Tuesday, December 8th, marked the beginning of the Catholic Church’s Extraodinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. This isn’t a cyclical, recurring holiday. Rather, it’s a decree and demarcation for a period of time called by Pope Francis to focus prayers, church social teaching, awareness, and evangelization on the topic. A Jubilee year is also a special year designated by the Catholic church for its members to receive blessing and pardon from God and remission of sins.
Pope Francis, in his homily announcing the year of Jubilee last March, uses the example from the scripture reading of that day to illustrate that sometimes a single virtue is not enough to be complete; sometimes a situation must be observed through the lens of multiple virtues, multiple facets and reflections of mercifulness. As Francis points out in the story of Luke 7:36-50, Simon—who is hosting Jesus at his house—has merely served justice (performed a duty) through this action; the woman who washes Jesus’s feet with her hair, however, serves justice (performs her duty) through the lens of utter love, and therefore wins a greater grace…
“The Gospel we have heard (cf. Lk 7:36-50) opens to us a path of hope and comfort. It is good to feel Jesus’ compassionate gaze upon us, just as it was felt by the sinful woman in the house of the Pharisee. In this passage two words persistently return: love and judgment.
“There is the love of the sinful woman who humbles herself before the Lord; but before that is the merciful love of Jesus for her, which drives her to approach him. Her tears of repentance and joy wash the feet of the Master, and her hair dries them with gratitude; the kisses are an expression of her pure love; and the perfumed ointment poured in abundance attests to how precious He is in her eyes. This woman’s every gesture speaks of love and expresses her desire to have unwavering certitude in her life: that of having been forgiven. And this certitude is beautiful! And Jesus gives her this certitude: in accepting her He demonstrates the love God has for her, just for her, a public sinner! Love and forgiveness are simultaneous: God forgives her many sins, He forgives her for all of them, for “she loved much” (Lk 7:47); and she adores Jesus because she feels that in Him there is mercy and not condemnation. She feels that Jesus understands her with love, she who is a sinner. Thanks to Jesus, God lifts her many sins off her shoulders, He no longer remembers them (cf. Is 43:25). For this is also true: when God forgives, He forgets. God’s forgiveness is great! For her now a new era begins; through love she is reborn into a new life.
“This woman has truly encountered the Lord. In silence, she opened her heart; in sorrow, she showed repentance for her sins; by her tears, she appealed to divine goodness to receive forgiveness. For her there will be no judgment but that which comes from God, and this is the judgment of mercy. The hero of this encounter is certainly love, a mercy which goes beyond justice.
“Simon, the master of the house, the Pharisee, on the contrary, doesn’t manage to find the road of love. Everything is calculated, everything is thought out…. He stands firm on the threshold of formality. It is an unpleasant thing, formal love, he doesn’t understand. He is not capable of taking that next step forward to meet Jesus who will bring him salvation. Simon limits himself to inviting Jesus to lunch, but did not truly welcome him. In his thoughts Simon invokes only justice and in doing so he errs. His judgment of the woman distances him from the truth and prevents him from even understanding who his guest is. He stopped at the surface—at formality—incapable of seeing the heart. Before the parable of Jesus and the question of which servant would love more, the pharisee responds correctly: “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more”. Jesus doesn’t fail to observe: “You have judged rightly” (Lk 7:43). When Simon’s judgment is turned to love, then is he in the right.
“Jesus’ reminder urges each of us never to stop at the surface of things, especially when we have a person before us. We are called to look beyond, to focus on the heart in order to see how much generosity everyone is capable of. No one can be excluded from the mercy of God; everyone knows the way to access it and the Church is the house where everyone is welcomed and no one is rejected.”
In addition to being the start of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Tuesday, December 8, 2015, was also the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary—a holy day of obligation for Catholics. In that day’s scripture readings, we heard part of the story of man’s downfall from the Book of Genesis:
“After the man, Adam, had eaten of the tree, the Lord God called to the man and asked him, ‘Where are you?’ He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.’ Then he asked, ‘Who told you that you were naked? You have eaten, then, from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat!’ The man replied, ‘The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.’ The Lord God then asked the woman, ‘Why did you do such a thing?’ The woman answered, ‘The serpent tricked me into doing it, so I ate it.’”
Notice that everyone sees the need to pass the buck onto the next person, because—obviously—each of them couldn’t possibly be to blame for the offense. Adam blames the woman. The woman, in turn, blames the serpent. Meanwhile, no one is really blameless. Justice wasn’t served by anyone—no one performed their just duty—because every member of the story failed to follow the recommendation of God not to eat the fruit. Whether it was truly anyone’s fault, or whether they were duped into failing, is up for debate.
Sometimes the world seems like it’s out to get us. Sometimes it seems like everyone trying to dupe us and take advantage of us. Sometimes it just feels like we are being ravaged and pillaged by the world when we ourselves are just trying our best to do our duty and get by and eke out something that vaguely looks like the American dream of pursuing happiness. All the while, we are bombarded with roadblocks. Everyone else is ready to apathetically shit on us in their hard scramble to pursue their own ideas of happiness. It doesn’t seem fair.
