Advent of Mercy

Growing up in the United States, I always knew Advent would begin before we had properly digested out Thanksgiving dinner. Thursday morning we would be at mass singing ‘Now Thank We All Our God,’ with harvest-themed decorations all around, then go home to cook and eat our Turkey feast; and Sunday we would return (as our turkey stock simmered at home) to sing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel,’ and to light the first purple candle. Liturgically, in three short days we had gone from feasting with full hearts (and fuller bellies) on all we had been given to feeling acute hunger for what we lacked.

Of course, Thanksgiving is a national holiday, not a part of the Church’s universal calendar, but it does fit nicely with the triumphant tone of the liturgical year end: Christ the King meets every need of the world, and a well-ordered creation can only answer with gratitude and praise. Too, it is always celebrated, since Abraham Lincoln so decreed it a national feast, on the fourth Thursday of November, and Thursday is of course the day we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, a word which itself means “thanksgiving.” So, while Americans commemorate the Pilgrim settler’s celebration of their first harvest in the New World, and the mercy of the Native tribes by whose help their labours bore fruit, they do well to remember also the true Bread from Heaven, the true food and true drink in which Christ’s mercy is manifest.

This year, owing to the constraints of time and space, I did not celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday as did my stateside relations. We had no feast until Sunday, on which day we also entered the season of Advent. As I was cooking a fifteen pound turkey to feed a family of five (which is not gluttony if you intend it to feed everyone for a full week…), I was telling my children the story of the Pilgrim settlers, and of Squanto and Samoset, the tribesmen who helped them to survive in the strange wilderness. The lessons we are meant to learn from this story (as I remember from my youth) are to be generous with those in need, like Squanto and Samoset, and to be thankful for all we are given, like the Pilgrims. We could just say that the lessons of Thanksgiving are about mercy.

Mercy is a great and powerful thing. It has been mangled in meaning to the point that many think it means giving licence to do whatever, that it gives a vindication of sin, or even the abolishment of sinfulness. But, if this were the case, how could mercy be of God? It is not about entitlement, either, for if we are entitled to something, then those who give it to us act with justice, not mercy. It is most true to say that mercy responds to needs which not even justice can fill, indeed, that justice may recoil from. As striking illustration of this consider that all of humanity stands in unambiguous need of a saviour, but that this does not mean we are entitled to Christ. The Incarnation is a profound act of mercy, meeting a need that has no remedy in justice. In another way, we can say that the Pilgrims, who made the decision to cross the ocean into the unknown, who plopped themselves on a coastline to which they had no specific claim, had no particular entitlement to local guides to help them find their footing, yet they got them nonetheless, and felt gratitude, which they expressed in a way that, however ostentatious, could never repay what they had been given.

On the 8th December, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Jubilee of Mercy called by Pope Francis will begin. I am planning to make mercy the focus of my advent contemplation and preparation, and I invite you to join me. (This invitation is issued irrespective of your personal opinion of the Holy Father. Be you the most strident of his critics, you cannot cast aside mercy simply because he mentions it.) I shall take as my model the seven corporal acts of mercy, which care for the fleshy side of our being, and the seven spiritual acts of mercy, which care for the soul:

Corporal Acts of Mercy
Feed the hungry
Give drink to the thirsty
Clothe the naked
Shelter the homeless
Visit the sick
Visit the imprisoned
Bury the dead

Spiritual Acts of Mercy
Instruct the ignorant
Counsel the doubtful
Admonish the sinner
Bear wrongs patiently
Forgive willingly those who sin against you
Comfort the afflicted
Pray for the living and the dead

Each morning I shall pray for the wisdom to know how to be merciful, and the courage and fortitude to show mercy where it is most needed. I shall speak to my children about these fourteen works of mercy. When I fast I shall contemplate the mercy I have received in having enough to give up, that I give out of plenty, not out of want.

