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Bible Reflections View Comments

We Need Both Justice and Mercy
By Diane M. Houdek
Source: Bringing Home the Word
Published: Sunday, December 8, 2013
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One of the ongoing discussions about the papacy of Pope Francis is whether he is emphasizing God’s mercy to the exclusion of a sense of righteous judgment. The followers of John the Baptist would have understood this quandary. They suspected that Jesus, too, was a bit too cozy with sinners. Good Christians know a proper balance is required.

Jesus referred to John the Baptist as the greatest of the prophets. Like Ezekiel, Elijah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah before him, John was a voice in the wilderness, totally focused on his call and on God’s message.

Like the prophets of old, John called on the people to repent of their sins. He had a vision of what was to come, and he knew it would call for a complete change in people’s lives. He insisted the status quo was no longer enough for salvation.

In the Gospel, a group of Pharisees and Sadducees come to John the Baptist relying on their status as sons of Abraham. But John tells them the ax is at the root of trees that aren’t producing fruit. The Gospel gives us a vivid image of dead wood and chaff being burned while the fruit and grain are gathered into barns to nourish and sustain life.

John’s words today remind us that Advent is the beginning of a new liturgical year. It is a season of taking stock of our foundations, of examining the roots and structure of our spiritual lives. But it also calls us forward into the amazing new growth that emerges from the miracle of the Incarnation.

Roots provide valuable nourishment. They make life possible. But if they’re too constrained, they can inhibit the very growth they’re designed to nourish. As Catholics we have a strong tradition and often a cultural connection to our ancestors in the faith. This gives us a sense of identity and belonging.

But our faith identity can become tied to our ethnic, national, and cultural roots. If we rely too much on those tangled roots to define us, we can become insular and closed off from a world that waits to hear the Good News of Jesus. Our rootedness in one way of life or one set of attitudes can keep us from reaching out to those who are different, those we have avoided out of fear and hatred. To be fruitful, we must be open to this sort of newness.

Isaiah’s well-known vision of nature in harmony calls us to imagine sworn enemies sharing food and shelter, frolicking as companions. The prophet neither minimizes the distinctions nor emphasizes the nearly unreachable idealism of the vision. He reminds the people that the Messiah will not judge by appearance or hearsay but will bring justice to the poor and afflicted. This is the vision that was realized in the birth and ministry of Jesus, Son of God and Messiah. Following in his footsteps commits us to move beyond normal human boundaries and expectations.

Paul tells us Jesus fulfilled the covenant of the Jews and brought a vision of God’s mercy to the Gentiles. Paul’s gifts unite the dreams of these two groups into one vision of Christianity. He doesn’t destroy healthy differences; he doesn’t deny individual roots. He sees the possibility for communion.

Advent challenges us to rise above the increasing polarization that threatens our world, our country, our communities, even our families. The repentance demanded by John is a good place to start. He challenged his listeners to produce good fruit. We might look at our own lives this Advent to see what fruit we are bearing.


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Rose Philippine Duchesne: Born in Grenoble, France, of a family that was among the new rich, Philippine learned political skills from her father and a love of the poor from her mother. The dominant feature of her temperament was a strong and dauntless will, which became the material—and the battlefield—of her holiness. She entered the convent at 19 and remained despite their opposition. As the French Revolution broke, the convent was closed, and she began taking care of the poor and sick, opened a school for homeless children and risked her life helping priests in the underground. 
<p>When the situation cooled, she personally rented her old convent, now a shambles, and tried to revive its religious life. The spirit was gone, and soon there were only four nuns left. They joined the infant Society of the Sacred Heart, whose young superior, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, would be her lifelong friend. In a short time Philippine was a superior and supervisor of the novitiate and a school. But her ambition, since hearing tales of missionary work in Louisiana as a little girl, was to go to America and work among the Indians. At 49, she thought this would be her work. With four nuns, she spent 11 weeks at sea en route to New Orleans, and seven weeks more on the Mississippi to St. Louis. She then met one of the many disappointments of her life. The bishop had no place for them to live and work among Native Americans. Instead, he sent her to what she sadly called "the remotest village in the U.S.," St. Charles, Missouri. With characteristic drive and courage, she founded the first free school for girls west of the Mississippi. </p><p>It was a mistake. Though she was as hardy as any of the pioneer women in the wagons rolling west, cold and hunger drove them out—to Florissant, Missouri, where she founded the first Catholic Indian school, adding others in the territory. "In her first decade in America, Mother Duchesne suffered practically every hardship the frontier had to offer, except the threat of Indian massacre—poor lodging, shortages of food, drinking water, fuel and money, forest fires and blazing chimneys, the vagaries of the Missouri climate, cramped living quarters and the privation of all privacy, and the crude manners of children reared in rough surroundings and with only the slightest training in courtesy" (Louise Callan, R.S.C.J., <i>Philippine Duchesne</i>). </p><p>Finally at 72, in poor health and retired, she got her lifelong wish. A mission was founded at Sugar Creek, Kansas, among the Potawatomi. She was taken along. Though she could not learn their language, they soon named her "Woman-Who-Prays-Always." While others taught, she prayed. Legend has it that Native American children sneaked behind her as she knelt and sprinkled bits of paper on her habit, and came back hours later to find them undisturbed. She died in 1852 at the age of 83 and was canonized in 1988.</p> American Catholic Blog It was important for some saints to vanish from view, to “decrease” so that God could “increase” in the scheme of things. Many saints actively fought promotions. If obedience required embracing them, they found other ways to remain lowly.

 
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