Once upon a time, a lonely Jew toughing out life in a hard place penned these words:
Do not hold against us the sins of the fathers; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need. – Ps 79:8
It is a truth that is sometimes distorted and other times difficult to grasp and often ignored, but nevertheless is true: we are not the only “inputs” in our lives. As Americans we’d like to think we are. Our John Wayne bravado deludes us into thinking that if we just work hard enough, have enough ingenuity and resourcefulness, and maybe just a touch of faith, everything will turn up roses for us. Simplistic equations form the narrative pattern of our existence: my effort + a bit of confidence = success.
Biblical faith knows that way of thinking is a pile of manure. The Psalmist testifies to it. He looks around at his life, a life that was veritably in shambles, and in a moment of gut-wrenching honesty says, “God, you know this is not our fault. Our fathers sinned. They rebelled against you. They made horrible mistakes. And what’s worse, THEY weren’t the ones to suffer for them. We were. And are. Their foolishness has come down on OUR heads.”
These words of course were written in and out of the Jewish exile. Centuries of disobedience gone to seed… And now, the children’s children’s children are suffering. “Oh God,” the Psalm opens, “the nations have invaded your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple, they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble…” The city had been sacked, burned, and pillaged, and the citizens had been forced to make a several hundred mile journey on foot away from their homeland. This was bigger than one person’s failure. And it therefore would not turn around SIMPLY by one faithful Jew working hard enough and just believing.
This Jew, among others, knows this. And it’s that realization that drives him to make the stunning, beautiful, bold request…
“May your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need.”
“Mercy” is a word that testifies to the reality that there is a divine “Other” who is not limited by the cause-and-effect system of our world and is indeed fully willing and able to intrude to change things around. Among other things, “mercy” names the kindness that often impinges upon our existence, transcending and subverting our usual “that’s just how it goes” mentality. Moreover, it names God’s desire to say to us, who are often heirs to sets of circumstances we didn’t want, “This isn’t your fault. I can turn this around. Just wait and see.”
My friend Toby has been in and out of the hospital since June of 2009. A freak accident at work eventuated in a series of surgeries that culminated in doctors removing his tibia last week. More surgeries and procedures have since followed, to try to halt the bleeding and remove the infection. The intended goal is to avoid amputating his foot. His life has been something of a living hell since at least May, when a corrective procedure went awry and stuck him in a state of semi-permanent patient care. He’s basically been in-patient since then, waiting for things to change. For something – ANYTHING – to happen that will get his story “unstuck”. And meanwhile we are pleading a familiar prayer: “Lord, have mercy.”
Toby’s situation is not Toby’s fault. He is an heir to circumstances that were beyond his control. Decisions were made by doctors that directly impacted his life. They made mistakes. He reaps the consequences. Such is life.
That’s why “mercy” is such an important word. Mercy is God’s way of saying, “I get it. Not your fault. And even if and when and where it is your fault, I’m not going to condemn you to a future dictated by the constraints of the past. I’ll turn this around. Just watch.”
Whether you believe it or not, we live in a world that is capable of being impinged upon by Divine Kindness. By Mercy. That is what enables us to hope and love and believe and lean towards a brighter future… that fundamental conviction that cause-and-effect, the Lonely and Cruel Tyrant Fate, is not the Master of the Universe. Rather, the Master of the Universe is the Lord of Mercy… who “breaks through gates of brass and shatters bars of iron”, liberating us from the damnation that is cause-and-effect thinking.
Jesus is God’s most definitive statement of Mercy. We might even say he IS God’s mercy en-fleshed. He is the purest and best “infringement” upon our world by God that we will ever see… he who came to liberate the captives and set prisoners free. He is the intrusion of a better world. The New Heavens and the New Earth. The Kingdom Incarnate. And he has come. That is why at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Mary can declare in what are possibly the most beautiful and powerful words ever written, the “Magnificat”:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
How can she say this? What has happened? Have any of these things ACTUALLY taken place? Well, yes and no. No in the sense that they haven’t been actualized in history. But a resounding YES in the sense that her Immaculate Conception of the Christ-child means that all of those things have now been put in motion. Israel’s deliverance is underway. Mercy has and will DECISIVELY TRIUMPH over the judgment the Daughter of Zion had long been mourning over.
One of my favorite Christmas songs captures it best:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel
O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel
O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel, shall come to thee O Israel
That is mercy. HE is mercy. Impinging upon our taken-for-granted world, opening wide a better one, and closing off forever the path to misery and death.