A Year of Mercy

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The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me with the commission to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to send off the oppressed with liberty, to proclaim an acceptable year of the Lord.

Luke 4: 18-19

The word that Luke’s gospel uses for what we translate “release” to captives and “to send off” the oppressed with liberty is aphesis. It is the same word used by Zechariah as he proclaims that his son, John, will announce the coming of the people’s salvation by forgiveness of their sins, and later when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that God, “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who owes us.” It is the word used in Deuteronomy for the release from debt and slavery every seventh year in Israel. (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, p. 79)

The good news that Jesus proclaims is that of release, freedom, forgiveness, and mercy. In Leviticus 25 a year of Jubilee that is to occur every 50 years is described. It is ideally a year in which all debts are to be released and all are to live, as in the beginning, from the gifts that God gives for all rather than from the results of one’s own dominance and productivity. “This fiftieth year is to be a jubilee year for you: you will not sow, you will not harvest the ungathered corn, you will not gather from the untrimmed vine. This jubilee year is to be a holy thing to you, you will eat what comes from the fields.” (Lev. 25: 11-12)

This year Pope Francis has proclaimed as well a Jubilee Year of Mercy. Mercy, however, does not come naturally to us. Anyone who has tried to take a desired object from the hand of an infant well knows that our innate tendency is to grasp and to hold on to. This applies at every level of our being: the physical, the emotional, the psychological, and the spiritual. We want to protect and to keep “what is ours.” This was the purpose of the injunction every 7 and 50 years to live differently, to remember that everything comes from and belongs to God alone. By law the people were called to change their way of living from a way of holding and possessing to a way of releasing and forgiving.

Mercy is hard for us to practice because the truth of grace does not come easily to us. Recently a good friend made a tremendous sacrifice of time, presence, and care in my regard. As I received that care and realized how significant the cost had been to him, I had a new realization of the meaning of grace. Why should another make their own life so much more difficult for my sake? Why should I be worthy of such care from another? The answer of course lies not in my worth but rather in the love of the other. From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus teaches the truth that will manifest on the cross. “There is no greater love than that one lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The very nature of God, and so the very truth of things, is what Meister Eckhart called “gelassenheit” or “releasement.” It is the way of mercy. When we give to the poor, release captives, offer sight to the blind, and send off the oppressed (and we are all poor, blind, captive, and oppressed), then we know that “Today, this scripture which you have heard is being brought to fulfillment.”

The mystical tradition tells us that we block the birth of God in our souls to whatever degree we hold on to our own way, to whatever degree we refuse to release the willfulness, the resentments, the greed, the fears that keep us prisoners of our own self-centeredness. We get stuck trying to make ourselves worthy of being loved when that love is being offered all the time as “sheer grace.” We shall come to know this grace, the mercy of the Jubilee Year, to the degree that we release our demands to gather, grasp, and possess and practice mercy and forgiveness. Every act of “letting go” of “releasing” is a moment where the grace that surrounds and pervades us may enter into our souls just a bit more deeply. “I stand at the door and knock,” says the Lord. Our work is to open that door, for in making space for the other who knocks at our door, we discover that other to be one for whom we have longed, who is the ultimate desire of our hearts.

When the soul has left all willing behind, it thereby opens itself to God’s influence. Having relinquished creatures, it lets God be God:

Where the creature ends, there God begins to be. Now God desires nothing more of you than that you go out of yourself according to your creaturely mode of being and let God be God in you.

The soul with Gelassenheit has become, to use one of Eckhart’s simple but illustrative comparisons, like a good vessel; it is closed on the bottom—to creatures—and open on the top—to God. It has become an empty receptacle, i.e., a receiving place, for the birth of the Son.

Now since the soul is completely emptied of creatures and of all affection for creatures, and since it lets God be God, it is clear that for Eckhart the “released” (gelassen) heart receives God just as He is, free of any distortion. The soul in Gelassenheit is “nothing”; it has completely emptied itself of its “creaturely mode of being.” Thus it is a pure medium in which God can be as He is, in His “unconcealed” being. The soul which has achieved the heights of Gelassenhiet receives God.

John D. Caputo, The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought, p. 121

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