Advent Penance Service: The Light of God’s Mercy

Readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-26 | Luke 3:1-6

I’ve been speaking to the second grade children about reconciliation as they prepare for their first Confession this coming Saturday. One of the images I’ve given them to picture sin is to imagine it as a huge boulder, which stands between them and God. Because of that boulder, we can’t get to God, can’t talk to him or walk with him. When we try to move the boulder, well, we just can’t, because it’s way too big and heavy for us. So what is it then that will actually move the boulder? And the answer is God’s mercy.

On Tuesday, we began the Holy Year of Mercy, called for by Pope Francis. During this year, we will have the opportunity to reflect on God’s mercy in very deliberate ways. We will have opportunities, as we always do, to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, forgiving offenses. But we’ll also be called to enter into mercy, through the sacrament of Penance, which is what brings us here tonight.

Pope Francis, in the document that called for the Year of Mercy, spoke of Jesus as the face of the Father’s mercy, a truth that he says may as well sum up the Christian faith. Then he says that we need to contemplate God’s mercy constantly and in many ways. He writes:

It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness. (Misericordie Vultus, 2.)

So mercy is that reality that bridges the gap between God and humanity, smashing the boulder that I asked the second grade children to imagine. This evening’s readings speak of the ministry of mercy, perhaps taken up in a special way by Saint John the Baptist. In our Gospel, he traveled through the whole region to proclaim not just any baptism, but a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That proclamation speaks of what is necessary for mercy to be able to work, and that is repentance. God wants to show us mercy, but we have to seek mercy out, open our hearts to mercy. Because mercy changes us. It makes us a new creation, it gives us that salvific grace that restores our friendship with God.

It’s no secret that our world is a dark place, now as much as ever. Our God’s mercy lights the fire that obliterates the darkness. And thus Isaiah can proclaim that “The light of the moon will be like that of the sun, and the light of the sun will be seven times greater, like the light of seven days.” Because mercy also changes the world. When our sins are forgiven, the world – or at least our corner of it – is a harbor of mercy, and that light helps others to find the way too.

Indeed, the struggle between light and darkness is what Advent is all about. The season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness, sure, but more than that the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts. This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.

In Advent, God meets all that darkness head-on. We don’t cower in the darkness; neither do we try to cover over the light. Instead we put the lamp on a lampstand and shine the light into every dark corner of our lives and our world. This light of mercy is a light that changes everything. It doesn’t just expose what’s imperfect and cause shame, instead it burns the light of God’s salvation into everything and everyone it illumines, making all things new.

And so that’s why we’re here tonight.  We receive the light of God’s mercy by being open to it and accepting it, tonight in a sacramental way.  Tonight, as we did at our baptism, we reject the darkness of sin and we “look east” as the hymn says, to accept the light of Christ which would dawn in all of our hearts.  Tonight we lay before our God everything that is broken in us, we hold up all of our darkness to be illumined by the light of God’s healing mercy.

Tonight, our sacrament disperses the gloomy clouds of our sin and disperses the dark shadows of death that lurk within us.  The darkness in and around us is no match for the light of Christ.  As we approach Christmas, the light of God’s mercy is ever nearer.  Jesus is, as the Gospel of John tells us, “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”