We have entered the ‘Year of Mercy’ – a Jubilee year. A tradition with ancient roots. By the time of Christ it was long established. The Jews would celebrate a Jubilee every 50 years, and for 12 months all kinds of extraordinary things occurred. No crops were sown or harvested. Slaves were set free. Land lost through debt was returned. Bad debts cancelled. It was an important time for the whole community. The acceptable year of the Lord; whose high point was ‘the day of liberation’. Unless we understand this we cannot make much sense of today’s gospel reading- for it took place on the day of liberation in the year of the Lord.
Crowds would gather before the tabernacle. The High Priest placed his hands on a goat, which was then offered in sacrifice for the sins of the people. Its blood was taken into the holy of holies where a second goat was waiting. This one had the blood of the first smeared onto it and was then driven out into the wilderness, to take the sins away from the people. A literal scape-goat, from where we get the phrase, as depicted in the famous painting by Holman Hunt (above).
Only when the atonement was made, only when the sacramental act of forgiveness had taken place, could the priest nod approval. And then all the men, many standing in the hills waiting for this moment, would proclaim the year of the Lord with a trumpet blast- the message going out to the nation. Slaves were free.
Certain things stand out. First the jubilee, the joy, began with redemption. Trumpets were silent until forgiveness occurred. A metaphor for Christian life where we cannot know the joy of the Lord until we come to him for forgiveness.
Second, during the 49 previous years, and the 49 following years, law took precedent over grace. It demanded slaves remain in bondage, debts be paid, agreements honoured. But then came this window in which grace supersedes law. So laws were abrogated and underserving men found forgiveness.
Thirdly no crops were planted. Why? Because people had to learn to trust in God alone. Not in economic systems or governments or their own strength. Another valuable lesson which we also need to learn in our journey of faith.
Fourthly this was a time of great opportunity. Slaves could lay a foundation for a new life. But such opportunity was reliant on the generosity of others. Masters had to agree to the liberation, creditors had to accept the wiping away of debts. There was cost involved. There always is where mercy is concerned.
Finally there was risk. If men spurned the opportunity given, and mounted new debt, they fell back into bondage. Just as we, if we do not make use of this transitory life to embrace God’s mercy, will face the eternal consequences of our decisions and actions. And so we need to be wise and determined to make the most of this life God has given; to love neighbour as self and God above all things.
This then is the background, not only to our Gospel reading but to the Year of Mercy which we celebrate. It was the Sabbath -the synagogue was packed. Every eye focussed on the presiding Rabbi- this was his moment of glory….when suddenly his thunder was stolen. A young man stood up and filled the temple with the beauty of his teaching. People were transfixed, despite the break in protocol. They heard him say ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he hath appointed me to preach…THE ACCEPTABLE YEAR OF THE LORD. He then added, “today in your hearing this text has come true.’
After 2000 years of Christian teaching we get it. But sympathise with the Pharisees. They did not know of the resurrection or ascension. They did not know Jesus came to fulfil what the Year of Jubilee foreshadowed. That he would accomplish on the cross freedom for his people. Offering a break from the slavery of sin to a new life of grace and opportunity. Little wonder they turfed him out and tried to chuck him down the hill. Imagine a member of the public standing up during a coronation and claiming the crown for himself. He too would be strongarmed out! Nevertheless he warned them; this opportunity being offered would not last forever.
Redemption; it is a big word meaning more than mere forgiveness of sins. Reconciliation was obtained through the goats, but the liberation was felt in the whole land. Similarly the redemption obtained by the blood of Christ and present in the sacraments of the church, must reach into every part of our life. Which is to say body and soul must be given to him. But as the newly released slaves often discovered that is easier said than done. For in spite of our redemption, we remain in bondage. Alas our bodies are not yet free from the limitations of the flesh. And so the spiritual battle begins for the believer. It is against the body that the battle so often must be won. We cannot only believe in him we must learn to overcome the weakness of the flesh. The healing of a man’s soul is glorious but his body must also know the transforming touch of God if he is to be fully conformed to the image of Christ. Which, when it occurs, we recognise as Sainthood.
So we have this Year of Mercy and Lent approaches. Never has the need for confession been greater than now! Now is the time to get control of life- and learn the virtue necessary to offer body and soul to God. We must mark our own need for mercy if we are to celebrate the Year of mercy.
It is fitting then that, thanks to the generosity of another,I have acquired for St. Anselm’s a new confessional. It is to be placed in the coming days within the Sacred Heart chapel. Understand it is not there for decoration! Make use of it. For this is the year of the Lord and our liberation really is at hand.
And if we use it well, if we confess and ask for mercy from God, then the very trumpets of heaven will sound our liberation, its gates opened to us, but only if we accept the freedom offered. Only if we take seriously this year of the Lord and remove the shackles of sin that we may truly become a liberated people.