Our parish's patron, St. André Bessette, said, "The door to heaven is the heart of Jesus. The key to this door is prayer and love."
Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time C
There are only three weeks left to the Jubilee of Mercy. When it commenced early last December, it did so as Catholic Holy Years have done for centuries: with the ceremonial opening of a Holy Door in Rome.
Across the front of St. Peter’s Basilica, there are five sets of bronze doors, and the pair farthest to the right (which, incidentally, is the smallest of the bunch) is designated as the Holy Door: open during a Jubilee year, but otherwise—literally—bricked up the rest of the time. It’s a symbol of the way the doorway to God grace and mercy is open to us—during a Holy Year, and always.
These Holy Doors are decorated with 16 bronze panels depicting scenes going all the way back to Adam and Eve and coming right up to modern times—scenes that depict stories of sin and forgiveness, of God’s mercy and our redemption. My favorite among them is the one portraying the Good Shepherd. This is not the Good Shepherd you’re used to from stained glass windows and holy cards: with a clean, pressed robe, perfectly quaffed hair, holding a mild-mannered lamb that looks like it just had its fleece shampooed. No, this is a scene straight out of the parable we heard Jesus tell us seven Sundays ago: when the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine behind in pursuit of the one lost sheep. This sheep is on the edge of a cliff, all tangled up in a thorn bush. And the shepherd—clearly in a workingman’s clothes—is hanging on to the rocks for safety with one hand, and stretching as far as he can with the other, in his effort to bring this lost sheep back from the brink.
Across the top of this bronze panel is a three-word Latin inscription: SALVARE QUOD PERIERAT, “to save what was lost.” It the very last phrase of the gospel passage we have just heard: “The Son of Man has come to seek out and to save what was lost.” That little phase captures the mission of every Holy Year—and this year of Mercy, in particular—which sends out the call anew that sinners are always welcome to come home. And it’s the mission of every Holy Year because it’s the mission of the Church. As Pope Francis is constantly reminding us, the Church was never intended to be a country club for the righteous, but a field hospital for sinners. And it’s the mission of the Church because it’s the mission of Jesus Christ. The Son of God came from heaven to earth where he lived, taught, healed, suffered, died, and rose again in order “to seek and to save what was lost.”
We see this mission illustrated so beautifully in the story of Zacchaeus—and what an example Jesus gives to you and me!
We’re told that Zacchaeus is short in stature…which makes it safe to assume he’d been teased and bullied about his height for most of his life. We’re also told that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector…which means we would have been regarded as a traitor and a serious sinner by his own people. He may have been rich and prominent, but Zacchaeus wasn’t a well-liked or popular guy. Zacchaeus has heard about this Jesus, who seems so different from all the rest, and so when Jesus is passing through Jericho, he climbs a tree to catch a glimpse.
It’s when Jesus glimpses Zacchaeus that everything changes. What does Jesus say to him? He doesn’t embarrass him by asking, “What in the world are you doing up there? You look ridiculous!” (Even though it was true.) And Jesus doesn’t say, “Repent, you sinner, or you’ll go to hell!” (Even though, by rights, he could have.) Instead, Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, I’m coming to stay at your house.” Rather than the rejection and rebuke to which Zacchaeus was accustomed, or the reprimand he deserved, he finds acceptance, and even love. Jesus treats him with mercy. And because Zacchaeus knows that he is loved, although so undeserving, he’s able to find the courage to change his ways: to leave his sinful past behind, to make right the wrongs he has done, and even to move foreword with generosity.
How different is Jesus’ approach to “saving the lost” than the one we find at work in the world today! Whether or not you use the Internet yourself, it has had a deep impact on the way people communicate with each other. Because we can send messages at a distance, in ways that are impersonal and even anonymous, people now say things to and about one another in a very public fashion that, in earlier times, would never have been said even in private. This has sadly happened among us Christians, too. Instead of using the Internet as a tool to seek out and save the lost, it frequently gets used as a weapon to seek out and correct those who are wrong or to condemn those who have lost their way.
It’s pretty rare, my friends, that harsh words of condemnation will bring someone closer to Jesus or his Church…but merciful words and compassionate deeds will almost always open a door. Daniel Burke (an American Catholic writer and speaker) puts it well when he says, “Love builds a bridge over which truth can pass.” If people know that we love them and—through us—know that God loves them, then they can be open to hearing the truth: the truth about sin, and how it’s hurting them and others; the truth of the Gospel, of how God sent Jesus to save them by the Blood of his Cross. But start by beating someone over the head with the truth…and they’ll likely slam the door on what was meant to be their redemption.
When in your own life have you experienced Jesus seeking and saving you? How did you get lost, and how did the Lord bring you back? Or maybe you’re still lost—or you’re lost again! Do you know that you are loved? Do you realize the lengths to which God has gone to lead you home? And are we willing to share this experience of salvation with others so that they may experience it, too?
In three weeks, the Jubilee of Mercy will conclude as the Holy Doors in Rome are closed again…but mercy remains our mission always. In a world of harsh and hateful talk, let’s be sure to build bridges of love over which the truth can then pass. Let us never tire in our efforts to save those who are lost—grateful that Jesus never tires of seeking after us.