It becomes really easy to blame everyone else’s apathy. It’s easy to say that everyone else’s gluttony is the reason that the store was sold-out of that product you needed to finish a project. It’s easy to blame the economy, or age, or the outrageous cost of education for not getting that job that you wanted so badly. It’s easy to blame greedy corporations who send jobs overseas to avoid labor laws and tax burdens, so that now the products you’re trying to use fall apart or have no integrity or don’t last or are ruining the environment because of the cheap materials with which they are made. There are a million things to blame for our hardships and difficulties we are forced to endure every day, even every hour.
…And sometimes all those things are absolutely true. Sometimes we can base our accusations on blatant facts, realities, and causations that seem to be completely out of our hands and that affect us because of someone else’s apathy or greed or self-serving priorities. Those are completely valid complaints.
But sometimes we are just as guilty, and fail to see our own role in the hardships and difficulties that we contribute towards the situation with our own actions…
If that product you “needed” so desperately had still been on the shelf at the store and you were able to buy it, you would have then been counted among those same people who greedily hoarded the chain of supply, depriving someone else of the same product. If you had somehow managed to get that job that you wanted, even though you were technically less qualified, it means that someone else—more qualified—would’ve been in the same rejected predicament, perhaps with a mounting debt for the tuition they paid to be trained better than you. If you keep buying the crappy, overseas-manufactured products that break after a few months of use, and then just continue to replace them whenever they break, aren’t you contributing to the problem of supporting foreign trade and the cheap labor and the transportation costs and the environmental degradation that using those products entails?
There’s a flip side to every coin. But somehow we choose which side to complain about first, and usually it’s not the side that reflects our image back at us more degradingly. We usually take every chance to put the blame somewhere else first.
In tarot, the Seven of Swords card can have several interpretive meanings: “deceit,” “deception,” “subversion,” “sneaky actions,” “traitorous actions,” “stealth,” “sleuth,” “getting away with something.” When we are feeling abused, it’s often easy to see this card as the underhanded, self-serving, corruption in the world that is foiling us, that is acting against our best interests. And again, maybe it is.
But keeping in mind the adage about holding a double-edged sword, are you able to look at the same card in another way, or from another perspective? Let’s turn the card upside down—in other words, let’s look at its “reversed” perspective. In this position, the points of the swords are not aimed at us, and the two swords in the corner aren’t jabbed into our thumb. Instead, in the reversed position, we more easily take on the perspective of the red-capped character holding the swords. Maybe we’re the ones holding the swords, pointing at everyone else in the world for the conniving, manipulative, subversions which we feel we are forced to endure.
Here is a classic example of the power of reversals in the tarot. A reversal doesn’t have to mean the “opposite” of what the upright meaning is. In fact, it usually doesn’t. More often a reversed card indicates a variation on the card’s upright-position theme or message. In most cases when I’m doing a tarot reading, I tend to read reversals as having to do with inner issues—when the card is reversed, I tend to look inward for answers (sometimes referred to as a feminine archetypal response). When the card is upright, I tend to see indications of the outside world as it affects us (a masculine archetypal response).
But for the sake of this active experiment, let’s look at the card—the Seven of Swords—reversed. So instead of blaming someone else, or circumstances, or the world for our endured slights and misfortunes… the reversed perspective of this card asks us to try to take responsibility, to admit our conspiring, to confess our participation in the encounter that has resulted in our current situation. Instead of flinging accusation elsewhere, perhaps we need to look at how we have contributed to the predicament.
I have often—upon hearing it from overly zealous individuals—been resentful of the phrase, “We are all sinners.” It often sounds rather derogatory, and almost as bad as a blatant accusation of some crime. I have often been miffed and reacted rather defensively against those who bandied the phrase about, feeling like those individuals are feeding their own megalomania by judging others (or me) in such a way. But… maybe we should try to hear the phrase as an act of self-reflection, or admittance of that individual’s imperfection. Something like: “Yes, it’s true that the world is an awful place; but I am not the least of the world’s offenders, because that is human nature—to try to place blame on others or elsewhere. I share the guilt of the world’s missteps and ugliness, because I am only human. I have—maybe subconsciously, maybe not—agreed to participate in the continued oppression, degradation, or hardships of others through my own apathy.” Or, “I allowed myself to be deceived into the oppression, degradation, or hardships of my fellow brethren, and then I did nothing to speak out or correct the wrong-doing [created by my unknowing action].”
It is easy to judge. It is easy to perform a simple justice. But it is more graceful to judge while reflecting on our own folly and foolishness. We become more empathetic when we think this way. It is easy to judge, and it is easy to perform one’s duty blindly. But it is more graceful to perform one’s duty through a lens of love. We become more compassionate when we act this way.
Our task during the Jubilee Year of Mercy is to reflect on the world and on others more empathetically, and to perform our duties towards the world and towards others with more compassion. This is the work of mercy. …Or a good first step.