In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus challenges us to go “and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (9:13). Here Jesus quotes from Hosea Chapter 6, which begins with a call to return to the Lord who will heal us and bind our wounds. I believe this is what Christ desires for us during Lent: that we turn to him in our brokenness and our shortcomings, knowing that he seeks not to punish us, but to heal us.
Lent prepares us spiritually and liturgically for the suffering, crucifixion, and death of Jesus. During these critical events, our Lord reveals his mercy for us, and calls us to imitate him in showing mercy.
This passage from Hosea is often quoted during Lent to suggest that God does not desire us to fast or perform sacrifices, but to grow in mercy instead. But mercy and sacrifice are not opposed, and this notion requires clarification.
Mercy is not antithetical to sacrifice, nor even wholly removed from it. Mercy, in fact, is a higher form of sacrifice. We show mercy not because of a wrong we have done, but in response to someone else wronging us.
This is shown most clearly by God’s own mercy revealed in Christ. Jesus’ sacrifice of his own life on the Cross to save all people is an act of mercy. The Father revealed the depths of his love for the world through the gift—and the sacrifice—of his only Son (John 3:16). The death of Jesus is, therefore, a demonstration of both Trinitarian sacrifice and mercy.
By reflecting on God’s own mercy, revealed in Jesus’ superior sacrifice, we can discern how God is calling us to show mercy this Lent.
In his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius of Loyola offers a meditation on the Three Classes of Persons (149-157). Tim Muldoon provides a contemporary interpretation of this meditation, classifying the three types as the postponer, the compromiser, and the free person.
The postponer may have a vague interest in a life committed to loving service in imitation of Christ but feels that there are many more pressing needs to attend to. The compromiser, while making moves toward such a life, proffers various conditions to God: “I’ll follow you as long as I get to…” Such a person does not fully trust that God knows what is best.
The truly free person does highly unusual things. Maybe the person lets go of the privileges of his early life and goes to live with people who have next to nothing. Whatever the call, God will lead the person to exciting new horizons of love, of service, of creative works of justice. Breaking bread with tax collectors; washing feet; mingling with those on the margins—these are the actions of a person who is not nervously glancing sideways at others for approval.
The first two types of people, the postponer and the compromiser, do not allow God to guide them. Instead, relying primarily on themselves, they ultimately fail in their attempts to imitate Christ. In contrast, the person who is truly free trusts in God and seeks to know what God is asking through prayer. God leads this truly free person to a particular good work or sacrifice.
During this Lent, let us be truly free people who follow Jesus, not our own desires, open to whatever sacrifice of mercy he asks of us.
How do we do this?
In prayer we can ask Christ: “How can I best grow closer to You during Lent? To whom or through what means are You seeking that I grow in mercy?” We can trust that he will answer, and believe that no matter what he asks, the Spirit will always empower us with the grace to respond.
I have learned that the mercy God asks us to show to others may be simple, but it always requires personal sacrifice.
Prior to having a family of my own, I often postponed calling my parents or returning their phone calls. While I loved my parents, I found these calls to be boring, awkward and a nuisance. However, during one Lent, I understood Jesus was asking me to change my attitude towards my parents and to show more loving care towards them. I was being asked to reach out and call them more frequently. In doing so, I would be imitating Christ in the respect and love he showed to the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph.
While in the beginning I found these phone calls to be truly penitential, over time I experienced how our Lord was loving my parents through me. I, in turn, experienced Jesus’ love for me by performing this small act of mercy. I like to think that by loving this way, even through my small sacrifice, that my heart became more like Jesus’ Sacred Heart, which unconditionally pours out love.
During this Lent, I again feel called by Christ to show a particular form of mercy to a different family member, as a father to my own son.
My soon-to-be three-year-old became an older brother in December. As is typical, the adjustment in our family has not been smooth. He is experiencing both our attention being diverted towards his baby brother, and our agitated responses due to the stress and sleep deprivation a newborn can bring. This has resulted in more frequent misbehavior.
While these actions merit punishment, Christ is making known to me that rather than punish my child for each and every infraction, mercy is what he desires from me. Recognizing that my son is communicating to me that he doesn’t feel loved, included and accepted, administering punishment risks only reinforcing his negative feelings. When my son misbehaves, it ought to signal to me that he needs a hug, not a lecture; patient words, not verbal reprimands. My sacrificial act of mercy when I am feeling out of patience is to hold him to assure him of my continued love.
I am reminded that the Father also does not seek to punish, but, like a loving parent, wants to heal and to hold me. Just like my son, I need to know that my imperfections are not the final word, and that God’s sacrificial mercy knows no limits. By imitating Jesus and His mercy, I too can better receive and recognize the mercy that Jesus offers to me.
I will likely falter in many attempts to respond to my toddler with mercy, but even then, Christ does not condemn me but only asks that I also be gentle and forgiving to myself. So nourished with mercy, I can again approach my son and model Christ’s unfailing and merciful gentleness.
This Lent, let us ask Christ for the gift of imitating His gentle mercy towards others and ourselves. May we seek from God to do the one thing God is asking of us: to show mercy to a particular person, even when it requires sacrifice. When we allow God to lead our sacrifice, it brings us towards acts of mercy that bring us closer to Christ.