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Bible Reflections View Comments

We Need Both Justice and Mercy
By Diane M. Houdek
Source: Bringing Home the Word
Published: Sunday, December 8, 2013
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One of the ongoing discussions about the papacy of Pope Francis is whether he is emphasizing God’s mercy to the exclusion of a sense of righteous judgment. The followers of John the Baptist would have understood this quandary. They suspected that Jesus, too, was a bit too cozy with sinners. Good Christians know a proper balance is required.

Jesus referred to John the Baptist as the greatest of the prophets. Like Ezekiel, Elijah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah before him, John was a voice in the wilderness, totally focused on his call and on God’s message.

Like the prophets of old, John called on the people to repent of their sins. He had a vision of what was to come, and he knew it would call for a complete change in people’s lives. He insisted the status quo was no longer enough for salvation.

In the Gospel, a group of Pharisees and Sadducees come to John the Baptist relying on their status as sons of Abraham. But John tells them the ax is at the root of trees that aren’t producing fruit. The Gospel gives us a vivid image of dead wood and chaff being burned while the fruit and grain are gathered into barns to nourish and sustain life.

John’s words today remind us that Advent is the beginning of a new liturgical year. It is a season of taking stock of our foundations, of examining the roots and structure of our spiritual lives. But it also calls us forward into the amazing new growth that emerges from the miracle of the Incarnation.

Roots provide valuable nourishment. They make life possible. But if they’re too constrained, they can inhibit the very growth they’re designed to nourish. As Catholics we have a strong tradition and often a cultural connection to our ancestors in the faith. This gives us a sense of identity and belonging.

But our faith identity can become tied to our ethnic, national, and cultural roots. If we rely too much on those tangled roots to define us, we can become insular and closed off from a world that waits to hear the Good News of Jesus. Our rootedness in one way of life or one set of attitudes can keep us from reaching out to those who are different, those we have avoided out of fear and hatred. To be fruitful, we must be open to this sort of newness.

Isaiah’s well-known vision of nature in harmony calls us to imagine sworn enemies sharing food and shelter, frolicking as companions. The prophet neither minimizes the distinctions nor emphasizes the nearly unreachable idealism of the vision. He reminds the people that the Messiah will not judge by appearance or hearsay but will bring justice to the poor and afflicted. This is the vision that was realized in the birth and ministry of Jesus, Son of God and Messiah. Following in his footsteps commits us to move beyond normal human boundaries and expectations.

Paul tells us Jesus fulfilled the covenant of the Jews and brought a vision of God’s mercy to the Gentiles. Paul’s gifts unite the dreams of these two groups into one vision of Christianity. He doesn’t destroy healthy differences; he doesn’t deny individual roots. He sees the possibility for communion.

Advent challenges us to rise above the increasing polarization that threatens our world, our country, our communities, even our families. The repentance demanded by John is a good place to start. He challenged his listeners to produce good fruit. We might look at our own lives this Advent to see what fruit we are bearing.


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Elizabeth of Portugal: Elizabeth is usually depicted in royal garb with a dove or an olive branch. At her birth in 1271, her father, Pedro III, future king of Aragon, was reconciled with his father, James, the reigning monarch. This proved to be a portent of things to come. Under the healthful influences surrounding her early years, she quickly learned self-discipline and acquired a taste for spirituality. Thus fortunately prepared, she was able to meet the challenge when, at the age of 12, she was given in marriage to Denis, king of Portugal. She was able to establish for herself a pattern of life conducive to growth in God’s love, not merely through her exercises of piety, including daily Mass, but also through her exercise of charity, by which she was able to befriend and help pilgrims, strangers, the sick, the poor—in a word, all those whose need came to her notice. At the same time she remained devoted to her husband, whose infidelity to her was a scandal to the kingdom. 
<p>He, too, was the object of many of her peace endeavors. She long sought peace for him with God, and was finally rewarded when he gave up his life of sin. She repeatedly sought and effected peace between the king and their rebellious son, Alfonso, who thought that he was passed over to favor the king’s illegitimate children. She acted as peacemaker in the struggle between Ferdinand, king of Aragon, and his cousin James, who claimed the crown. And finally from Coimbra, where she had retired as a Franciscan tertiary to the monastery of the Poor Clares after the death of her husband, she set out and was able to bring about a lasting peace between her son Alfonso, now king of Portugal, and his son-in-law, the king of Castile.</p> American Catholic Blog In the name of the Father, use my mind to bring you honor, and of the Son, fill my heart to spread your word, and of the Holy Spirit, strengthen me to carry you out to all the world. Amen.

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