Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
May the infinite mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ dwell in you and remain with you forever! In these final days of Advent, in this jubilee Year of Mercy given to us by our Holy Father, Pope Francis, we contemplate with joy and gratitude the great gifts of mercy we have already received, and are about to receive in the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ at Christmas. Jesus is the merciful face of the father’s abundant love for all his children. With his mercy, Jesus heals us and saves us. As we receive him into our hearts and homes once more, may his mercy transform us anew.
This jubilee Year of Mercy is a blessed opportunity to receive the Lord’s mercy ourselves. We have already been given great mercy in the holy sacraments, beginning with the forgiveness of sins in the waters of baptism. The graces of the holy Eucharist can heal us from minor sins and faults, and the sacrament of penance can heal us of every kind of sin, even the most grievous. Yet we remain sinners, still in need of healing and forgiveness, returning again and again to the font of mercy given to us by our savior.
It is for this that Christ comes to us at Christmas. What great love, what tenderness the Lord showed, when he chose to come into the world, not in splendor and greatness, but in poverty and anonymity – not wielding the might of his divinity, but embracing all the weakness and vulnerability of an infant! See how gently he offers us the mercy he comes to share, so that we wounded souls will not be overwhelmed or driven off from accepting it.
Because of this tenderness, the shepherds who ran trustingly to meet him, and the wise men who traveled so far to greet him with their gifts, could rejoice in the Lord, Emmanuel, “God with us.”
The church strives also to imitate the Lord’s gentleness in offering the holy sacraments by which we receive his mercy today. The opening of the holy Door of Mercy at our Cathedral just last Sunday represents the invitation to all people to come encounter the Lord’s mercy, again or for the first time.
When he opened the same Holy Door in Rome, Pope Francis said, “The beginning of the history of sin in the Garden of Eden yields to a plan of saving love. The words of Genesis reflect our own daily experience: we are constantly tempted to disobedience, a disobedience expressed in wanting to go about our lives without regard for God’s will. This is the enmity which keeps striking at people’s lives, setting them in opposition to God’s plan…. But the promised triumph of Christ’s love enfolds everything in the Father’s mercy…. The Immaculate Virgin stands before us as a privileged witness of this promise and its fulfillment.”
When Christ was born in that stable in Bethlehem, he opened a door of mercy which no one can close. God used this door to enter into our humanity, and will use it again to bring us into heaven, if we but accept his mercy. Especially during this jubilee year, may we yield to the gentle mercy of the Lord, seeking the forgiveness for our sins so richly offered in God’s plan in the church.
And having received, so should we give! The shepherds and the Wise Men did not just give physical gifts to Jesus, they gave their hearts to him, and their voices to the joyful news of his birth. In contrast, Herod saw only threat in this news and hardened his heart against it, even to the point of the murder of the Holy Innocents.
Much like Herod, the world wants us to be hard of heart, not merciful. The world does not want us to consider the meaning of what we do at Christmas, only to enter into the orgy of shopping, eating, and gift-giving. If we only celebrate Christmas in this way, we miss the encounter with Christ, and with his mercy. We speak of peace, but it does not soften our hearts. So, we must not only receive mercy, but give it, and give it – not only in superficial ways, but from the heart.
Beloved friends in Christ, be tender-hearted for the sake of Christ, our infant king! May the end of this Advent season, and the Christmas we are about to celebrate in this jubilee Year of Mercy, be a great occasion of mercy for us. May we allow Christ to open in our hearts a door of mercy, so that he may enter in and be born in us again in a new way, with a new commitment and joy; and so that he may inspire us to give of what we have received with a more tender, patient, and compassionate love. Please pray for all those who suffer from any affliction of illness, loneliness, or want in these days, and especially for peace in the world. I pray daily for you and all of your needs.
A most joyful Advent, and a most merry and blessed Christmas to you all!
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City