I do not believe that in these short few weeks of Advent I will become a saint, but in this season of contemplation it would be foolish not to try. I shall seek at all times to remember the tiny babe of Bethlehem, for the person of Christ more than any other teaches us about mercy: He alone can be truly merciful, for he alone can fulfil our deepest need, but to do this he took on flesh. He was born a tiny infant. As an infant he holds the promise and power of mercy as surely as he does as a conquering king, but in the guise of overwhelming need. Taking forward into this new liturgical year the lesson of Thanksgiving — gratitude for what we have been given — we are confronted our own underlying neediness. We have what we have out of mercy. Likewise, what is in our power to give should be given out of mercy, as surely as if we gave to the Christ child himself. One of the deep mysteries of the Incarnation is why, when he could win any battle of might against sin and death, Christ chose needy vulnerable flesh as his weapon to win us salvation. Perhaps it was to remove the shame from neediness and want. How can we despise the needy when they appear to us in the guise of the Christ Child?

Advent is a peculiar mix joyful anticipation and meditation on need and want, weakness and vulnerability. I am reminded of a selection from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, which I encourage you to listen to (for which purposes google and youtube will be adequate), called “This Little Babe.” Meditate upon these words as we prepare to welcome Our Lord this Christmas.

This little babe so few days old,
is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this week unarmed wise
the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
his naked breast stads for a shield.
His battering shot are babish cries,
his arrows looks of weeping eyes.
His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
and feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitched in a stall,
his bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes,
of shepherds he his muster makes.
And thus as sure his foe to wound,
the angels’ trumps alarum sound

My soul with Christ
join thou in fight;
stick to the tents
that he hath pight.
Within his crib
is surest ward;
this little Babe
will by thy guard.

If thou wilt foil thy
foes with joy, then
flit not from this
heavenly boy!

In the Name of These Refugees

“Take the child and his mother and flee.”  –Matthew 2:13

When Mrs S was a child, her mother did a great deal of volunteer work teaching English to Russian and Ethiopian refugees. These people were forced to leave their homelands for fear of political or religious persecution, or were displaced due to war and famine. Some of them escaped with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, and when they arrived in the United States were initially wholly dependant ont he compassion of strangers for survival. Theirs was not a planned and careful emigration, prepared for with language lessons, realestate purchase and job interviews. They left in fear, furtive and hurried, and carried with them worries for loved ones left behind heavier than any worldly goods abandoned in flight. Mrs S didn’t know what all their stories were, but she does remember how difficult it all appeared to be: arriving in a country where you couldn’t speak the language, and few spoke yours, where you had no money, no status, and many people thought you were an intruder. And yet they seemed so glad to have these hardships over the ones they had left behind, that one knew immediately what they had run away from must have been very bad indeed.

To this clear and persuasive example of charity and mercy, Mrs S’s mother added this formative image. Though the poster was tucked away in a corner of the home library, it made an impact on Mrs S such that she cannot hear of a new tragedy afflicting refugees without it springing instantly to mind:

Be not deceived that this image of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child fleeing to Egypt to escape the murderous jealousy of Herod speaks only to Christians. Admittedly, it speaks most clearly and accessibly to Christians in the manner of a short sharp clip upside the head: “Your Lord and Saviour was himself a refugee. When you fail them you fail Him.” But behind the religious maxim is a principle that ought rightly to be at the heart of western democratic Liberalism: the universality of humanity. Hardship and suffering do not strip away the essential human dignity of any person. 

The BBC is stubbornly sticking to the allegedly neutral term “migrants” to describe those fleeing from Syria and elsewhere in that part of the world. (They explain why here.) How ridiculous: as though these desperate, displaced and war-ravaged people are casually strolling into non-native lands by preference. When thousands upon thousands of people flee with nothing but what they can carry and show up at a foreign border, en masse, they are not just merely migrants. When they are willing to risk not only their bold young men, but their elderly, their women, their children, and their babes in arms, to leave their homes, to climb onto a boat that is little more than a raft, you can be sure that it is only because this fearful journey is less terrifying than what they are leaving behind. When people are fleeing an evil greater than all the perils of escape, they are not ‘migrants.’ They are refugees.

