The logo of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is drawn from Luke 6:36. It reads “Merciful like the Father”. Luke employs here a Greek word rarely used in the New Testament, namely oiktirmōn meaning “merciful”. In Luke this word occurs only in this text.(In fact there are only two occurrences of the word in the NT, the other being James 5,11). In the Greek Bible (LXX) this word translates the Hebrew roots hnn and rhm. Hnnmeans basically grace, and rhm mercy. Similarly, Hebrew hnn and rhm are rendered by Greek eleos, (mercy), agapē (love) and charis (grace). Hence, the biblical meaning of “mercy” used in English is pregnant with multiple connotations. It includes love, grace, forgiveness -- in sum, the gratuitous gift of God’s salvation.
There are only six occurrences of the noun eleos (mercy) in Luke and he employs the termabundantly (five out of six) in his infancy narrative, particularly in the canticle of Mary “Magnificat” and in the canticle of Zechariah “Benedictus:
“Mercy on those who fear him from generation to generation”;
“In remembrance of his mercy”
“The neighbours and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to [Elizabeth]”
“To perform the mercy promised to our fathers”
“Through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace”.
The first chapter prepares the reader to grasp the significance of the birth of Jesus narrated in the second chapter of the gospel. The first chapter announces two births and narrates the story of one birth. In other words, the first chapter announces the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus but records only the birth of John the Baptist. Hence at the end of chapter one, the reader expects the record of Jesus’ birth and this is narrated right at the beginning of chapter two.
The most important revelation in the birth narrative of Jesus is given to the shepherds: “for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord”. Later on taking Jesus into his arms Simeon will say that “mine eyes have seen thy salvation”. Jesus is God’s Saviour, God’s mercy, forgiveness and love. The reality behind these words are expressed differently by the different authors of the New Testament.
Among the texts discussed above, two in particular insinuate the covenant with the fathers and mentions Abraham: (i) “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever” (Lk 1,54-55); (ii) “to perform (poieō) the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant” (Lk 1,72). Christmas is promise and mercy.
The Babylonian exile was a dire experience of disaster. The ancient Israelite nation was decimated by the Babylonian onslaught. All institutions including political, economic, cultic, and judicial were completely destroyed. Most of all, their faith was shaken to its foundations. It was the common belief of the time that if a nation was defeated by another, the gods of the vanquished were defeated by the gods of the victor. In other words YHWH was defeated by the Babylonian deities. The crisis of faith could have disintegrated the exiled nation. But ancient Israel develops a theology to rise above the disaster. It could be that they also learnt from the earlier experience of the disintegrated northern kingdom after the Assyrian invasion.
One of the important dimensions of the exilic and post-exilic theology was the “theology of promise”. The disaster of the exile was interpreted by the Deuteronomistic Historians as the result of the breach of the bilateral covenant between YHWH and Israel. God did so much to Israel and expected so little from her, which she neglected through her obstinacy. But this was not the end of the theological reasoning. In a situation of impasse, ancient Israel revived Abrahamic traditions and developed the notion of the unilateral covenant. Now YHWH is making a unilateral covenant which cannot be breached by the unfaithfulness of Israel.
Jesus is God’s New Covenant. What God has accomplished in Jesus cannot be nullified by human failure. This is mercy. God’s mercy can never cease because his mercy has been sealed in Jesus. Birth promises life and Christmas dares to promise life in today’s world dominated by violence, disaster and death. No matter what has gone before, the present can be a new beginning. Christmas promises a new beginning to those who dare to trust. Blessed are those who have the capacity to believe that they can begin anew irrespective of failure and disaster.
Christians believe that the Spirit of God has been active with humanity long before God decided to reveal himself to a group of slaves of the Nile Valley civilization. In the event of Exodus, YHWH reveals himself as the God of slaves against the gods of kings. But it is only on the way to the promised land,that Israel discovers a forgiving God. After the incident of the golden calf, God refuses to journey with Israel. In this context Moses implores Him to continue to accompany the sinful people. Only after the arduous intervention of Moses that God consents to accompany Israel Exod 32-34).
“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name “YHWH’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (Exod 33,19).
“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod 34,6-7).
This is the moment of the new revelation of YHWH. He is a God who is merciful and who forgives. The text also explains that evil produces an evil future, but such evil future is short lived, for when people do good, the effects are eternal, because keeping steadfast love extends to thousand generations.The evil future limited to three to four generations is compared with the future of goodness extending to thousand generations.
Israel has a future because YHWH forgives; Israel has a future because YHWH is merciful. Humanity has a future because God’s mercy is manifested in Jesus who is born among us.(cf. “No Future without Forgiveness” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa). There is no future without forgiveness to the perpetrator or the victim. In the context of post-war Sri Lanka, where there are thousand perpetrators and thousand victims, will the Year of Mercy be a breakthrough?
Mary gave birth to her first-born son and laid him in a manger. This was accidental but providential. Accidentally and providentially there was no place in the inn. There is no sense of rejection whatsoever here. The inn is a wayfarers’temporary shelter.
The travellers had filled the inn, and as a result there was no privacy to deliver the child. The non-availability of the inn is mentioned en passant to justify the birth in the manger and should not be interpreted as rejection. Jesus is born in a stable, so that the lowest rung of the Palestinian society could come and feel at home. The shepherds who come to the manger are now at home with the Saviour, and the Saviour is at home with the shepherds.
Luke in his gospel will show that Jesus will be at home with the marginalized of the Palestinian society. So much so he will be accused of such affiliations and will have to justify his options stating that those who are well do not need a physician, but who are sick, and that he has not come to call the righteous but sinners (Lk 5,29-30).
Luke narrates the old story of the Child of the manger in congruence with his later life. This Child will dare to call God Abba, Father, and will teach the disciples to do the same. He will speak of a great vision of the kingdom of God, kingdom of his Father which will come one day, a kingdom of freedom, love and peace, God’s own kingdom, the perfection of his creation.
Wherever Jesus goes, women and men will rediscover their humanity, and so will be filled with new riches so that they could give one another new courage in their lives. He will speak to people about a lost coin, a sheep that had strayed, a lost son, he will speak of all those who are lost and no longer count, out of sight, out of mind, the weak and the poor, all those who are captive, unknown, unloved (E. Schillebeeckx, Christ, 1980: 848-849).
This child will go in search of all who are lost, saddened and out in the cold, and will take their side without forgetting the others. And that will cost him his life, because the mighty of the earth would not tolerate it. He will be understood and accepted by the Father who will confirm him in His love. So will he become one with the Father and live a life of liberation for others (E. Schillebeeckx, Christ, 1980: 849).
Jesus in the manger reminds us that God is on a journey with the oppressed of the earth. If this manger is God’s norm, then we are assured that our merciful God is on a journey with the small farmers, small fishermen, victims of war, plantation workers and urban poor, to name a few of God’s preferred in this land. He becomes our God when we dare to be merciful like Him (Merciful like the Father) and journey with Him with the shepherds of the earth, the oppressed of the earth.
(The text is a Biblical Reflection shared with a group of priests and religious, at St. Bridget’s Convent, Colombo, Sri Lanka on the 16th Dec. 2015).