Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
During the height of her political prowess, ancient Rome boasted of her influence throughout the world. Romans had planted their culture in Athens, Corinth, Jerusalem and Alexandria. They had extended their rule to North Africa to Hadrian’s Wall in England and the Antonine Wall in Scotland. Great roads, theaters, public baths, gymnasia and the military muscle of the Roman Empire fostered a sense of security and prosperity. But, there was one thing notably missing from the heart of the Roman Empire. There was no compassion.
In this, Romans were not unlike the Greeks from whom they had learned so much. The Greek philosopher Plato had stated that “a poor man who was no longer able to work because of sickness should be left to die” (Republic 3.406d-410a). The Romans subscribed to the same philosophy of life. The Roman playwright Plautus stated, “You do a beggar bad service by giving him food and drink; you lose what you give and prolong his life for misery” (Trinummus 2.338-2.339).
At the height of her power, the luster of Rome’s glory was dimmed by her harsh indifference toward the suffering and needy. Amid Rome’s unsanitary, disease infested hovels, the sick could find no public institution to care for them. Often sick slaves were abandoned on Tiber Island and left to die. Fathers would regularly abandon their children born with birth defects and leave them in the open to die.
The leaders of ancient Rome did not extol compassion. Since mercy means giving to someone what they do not earn, pagans saw it as contrary to justice. Pliny the Younger certainly was one of the most generous Romans of his day. He paid for public feasts, decorated public baths, built a library and provided scholarships for education. Nonetheless, he questioned the very existence of charities that gave to the poor. Having pity on the indigent and showing mercy to the needy was a weakness, not a virtue. And, then Christianity came upon the scene!
In the first century, St. Ignatius of Antioch urged St. Polycarp of Smyrna to provide for the widows of his church. Christians never forgot the example of the Apostles (cf. Acts 6:1-6). The very fact that the Twelve chose seven deacons to care for the widows and the poor shows that Christian charity was no mean endeavor, even at the beginning of the Church. Already by the third century, the Church of Rome was caring for more than 1,500 widows. Such compassion was not uncommon.
Before the coming of Christ, the Jewish people had been practicing charity to the needy. Leviticus 23:22 orders landowners to allow the poor and the stranger to glean from their fields in order to eat. This benevolent provision breathes compassion for the poor and mercy for the needy. In calling upon Israel to show compassion, the law of Leviticus reminds her that the Lord is their God. In other words, Israel is to show mercy to those in need because God himself is merciful to Israel.
Christian charity, however, differs from common Jewish practices. In the Old Testament, there are the beginnings of the notion of a charity that knows no bounds. Although charity was normally understood in terms of one’s family or religion, the touching story of Ruth and the humorous tale of Jonah witness a charity that reaches beyond narrow limits. Charity, as practiced by Christians, was unique in the ancient world. It was a mercy to all. Race, religion, culture, social status and family background: none of these excluded anyone in need from charity.
Compassion is at the heart of the ministry of Jesus. Rightly did it become the hallmark of the Christian community. Christians were merciful to all because they realized that, in sending us his Son to redeem us by his death and resurrection, God has shown us his mercy and set the pattern for us to follow. In fact, the very birth of Christ is seen as an expression of God’s mercy.
Six months before the birth of Jesus, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, heralds Jesus’ birth, exclaiming, “Because of the tender mercy of our God, the daybreak from on high will visit us” (Lk 1:78). Christ, the dayspring, bursts upon a world groping in the shadows of sin and ignorance. He is God’s mercy for each of us who are poor, needy sinners unable to save ourselves. Mary, also, sees in the birth of her son the very mercy of God coming to save his people (cf. Lk 1:49. 54).
When Jesus is born, shepherds and wise men, the simple and the learned, the poor and the wealthy, are summoned to the manger. No one is excluded from love. At the manger, all who accept the Christ Child experience God’s mercy. They are saved from their sins. They are given the gift of eternal life that they could not earn or merit on their own. So graced by God in Jesus, they are moved to be merciful, as God is, showing compassion and charity to all. Bethlehem is truly the school of Divine Mercy.