By Jim Vitale
Upon the dry and desiccated road outside Jericho sits a blind man. His parched voice calls out from time to time for alms from passersby. He holds a small bowl in his lap, offering blessings to those who cast coins his way. Day after day it is always the same. Sightless and penniless, he scrounges together the shards of a life in the Jericho dust.
Then, one day, he hears a commotion. A small crowd gathers, speaking and shouting words he can’t quite hear. Sensing people passing him, he asks, “What is happening?” and someone replies, “Jesus of Nazareth is coming.” As the crowd gets closer, the blind man rises weakly to his feet and calls out with a strong voice, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
From the crowd someone shouts, “shut up, you beggar! Leave this great man alone!” But the blind man calls out even louder than before, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
The crowd goes silent. The blind man hears footsteps crunching toward him in the dirt. And a gentle voice says, “What do you want me to do?” And the blind man replies, “Let me see.”
About thirty years before the blind man calls for mercy, a teenage girl goes about her life. She works with her mother, tending to the chores around their home. Her father has arranged for her to be married to a man named Joseph and in less than a year’s time, they will be wed. Her life is not extravagant. It is ordinary. It is entirely unremarkable. She lives, like everyone she knows, in poverty. She has enough to get by, but only just. The empire that rules over them does not allow people such as her to gain status, wealth, or anything above third-rate comforts. Like everyone she knows, she yearns for a day when life might be better, when the empire will leave and they can all return to a life of modest and quiet prosperity, like in the old days. But such hope seems remote, maybe even impossible.
One evening, as the young girl readies herself for bed, suddenly before her flashes a brilliant light, and a form like a person stands before her. Squinting she looks up into its face. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” A voice says. The young girl doesn’t move. She doesn’t speak. She just looks, astonished and perplexed at this being before her.
“Don’t be afraid, Mary.” The voice says. “God favors you. And God is on the move. The messiah is coming, full of splendor and light and power.”
The girl feels her heart leap. The messiah? Could it be? The one who could topple the empire? The one who could lead the people back into a better life?
“He will come with majesty,” the voice continues, “But first he must come as a baby. And you, Mary, will be his mother.”
“But I am not married yet,” the girl replies.
“Nothing will be impossible with God,” the voice says.
The girl pauses for a moment, taking it all in. The messiah. The son of David. The savior of Israel….my son? “I am here. I serve the Lord. Let it be as you say,” she says.
And no sooner do those words leave her lips than the brilliant light is gone and the heavenly being with it.
The girl begins to hum a tune, like a song she had long forgotten but recently remembered. “Our God is full of mercy,” she whispers to herself.
This story about the young teenage girl comes from the first chapter of Luke. Unlike the gospels of Mark and John, Luke sees fit to tell us the full story of the messiah’s birth. Scholars largely agree that the first two chapters of Luke, commonly called Jesus’ birth narrative, serve as a sort of prologue, telling us exactly what to look for in the rest of the gospel. The word “mercy” shows up ten times in Luke’s gospel; five of those instances are in the first chapter alone. So this tells us that mercy will be a key theme throughout Luke’s gospel, throughout Jesus’ ministry.
In his book titled Mercy, Catholic theologian Walter Kasper makes the claim that at the center of God’s heart, lies mercy. No adjective better describes God than “merciful.” And mercy, he explains, can be defined as “having an unhappy heart on account of the misery of another.” Ancient Christians understood mercy as “having one’s heart with the unfortunate, with those who, in the widest sense of the word, are poor and in distress” (Kasper, Mercy, 23). Mary, too, understood that God was merciful as she broke into song. She sings,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation…
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy.” (Luke 1:46-54)
God’s mercy is for the lowly. God chooses not a queen, but an unremarkable teenager girl, a nobody, to mother the messiah. The messiah comes not to support the powerful, but to lift up the lowly, care for the forgotten, free the enslaved. As Kasper says, God looks upon humanity’s distress, and God’s heart becomes distressed.
In Isaiah 64:1-9 (which we explored three weeks ago before the first Sunday of Advent), the ancient Israelites cried out for God to come out of heaven and offer them comfort. And God promised to do so. Now, here before the fourth Sunday of Advent, we see that promise fulfilled in Jesus. God doesn’t just send an angel or a pillar of fire or a prophet to the earth to offer comfort. Mercifully, God comes in the person of Jesus.
The opening chapter of the gospel of Luke tells us to be on the lookout for mercy in the life of Jesus. And mercy becomes the hallmark of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus favors the lowly and the distressed, healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, and taking on the religious and political elite who have exploited and abused the common people. As the blind beggar (who we will hear about again next October) knew on the road to Jericho, Jesus is God’s mercy in the flesh. God will not stand unmoved by our cries of distress. God hears our cries, God knows our longings, and God acts, coming out of heaven to free us from our distress.
Mary, and all the Israelites, had hoped for a messiah who would come and overthrow Rome. They saw Rome as an oppressive force, and they longed for a righteous warrior-king to come and throw off the shackles of the empire. But their vision was limited. God knew that a new warrior-king would only swap one empire for another; God had a different plan in mind. God decided to come himself, not to end the empire of Rome, but to end something even greater, the very empires of sin and death themselves. God’s mercy extends all the way to the cross.
Throughout Advent we have been driving toward this one thing: the good news of God’s mercy found in Jesus Christ. Mercy is what Christmas is all about. Although we sit in the wilderness of our longings, our cries do not fall on deaf ears. As the blind beggar on the road to Jericho and the young Mary in her unremarkable life came to find out, our God hears us and, out of a deep mercy, responds, coming out of heaven to meet us in our wilderness, to offer us the comfort of Jubilee, and to free us from all that has held us enslaved.
In the coming Christmas season, this is what we celebrate, that God in God’s mercy came to meet us in our distress, not as a conquering king, or savage warrior, or sanctimonious priest, but as a vulnerable little baby, born not in a palace but in a barn, born not to the elite, but to the poor, presented not to emperors and priests and scholars, but to lowly and outcast shepherds. God’s ultimate act of mercy is Jesus Christ, who comes out of heaven to save us.
May your Christmas be merry, and full of mercy.