Luigi Licari discusses the corporal and spiritual works of mercy
Throughout the tapestry of salvation history two threads run: one of gold and silver; other of heavy, dark, gloomy lead.
The second: let’s deal with now and dismiss him back to his eternal damnation. Once known as ‘The Favourite of the Sons of God, The Prince of the Morning, Lucifer (Bearer of Light),’ he has become the source of damnation. And in the season of fading light and growing darkness we recall in our liturgical celebrations that he is utterly defeated, for Christ is risen from the dead, conquering death by death, giving life to those in the grave. O Death, where thy victory? O Death, where thy sting?
Let’s start with the effect of the destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah cried: ‘Fallen is the virgin daughter of Israel; in the street no trade, no priest, no prophet, no king! With the destruction of the temple no Seat of Mercy.’ And, although he raged at Adonai, ‘you duped me, Lord, and I let myself be duped,’ he and the other prophets did speak of the new heaven, the new Jerusalem descending from on high, of God’s law being kept because we are given hearts of flesh, not of stone, and that law of love is now written in our hearts.
The Gospel at the feast of Christ the King reminded us of the corporal works of mercy, which the law of love commands us to keep. In Advent we recall maranatha, the Aramaic word taken into Greek with multiple layers of meaning:
The Lord has come.
The Lord is here.
The Lord is coming.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!
Isaiah, in those words so well known now thanks to Handel, says: ‘Comfort my people. Comfort them.’ Some translations offer: ‘Console my people for their time of trial is at an end.’
And so, the Baptist cries out in the wilderness: ‘Repent—your salvation, even in this season of darkness, is at hand.’ With this proclamation, and his eventual beheading, the age of prophecy comes to a close. He is the last. There will be no more. For the Lord and Creator of all that is now stands amongst you. There is no further need for the mercy seat, for mercy has taken flesh and is here now.
If I may take a moment to deviate, let me talk about mercy. The Hebrew word is hesed. Hesed can be translated in two ways: (1) God’s undying love; and (2) God’s eternal mercy.
And hesed now walks amongst you, having taken flesh to Himself from the Virgin’s womb. Can you imagine what a family they must have been? Her cousin Zacharias was high priest, her cousin Elizabeth conceived in her old age to produce the Baptist, and the glory of our race came forth from Anna and Joachim—a family of holiness and holy people.
But back to maranatha. We acknowledge that Christ has come. We hope for Christ to come again. And we, as the Body of Christ carry on with His work in the world today. What is that work? John tells us in today’s Gospel: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ [John 1.23] And to understand the serious implications of that we can look back to the Gospel of Christ the King from Matt. 23, laying down our judgement based on our practice of the corporal works of mercy.
In conclusion, and at risk of being lengthy, indulge me while we review together the corporal and spiritual works of mercy:
- Feed the hungry. The Tractarians would have us put this into practice ourselves here in our parish and not leave it to a state function. Skip a lunch, buy less, make extra food for meals and give it all to a local food bank or someone you know personally who makes do with little.
- Give drink to the thirsty. Not everyone has access to clean water. Find a good charity you favour and give aid to them. And, not all of them are far-off places—they could be in places just near here, if we look. For example, during the London Bridge terror attack, we could have opened our doors for water, tea, biscuits for the frightened cold people and the police working to protect us who needed a rest.
- Shelter the homeless. There are so many of those beloved by Christ in this category that it is hard to know where to start. So, first steps, work with a local charity, perhaps even with a neighbouring parish that has a night programme. Have you not enough money? Perhaps you could volunteer some time. Or help with our Christmas donations to the homeless shelter. Then, gradually, step by step, move out from there to consider the many fleeing violence as the Virgin Mother, St Joseph, and the precious divine child had to flee Herod.
- Visit the sick. We have parishioners who might welcome a visit, or whose caretaker may need a day off. Or commit a period of time to hold a newborn baby born of a mother addicted to drugs who has no one to hold him at a period in life when physical contact with another human is so critical. Again, when preparing meals, make some extra to give to our friends who can no longer care for themselves yet gave so much of themselves in times past.
- Visit the imprisoned. This one is more difficult because it takes some special skills and clearances to get into prisons. But there are other forms of imprisonment we should be able to discover with little effort.
- Bury the dead. Pray for those who have died, especially those who had no one to mourn them. Be here when there is a requiem to add our prayers and voices to those mourning. Care for the families of those who have died. I remember getting enough food to feed half an army when someone in the family died, and all the friends and their families being with us regularly
- Give alms to the poor. Skip the morning latte to help someone. In Lent, give the money we save by skipping alcohol or chocolate to those who are hungry. Consider the teens turned out for being other than what the parents wanted, or the new spouse wanted gone.
The spiritual works of mercy are as critical to putting our faith into practice as the corporal. I will list them now with fewer examples—so talk to your priests to get some examples of what to do if you need advice. And take them on as a penance for your sins when you make your confession.
- Counseling the doubtful.
- Instructing the ignorant.
- Admonishing the sinner—but take care of the beam in your own eye first.
- Comforting the sorrowful.
- Forgiving injuries.
- Bearing wrongs patiently.
- Praying for the living and the dead, especially myself, your servant and a sinner in need of God’s grace.
Well, that’s quite a charge. But John made it sound so easy—just straighten out the road. Mary made it so easy with her fiat. I think we had better get going, for we know not the hour and don’t want to be caught out when the bridegroom comes.
The Rev’d Luigi Licari ministers at St Magnus the Martyr, London Brigde