There are times when Mrs S feels called to polemic, and this is one of them. The so-called ‘migrant crisis’ is suddenly getting a lot of press, probably because Syrians are not just suffering at home: they are drowning in the Mediterranean, right on the doorstep of the Western first world. (Though more drowned in April than in August, so the timing is still odd.) They are dying in the trucks whose drivers were bribed to smuggle them across Europe. They are living in tents on the streets of Greece — Greece! where we were all directing our pity so few months ago. And all of this to avoid being slaughtered in their homeland. But the situation in Syria and the broader Middle East  and north Africa is neither new, nor unforseen. And for every poor soul who escapes, many more suffer violence, persecution, acute deprivation, and death in their native land. For any rich Western government to be caught unprepared, when there has been ample time to take action to avert this humanitarian crisis, or, failing that, prepare to do what is necessary cope with it, is indefensible. For those fleeing from terror and atrocity to arrive and find their place of refuge unready is inexcusable. For them to arrive and find the borders closed is criminal. It is certainly hard to know how to house and care for large refugee population, both in the short and the long term, but unfortunately they do not have the luxery of time to wait for us to figure it out. However reluctant, unprepared or unequal we feel when faced with this necessary act of mercy, now is not the time for political posturing and hand-wringing. Whatever economic or practical concerns arise, they are trivial in comparison to the plight of displaced peoples. It is not a question of resources, for Europe has the money, but of willing. We just have to take them in. There is no moral way around it.

Mrs S has written and rewritten an uncharitable rant about westerners who are not willing to share from out of their vast resources, who place finances and convenience before the moral demands of humanity. But the fact is a large number of Westerners are concerned — more than concerned — about the plight of refugees. There are prolific efforts to raise awareness and form the consciences of those who still lack passion for the welfare of their afflicted brethern. Some of these come in the form of highly sensational, and hugely distressing, images of brutalised, maimed and even drowned children. Mrs S spent rather a long time trying to figure out why she was upset by this tactic. She thinks of herself as a realist, meaning that she does not imagine that facts wait upon her pleasure or approval. Photographs of this kind are deeply upsetting, but they are a vivid depiction of the nature of the evil that is stalking so many of the most vulnerable. But do images like this form a conscience to fight evil and eagerly safeguard its victims? Mrs S is concerned that the more natural response is to recoil, first from the image and then from the atrocity itself, to turn away and refuse to see what cannot be born. Those sharing the image want to ignite the moral fervour of those who disparage the “migrants” and wonder why those troublesome people don’t just stay where they are. The pictures offer a forceful proof of harm. The message of the picture is “Without our compassion more children will die like this.” But someone seeing such a picture, perhaps caught unawares (Mrs S certainly was, several times, on Facebook), may instead be brought to despair that this child had not been saved. Conscience, instead of being nurtured, is paralysed, seeking refuge in willful ignorance or desensitisation. Better, if possible, to form conscience through diligent example, tireless witness, and, bluntly, making a nuisance of oneself to show that the truth and the urgency of this crisis are more than passing media fads. 

So, what witness should this be? Well, if you are reading this you clearly have internet access, and a very little time with a select few search terms will uncover reputable organisations dedicated to helping refugees and the afflicted. For many, donating to these causes is the most effective way to help, so long as it is not viewed as buying insurance against future obligations. But Mrs S thinks the simplest and best council is to be guided by the works of mercy ennumberated by the Church (and, Catholic or not, it is hard to argue with this list). There are seven corporal works of mercy, which care for the body: 

feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, tend the sick, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead

and seven spiritual works of mercy, which care for the soul: 

admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, council the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, pray for the living and the dead. 

For those who want a simple rubric for virtue, there is no truer guide. In everyday life, do these things. When you encounter great need, do these things. Wheresoever you go, do these things. In the name of these refugees, do these things.