Fourth Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:1-4A; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45
Who doesn’t like a hug? Whether it’s bear-hugging a family member you haven’t seen for a long time or a good friend embracing you in a time of grief, or something more casual, embracing another communicates acceptance, joy, tenderness, and welcome. A hug is a good symbol of mercy.
Contrast this with someone physically turning away from you. Imagine someone seeing you and immediately turning their back on you. It hurts when someone does that. Turning your back on someone communicates coldness, judgment, and evokes a rigid and bitter response from us. Turning your back on someone is a good symbol of punishment and condemnation.
Reading today’s Gospel story, I picture Mary and Elizabeth embracing with a great deal of tenderness. Their meeting displays an ordinary holiness, a holiness that does not require grand feats of heroism but simple faith and humble love. A pregnant woman visits her pregnant cousin. It is an act of humble love that Mary goes to Elizabeth’s house and it is another act of humble love that Elizabeth welcomes her and offers her hospitality.
Mary and Elizabeth show us what religion is all about: connection. The word religion comes from a Latin word “re-ligio,” which means to reconnect. Religion, at least good religion, specializes in reconnecting us to the Sacred, the Ultimate, the Mystery of God. Through this connection with the Sacred we connect with the world around us: people, animals, nature, and experience.
Yet, religion can be a very dangerous thing, especially in the hands of an egocentric or obsessive person. Frankly, bad religion is dangerous. We have seen the results of this kind of religion with recent shootings, in San Bernardino, Paris, Charleston, Colorado, and a host of other cities.
Richard Rohr makes a great distinction that I believe can help us here. He distinguishes between a religion of sacrifice and a religion of mercy. In general, sacrifice is good, for it involves putting others ahead of oneself. The term “religion of sacrifice” has to do with self-centered religion. Put simply, a religion of sacrifice is dangerous and oppressive while a religion of mercy is liberating and transforming.
A religion of sacrifice puts all the emphasis on heroic feats of virtue, striving for perfection, and willfulness. The sole concerns are moralism, ritualism, and belief systems. It wants to cleanse itself anything that contaminates the purity and unsullied nature of its religious sensibility.
It is a religion of trying to earn God’s love by proving how virtuous its members are, and, therefore, how much better they are than others. Even worse, if one cannot live up to the high standards of this type of religion, one is ashamed. Thus, it is usually holier-than-thou and judgmental, emphasizing how other people are always the problem. They never think they are part of the problem. Instead, heretics, non-believers, and sinners are the problem.
What is humbling is that we all do this to some degree. We think other people, situations, even life itself are the problem. So, we accuse everything and everyone. We think evil is over there, in the other. We do not recognize that we are the problem. We do not see that evil is within us. Because we are blind to our own complicity in evil, we believe that the only response to evil is to destroy it.
A religion of sacrifice ends up reinforcing the self, emboldening the ego. This type of religion focuses exclusively on what I can do, what I believe, and whether or not I am doing it right. In the end, it is up to me to achieve God. It screams “look what I can do!” When Christianity becomes a religion of sacrifice it admires and praises Jesus for what he did, but refuses to walk in his shoes. We fall into this type of religion when we use worship, morality, or belief as a substitute for following Jesus. We do what we think is best as opposed to surrendering to God.
Rohr contrasts a religion of sacrifice with a religion of mercy. Mercy takes surrender of ego, concern for other. Sacrifice emboldens ego and disregards the other. A religion of mercy does not fear God, but trusts God. The God of the Gospels is not a punitive God of fear and judgment, but one of love, one who mercifully embraces us from within our very selves. This God does not require our moral behavior to love us. Father Richard Rohr has a great line in this regard. He says, “God does not love you because you’re good, God loves you because God is good.”
Our reading from Hebrews says, “‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire’…’behold, I come to do your will, O God.'” God is not into sacrifices and sin offerings. Religion ought not be about sin management, but rather about letting go of what we want so as to do what God wants. Our God simply wants us to admit our need for the Divine Presence, not accuse others but first humbly question our own understanding and behavior, and trust in this merciful Presence here and now. God desires our surrender, which means accepting God as God in this very moment and then acting with mercy.
Look at what Mary does in our Gospel story. She visits Elizabeth. Who can’t relate? I visit relatives almost every week! But, Mary does so out of surrender and faith in God’s love for her. We know this because Elizabeth greets Mary by saying, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Mary surrendered to God when she consented to being Jesus’ mother. A religion of mercy consists of simple faith in and humble love for our merciful God.
This holiday season, there is no need to have extravagant gestures of love or huge gifts. Just practice small, humble acts of love like Mary visiting Elizabeth. Simply be present to each other while remaining present to God. Simple stuff. Mary just surrendered to God in the needs of the moment. That is the path of a religion of mercy. Surrender to God now. Respond to needs of moment instead of creating your own ego project to save the world.
The essence of religion is not ritual, belief system, and good behavior. It’s essence lies in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Surrender to this God is top priority, which finds expression in ritual and beliefs, and takes concrete form in a different way of living. It’s not about egocentric holiness projects but letting God be God in the moment. It is letting the now be what it is, which is often imperfect and contrary to our expectations even while God is still available in the same flawed moment.
Here’s the practical pay-off: don’t worry so much about sin, but trust in God’s mercy. Let God embrace you in your weakness. Whenever you discover a new weakness, or realize how selfish you have been, surrender. Let every experience be an opportunity to surrender to God’s mercy, which embraces us from within this very moment. In St. Therese’s words: “perfection seems simple to me, I see it is sufficient to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon oneself as a child into God’s arms.”(GC II 1093–94)