Lent is a time of repentance. It is a time of conversion, realizing our sin and returning to God. Conversion makes no sense and is not possible without confidence and faith in divine mercy.
The Latin word for mercy is “misericordia,” “miseriae” meaning misery and “cor” or “cordis” meaning heart. Mercy is where human misery meets the divine heart.
In the years following the French Revolution there was a man who walked with a limp. He had been a respected officer in Napoleon’s Army, but a wound ended his career.
He traveled through the country begging, which he hated to do. One evening he sat on the church steps despising people who believed in God yet accepting their almsgiving.
The following morning the priest found the beggar and invited him to come to his house for breakfast. The beggar stayed for days. He had never been loved so much, so selflessly. Yet, he had never felt so miserable.
Finally, the beggar asked for confession. One of his sins stood out from all the rest.
The beggar had been the most trusted servant of an aristocratic family. The head of that family had unsuccessfully rebelled against the revolution. His wife and six children entrusted their lives and fortunes to the servant. But for a pouch of gold coins, the servant betrayed his master’s wife and children and watched them go one-by-one to the guillotine. Fortunately, the youngest had somehow escaped.
With tears of shame, the beggar admitted his sin, and he finished his confession. The priest gave him absolution, raised him up and embraced him.
As the beggar’s eyes lifted, he saw a portrait on the rectory wall behind the priest. It was the portrait of the family he had betrayed to their deaths. Shocked, he pulled back from the priest. “Who are you?” he asked. “Where did you get that painting?”
The priest smiled. “I am the youngest son, my friend. And I forgive you.”
The beggar had an experience of great mercy, both human and divine.
Like the Prodigal Son we squander the inheritance of divine sonship and grace by sinning. The more we sin, the more we travel away from our loving Father. St. Augustine writes, “At the time of my adolescence I strayed far away from you, and I wandered, my God. I became myself a land of misery.”
But there is hope. Lent is a time of hope because, like the Prodigal Son, we realize that while we have sinned against heaven and against God, we can still turn back home. We have a merciful Father waiting to embrace us.
Our conversion begins when we realize our misery. We take responsibility for our ingratitude, unkindness, laziness, impurity, unfaithfulness, anger, etc. Our conversion finishes when we reach out for mercy and return to the house of the Father.
Through our Lenten practices we take the steps toward home. Through our repentance, especially in the Sacrament of Penance, we leave behind human misery and receive divine mercy.
Our lives touched by grace should compel us toward those in need of mercy and become apostles of mercy. Pope Francis speaks of the Church being a “field hospital” and encourages us to “go out to the peripheries.” The peripheries may be those in need of the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. The peripheries may be those who place God on the peripheries of their own lives and of society.
This Lent the transformation from guilty beggar to forgiven friend is possible for all of us. Why? Because his mercy endures forever.
By Monsignor Andrew Baker, a priest of the Diocese of Allentown, serving as rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Md.