There was something prophetic about Pope Francis throwing open the holy doors of mercy just as Syrian refugees were preparing to begin a new life. For some, at least, hostility in a war-weary country is being replaced with hospitality in a new land.
The current refugee crisis reminds us that the Christmas story is as timely today as it was more than two thousand years ago when a simple man of faith and his pregnant wife were left alone to bring new life into a cold and dark world far from home. We know that the story had a happy ending, but the suffering that occurred between the first and last chapters is echoed to this day in the ordeals of all persons who are disparaged, marginalized or terrorized.
The Holy Father’s gesture, which was repeated in Catholic cathedrals around the world, reminded us that the active ingredient in hospitality is mercy. Without forgiveness, hospitality is either ingenuous or ephemeral, perhaps both. Without forgiveness, love is not possible and life slides down the precipice of fear into meaninglessness.
The refugees will soon realize that people are shaped by perceptions. They will land among people divided along the lines of hope and fear. Some will open their arms while others will call to arms. Some will spare no effort to make refugees feel welcome while others will mince no words about their own feeling of insecurity.
What we read in newspapers and hear on television hardly encourages dialogue between these parties: one accusing the other of Pollyannaism; the other pointing the self-righteous finger of shame at people who express legitimate concerns as though mercy needed to be rationed or strained. These times call for mercy in diluvial proportions, not just a seasonal drizzle.
Mercy, God’s mercy needs to be poured across the land to wash clean our homes and hearts. Hospitality must replace hostility between neighbours as well as nations, across ethnic and religious divides, across the political spectrum. For that to happen, tolerance must be converted into encounter, true dialogue and embrace. No small price to pay for our pride.
We cannot do this on a large scale without beginning close to home, really close. Mercy must be meted out between persons, but first it must occur within each person. Self-hospitality is the first step. Self-hospitality is not a selfish act. It is the succulent fruit of inner reconciliation, the result of genuine self-acceptance and forgiveness.
The fragile life to which Mary gave birth in Bethlehem was not just an event. He was God’s Wisdom addressed to all of humanity. Emmanuel’s very existence shouted over mountains and across oceans about a better way of being and relating to one another, without fear, by seeing in one another the divine spark, the image and likeness of God.
The voice that is released through the holy doors of mercy reminds us of the inextricable link between life, love and forgiveness, a trinity of gifts that is renewed each Christmas. God’s mercy began as a vulnerable child. It flowed first as a trickle, then grew into a tidal wave that swept across history. We are invited to respond to it with conviction. If we wish to live fully, we must love earnestly, and if we want love to endure, we must be willing to forgive, not just the minor perturbations of daily life, but also deeply hurtful words and deeds, just as we have already been forgiven our trespasses by God.
No one said that this would be easy. Pope Francis certainly didn’t. His own capacity for mercy has grown with time and it is surely still strained. But he has made a compelling case for its necessity and the availability of God’s grace to make it possible.
Equally challenging is the call to forgive ourselves, to erase the shame that we project onto others, and to accept our own limitations, shortcomings and failures. Though it may seem counterintuitive, befriending the shadow inside is a necessary prerequisite to building compassion and welcoming the stranger with authenticity. Love of others begins with love of self in the manner that God loves us.
Carl Jung once wrote, “The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life. That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ – all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself – that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness – that I myself am the enemy who must be loved – what then? As a rule, the Christian’s attitude is reversed; there is no longer any question of love or long-suffering; we say to the brother within us ‘Raca,’ and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide it from the world; we refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves.”
Acceptance of our limitations helps us to accept limitations in others. Pope Francis’ call to holiness even enjoys wide appeal among media and the unchurched. Often, his teachings are phrased as simple formulae. Often, they are framed in ways that seem easy to execute. Yet, simplicity can be deceiving. Like his namesake Saint Francis, Pope Francis speaks of a wisdom that is totally engaging and transformative, and that holds the key to true peace and joy, but it comes at the price of letting go of fears and resentments.
Mercy is a powerful force. Applied as God intended, it can still transfigure a world sedated by empty political promises and false personal pleasures. Given the prize, the question is, given the cost, do we dare to be instruments of God’s mercy and forgive ourselves and others?