When I posted The Jubilee Year of Mercy – The Basics in March, I promised to post more about mercy, what it is and how we can apply it in our lives. With the Year of Mercy ending this Sunday, November 20th, on the Solemnity of Christ the King, I’m running out of time. Yes, I procrastinated, but it took a while to understand the concept of mercy well enough to feel comfortable relating it to you.
Specifically, I want to delve into what we call the Corporal and the Spiritual Works of Mercy. To keep the post short enough, I will break them into two posts.
Corporal Works of Mercy: Meeting the physical needs of others
“The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities….Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.” (CCC 2447) The corporal works of mercy include: feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty; clothing the naked; harboring the homeless; visiting the sick; ransoming the captive; and burying the dead.
Feeding the Hungry
“The generous shall be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.” Proverbs 22:9 (NAB)
This corporal work of mercy is nearly self-explanatory. We all know that most communities have a food pantry or soup kitchen that provides meals to those who do not have the means to buy their own food. Many people volunteer to serve food. Some organize food drives. And others who can’t find the time to volunteer donate food to those who do.
But, there are other ways to feed the hungry which often go overlooked. Do you know a person who is unable to cook a meal for themselves or their family? Perhaps you could prepare a meal and deliver it to them. Parents and spouses, in a sense, are offering a work of mercy by working and sacrificing to earn money to provide and prepare healthy meals for their families. It’s not about the kind or amount of food, but the love that goes into providing it. Give your heart. Offer your works of mercy out of love for others.
Give Drink to the Thirsty
“Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – John 4:14 (NAB)
Fortunately, most of us don’t have to worry about having enough clean water to drink. That’s not true in most of the rest of the world. Even in our own country the urban homeless and those in poverty stricken areas often have too little fresh drinking water.
With this corporal work of mercy, however, we need to think beyond the literal into the figurative aspect of spiritual thirst. How many of us thirst for affirmation, for compassion, to be welcomed and understood? How many children thirst for attention and closeness from their working parents who barely have the time to devote to them? How many elderly are lonely for someone with whom they can talk? Sometimes the merciful “drink” we give to others is simply respect, dignity and kindness.
Clothe the Naked
“He said to them in reply, ‘Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none.’” Luke 3:11 (NAB)
If we look around we can see that many people in our communities struggle to adequately clothe themselves and their families. This is especially true during the harshness of winter. Clothing the naked is perhaps the easiest of the works of mercy to apply in our lives. There are many outlets, such as St. Vincent de Paul and The Salvation Army, where we can deposit our no longer wanted clothing for distribution to those who do need it. Similar to Feeding the Hungry, we should not be afraid to give the good stuff.
We can clothe the naked in a figurative sense as well. Consider those who have wronged us in some way and are seeking forgiveness – they are laying their souls bare to receive our forgiveness. We need to clothe their “nakedness” by listening to their heart-felt pleas and restoring their dignity with compassion. When we do this we are clothing Jesus. Our actions transform us by opening us up to receive the grace of God.
Harbor the Homeless
“Jesus answered him, ‘Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.’” Luke 9:58 (NAB)
This is a tough one. In today’s society, most of us would be foolish and rightfully afraid to open our homes to strangers. So, how do we harbor the homeless? Perhaps the easiest way is to support, through monetary contributions and volunteering our time, those organizations which specialize in providing shelter to the homeless. Another way is to volunteer with an organization that improves people’s living conditions by repairing their homes. By helping to shelter the homeless we are being Christ to those whom we “harbor”. And, because we are Christian, we are obligated to see Christ in them. We are helping “The Son of Man” find a place to “rest His head.” By being merciful we are introducing them to Jesus.
Visit the Sick
“I was sick and you visited me.” Matthew 25:36 (NAB)
This corporal work of mercy is often misunderstood. Comforting the sick is more the intent. It’s more than visiting the infirmed just to say you did. Instead, it’s about reaching out and bringing relief to those who need help. Whether the person is physically ill or spiritually ailing from isolation or loneliness, a visit borne out of love can be healing. For many, being present and praying with them can heal their soul. Unlike children who can be comforted with a “get-well” toy, the best remedy for adult illness is the gift of a loving personal encounter. A visit to the sick is more than sharing their personal space, it’s sharing their emotional space and bringing love and dignity into it.
Ransom the Captive
“Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:28 (NAB)
In the early Church, Christians frequently ransomed fellow Christians being held captive in prisons or in slavery by taking their place. They volunteered their own captivity so that another may have freedom. We don’t see this anymore and I don’t think we could do it if we wanted to. So, we have to view this work of mercy in a figurative sense. In doing so, it is easy to see that we are all held captive in one way or another: to addictions and self-defeating habits; to the stranglehold of money and possessions; to guilt, fear, and failure; to abusive relationships; to poverty; and to the stigma of past sins. Many things control us. How do we help others to be liberated from their captivity?
The starting place is to have a loving desire to help another get out of their pit, to break their chains. Some “prisoners” may need expert help, but, for many, the simple effort of helping one get back on their feet by being loving and encouraging is all it takes to initiate their liberty. Examples include: befriending someone who is alone in the world; and rescuing children who are captive in their environments by offering them a way out through mentoring programs. Ransoming the captive is using our time, talent and treasure to redeem those who are being held in their individual prisons. We need to remember that Jesus’ death on the cross ransomed us from eternal isolation from God.
Bury the Dead
“Give your gift to all the living, and do not withhold your kindness from the dead.” Sirach 7:33 (NAB)
As Catholics, we confirm our beliefs about the dead every time we profess in our Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. This belief drives our funeral rites which, even in death, are outward signs of honoring the dignity of a person. Our Catechism explains this work of mercy beautifully: “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection….it honors the children of God who are temples of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC2300)
Before I became Catholic I dreaded funerals. They were uncomfortable events to say the least. But, now, attending a funeral with the understanding that it is an opportunity to offer mercy, I am not only able, but have a desire to pay my respects to the memory of the deceased and to offer consolation to the mourning family. And, putting everything in the context of mercy helps me to deal with my own sorrow.
The beauty about this act of mercy is not having to wait for someone you know to die. In the last couple years, I have attended three funeral masses for people whom I didn’t even know. They were members of my parish community and, in a sense, family. My prayers joined the prayers of so many others in an expression of faith in the Resurrection and the hope that the faithful departed were on their way to eternal life.
There are other ways to live this act of mercy. Sadly, the cost of a funeral is beyond the means of many in our society today. Helping the family cover the cost of a funeral is something communities or parishes can do by setting up fund collections. Another is to provide food for the post-funeral gathering to enable family and friends to continue their consolation and sharing of memories.
One final thought: our Lord was given a decent burial. The least we can do is honor Him by doing the same for others.
Just because the Year of Mercy is coming to an end doesn’t mean we stop being merciful. The need for mercy is constant and more critical than we can imagine. And, though we look outward towards those who need our mercy, we can never lose sight that we all need mercy in our own lives. The mercy we give comes from God the Father. Likewise, the mercy we receive from our neighbors, loved ones, and even strangers, also comes from God the Father. I challenge you to consider how you can be more merciful in your life. Begin today.
Stay tuned for my next post on the Spiritual Works of Mercy!
“Lord God, help me to always recognize and be grateful for the mercy you shower upon me. To show my gratitude, please allow me to be your hands, feet and heart by being merciful to others. Amen.”
(The Jubilee Year of Mercy – Corporal Works of Mercy was first published on the blog Reflections of a Lay Catholic)
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