today is the mockery of the crowd, of leaders and soldiers surrounding him, even the criminal crucified there next to him. Some Messiah, they jeered. The only majesty before us is the brief acknowledgement of the so-called “good thief” asking for a place in Jesus’ kingdom. This was what the people standing by the cross were “watching.”
Beneath the banner proclaiming him a “King” — from his vantage point on the Cross — Jesus was also “watching” — he was watching them … and far beyond them. In his mind’s eye, in those moments, he saw and watched; in his heart, in those moments, he felt as he watched; in his battered, bruised and barely living body, in those moments, he showed as he watched the kind of “King” he was and is: no royal display; no pomp and glory; none of the trappings that usually surround a “King,” no. As he hung on the Cross, he was watching us; he died for us, this “King;” he brought our sins, our lives to the Cross and forgave us; he promised us — “good thieves” all — that we would be with him in his Kingdom, in paradise, simply because we ask in faith. Like the crowd on Calvary in today’s Gospel, we still watch Our King. And Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, still watches us, offering us eternal life in his Kingdom. His royalty, signified by the Cross, is a Majesty of Mercy.
This past year, Our Holy Father Pope Francis gave the Church a beautiful gift, a Holy Year, an “Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.” This is a custom that popes announce every 25 years or so for Catholics throughout the world to lift up and celebrate their faith, to reflect upon their Christian lives and to resolve to translate that faith into concrete, visible actions, confessing their sins and reaching out to their neighbors in charity. The last Holy Year was the year 2000, proclaimed by the pope now St. John Paul II to welcome a new century and a new millennium. In his pastoral, loving enthusiasm for the Church, Pope Francis couldn’t wait a full 25 years! No doubt, he felt as we have all felt the impulse in recent times to stop … to stop the bitterness; to stop the incivility; to stop the harsh judgments; to stop the hatred and division before they destroy humanity from within! In announcing this “Year of Mercy,” Pope Francis wrote:
Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy … Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth … We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy … Our salvation depends upon it. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever, despite our sinfulness (Pope Francis, Bull of Indiction, Vutus misericordiae, April 11, 2015).
Wasn’t that the hope of the “good thief” as he hung on a cross beside Jesus in today’s Gospel? Wasn’t that the hope that drew some of the crowd to the foot of Christ’s Cross, “watching?” Isn’t that our hope? We look to our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, for his Majesty of Mercy, a mercy that brings us the hope of being “loved forever.”
But there is another side to this mercy and Pope Francis has reminded us of it often throughout this Holy Year. It is not enough for us simply to “watch,” simply to hope. Jesus watches us and when our eyes meet, when his glance catches our own, we recognize that just as he loves and forgives us from the Cross, we too, must love and forgive and show mercy to one another. Pope Francis observed that
Loving and forgiving are the concrete and visible signs that the faith has transformed our hearts and allows us to express in ourselves the same life of God … loving and forgiving as God loves and forgives, this is a program of life that cannot know interruptions or exceptions, but pushes us to always go beyond without ever tiring, with the certainty of being sustained by the paternal presence of God. God forgives us all. God understands us, even in our limits and understands us even in our contradictions … if we open ourselves to welcome the mercy of God for us, at our turn we become more capable of forgiveness (Pope Francis, General Audience, December 16, 2015).
Today, we join Our Holy Father and Catholics throughout the world, in drawing the Holy Year of Mercy to a close. It has been a good year and a blessing for the Church and for the Diocese. Here, in this parish, you were privileged to host a Holy Door of Mercy, the symbol of the Jubilee Year, so that all who passed through this symbolic gate, would enter into Christ our King’s Majesty of Mercy.
The Holy Year is over but the need for mercy never ends. The Cross of Jesus that we contemplate in today’s Gospel is ever before us, showing us “the full force evil but, also, the full power of God’s mercy (Pope Francis),” ever present, ever accessible, ever reaching out to embrace us, to fill us, to spill over to the neighbor. Yes, we watch Jesus on the Cross, identified as a King but truly recognized as such in the experience of his mercy, identified in our hearts. He watches us from the Cross and from all eternity, lovingly, mercifully calling us to share his forgiveness and love and mercy with one another. As followers of Christ, we cannot be mere bystanders, watchers at the foot of the Cross of Christ, our King. His is a Majesty of Mercy. Seek it; share it. The Holy Year ends today “but his mercy endures forever (Psalm 136).”
Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton