I. Introduction: Sailing Between Scylla and Charybdis
A. Sometimes we feel like we’re between a rock and a hard place. We might find ourselves caught between competing expectations, such as the demands of family life and the demands of the workplace. At other times, we might find ourselves “in the middle” as two old and cherished friends have a falling out. At still other times, we may face a difficult choice – knowing that no matter what we may do, a bad consequence will follow.
B. Sometimes it helps to give our dilemmas a fancy name. My favorite comes from Homer (not Homer Simpson but the epic poet) who wrote of two sea monsters on opposite sides of the Straits of Messina in Sicily, Scylla and Charybdis…just to say their names makes us feel we’re on top of things! Scylla is a rock shoal imaged as a sea monster by the creative Homer while Charybdis is a whirlpool, also portrayed by Homer as a sea monster. Any ship that hit the shoals or ran afoul of the whirlpool was doomed. Safety lay in steering between the two just as finding our way to spiritual safety requires prayer and prudent discernment.
II. Legalism or Laxity
A. When it comes to our faith, we can easily find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma, or at least on the horns of what we think is a dilemma, and in this case, the dilemma is between legalism and laxity.
B. On the one hand, St. Paul warns us against legalism, against imagining that we achieve our eternal salvation by observance the law. To be sure, the law teaches us right from wrong and coaches us but following the law, in and of itself, does not win us eternal salvation. To put this in more practical terms, sometimes the Church’s faith is reduced to a set of rules. Don’t eat meat on Fridays in Lent and do contribute to your local parish. Do go to Church on Sunday and don’t lie, cheat, or steal. Morality in general is portrayed as a dreary set of prohibitions designed in the main to make our lives miserable, rather like the physician who tells us we can eat anything except those things we like. “Those are the rules,” we think, “and we’d better follow them, or else.”
C. On the other hand, St. Paul also warns us against laxity, a view that it’s ok with God if we’re careless, nonchalant, or even self-indulgent. But we mustn’t imagine that those who live according to the flesh will inherit God’s kingdom. St. Paul leaves little to our imagination when he warns us: “Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers … nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God…” (1 Cor. 6:9). Yet, we hear it said all around us … “This is The Year of Mercy” … God does not expect us to keep a lot of rules, he only loves us and wants us to love him in return…and he’ll save us no matter what we do, anyway. Many people react to a religion of rules by embracing a religion of presumption. “We can safely presume,” some say, “that God doesn’t really care what we do. He loves us and so he’ll put up with just about anything we do.” Yet, in the Psalms were pray, “Cleanse me [even] from my inadvertent sins” (Ps. 19:13).
III. Beyond Legalism and Laxity
A. So which is it, legalism or laxity? Fortunately, we don’t have to make that choice. Rather, in today’s reading from the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul teaches us that “through faith [we] are all children of God in Christ Jesus.” Through faith, we encounter Christ, “the face of the Father’s mercy” and once we encounter Christ and open our hearts to him in living faith, then it is that everything changes in our lives and in our relationships. As the key of faith unlocks the door of our hearts, we begin experience the merciful love of Jesus. Then it is that we are changed, not merely in our external behavior, but in the very depths of our hearts. Our encounter with Christ shapes what we think, how we act, what we value. It brings to our wounded souls, new life and strength. It brings to our imprisoned souls, a new freedom to embrace in love what is coherent, good, true, and beautiful.
B. It is, therefore, not a question of legalism or laxity – it is question of embracing the living Word of God by faith. Isn’t that what we saw in the Gospel? Jesus is preaching when a woman in the crowd calls out, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.” Hearing this woman’s words we are reminded of the Hail Mary we pray each day: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Jesus replies, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” This, of course, is not a put-down of the Blessed Virgin Mary rather, it tells us what was most fundamental in her life: she first heard the Word of God before she conceived the Word of God and thus lived her life in perfect freedom from sin, so perfect in fact that she, more than anyone else, shared in the Passion of her Son.
IV. Year of Mercy
A. Hearing the word of God means opening our hearts to Christ. It means allowing his heart to speak to our hearts. As we welcome the teaching of Christ into our hearts, we realize that came to conquer sin and death and that he not only won the victory for us but he also shares it with us. We share in Christ’s victory through the Sacraments, above all, through the Eucharist, and so importantly, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Hearing the Word of God does not mean finding out the rules but welcoming the power of Jesus’ love into the deep recesses of our hearts, so that they are cleansed of sin and filled with joy. It’s not a matter of keeping the rules or skirting the rules but rather a matter of falling in love, deeply in love with the Lord Jesus. Once we are in love, the moral demands of the Gospel are not burdensome; rather they are a response of love to God and neighbor from a heart that has been conformed to the Christ of the Beatitudes.
B. This doesn’t happen overnight or all at once but it surely happens. This is what has happened to all the saints, canonized and un-canonized. Pope Francis has called the Year of Mercy so that you and I could welcome the Lord Jesus, Mercy Incarnate, into our hearts as never before. Let us take advantage of this Year of Mercy which will close on November 20th. That doesn’t mean that God’s mercy shuts down in a month and a half or that the Year of Mercy will be replaced by the Year of Severity. It only means that we have a wonderful opportunity now to avail ourselves of that mercy that can make us whole.
C. Every one of us, myself included, can think of areas in our lives in need of mercy. Every one of us, myself included, can think of relationships in need of healing. Is there a better day than today to open our hearts to the Mercy of the Lord? Is there a better day than today to make a good unburdening confession of our sins? The Lord’s mercies are everlasting. They are new every morning. Let us allow ourselves today to be embraced by that mercy which alone frees us from the grip of Scylla and Charybdis!
May God bless us and keep us always in love!