Jamhour (AsiaNews) – Mercy is the "common source" for Christians and Muslims. For both, Mary, the mother of Jesus is a point of union and togetherness, said Card Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, on 25 March in Jamhour (in Lebanon), where he took part in an interfaith ceremony on the occasion of the Solemnity of the Annunciation. In 2010, the Lebanese government dedicated this day as a joint Muslim-Christian national holiday.
The prelate is a big advocate for the Christian presence in the Middle East. In recent months, he travelled twice to Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan) to offer his help to the Christians of Mosul and Qaraqosh, who fled the violence of the Islamic State group. He is also very involved in the dialogue with Muslims.
“Mercy touches all its children,” said the archbishop of Lyon in his address. Because of it, Christians and Muslims can find common ground even though they have had a long, stormy relationship, that includes fraternal ties but also rivalry. “Like two siblings who have behaved like enemies for far too often, we will be better able to understand each other if we look towards our mother,” he said.
His full address follows. Translated from the French by AsiaNews
Your Beatitude, Your Eminences,
Your Excellency, the representative of the Mufti of the Lebanese Republic,
Illustrious representatives of Islam and Christianity,
I must first offer my warmest thank to His Beatitude Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi as well as the Alumni Association of the College of St Joseph's University and the College of Our Lady of Jamhour for inviting me here on this highly symbolic day of 25 March.
With all my heart, with those who are with me, especially with Mr Kamel Kabtane, rector of the Great Mosque of Lyon, we wish your country a great celebration of togetherness and friendship. For us French, this is an amazing example and experience, which we tried to organise for the first time last Saturday, 21 March, at the Shrine of Our Lady of Longpont, in the Diocese of Évry–Corbeil-Essonnes.
Mercy, our common source
Christian-Muslim relations go a long way back, and history teaches us that they are made of dialogue and closure, understanding but also violence, which we would like to see disappear forever. Like two relatives, if we look to our origins, we can better understand each other.
According to one saying, by going towards the ocean, the river is faithful to its source, but it is also true that by going back to the source we can find where the two rivers were one. Therefore, let me begin by highlighting a major concept, that of "mercy," because I think it is, for us, a common source.
In the Bible, we learn, especially in the "Servant of the Lord" Oracle, in the Book of Isaiah, that God chose the Jewish people to be a servant of his mercy to all nations. That is its mission in this world. Among the Jews, the righteous is the one who bears the sins of the world so that all men may be touched by divine mercy. Each year, on Yom Kippur, Jews pray not only for the forgiveness of their sins, but also that God’s forgiveness may come upon all of us, Christians and Muslims, and on all people.
In all the Shuras of the Quran, except for one, God's name is immediately followed by two adjectives: Al Rahman Al Rahim – "the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful." For Muslims, Mercy precedes everything in God. When He finished the work of creation, he wrote in the book that stands above his throne, that his Mercy will always win, even over his anger, even when men will lead creation to an impasse.
"In truth, God holds one hundred mercies,” says a hadith. He sent one down to earth, which he spread over all his creatures." When we Christians read these lines, we think of Jesus, the only Son who fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy, “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved in whom I delight; I shall place my spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles’ (Mt, 12: 18).”
On his last visit to Poland, when he dedicated the sanctuary of Łagiewnicki, near Krakow, to the Divine Mercy on 17 August 2002, John Paul II also stressed that Mercy is not only one of God’s attributes but is its very name. Indeed, mercy is our heritage and mission.
Mary, the Annunciation and Mercy
As I said, relations Between Christians and Muslims go back a long way, and have been stormy. They have been made of moments of brotherhood and rivalry. Like two siblings who have behaved like enemies for far too often, we will be better able to understand each other if we look towards our mother. However, for us Christians, the Virgin Mary is our Mother. Jesus also wanted her [by his side] at the time of his death on the cross, making his mother, mother to all humanity (John, 19:27).
Allow me to say here, today, how much joy I feel every time, on the steps of the Basilica of Fourvière, which overlooks the city of Lyon, I meet a Muslim family that has come to show Mary their newly born babe, to place him or her under her maternal protection and to entrust him or her to her intercession. It is not unusual for such families to ask me to bless their child in the name of God, and I do so willingly.
Christians, we feel that we move forward "with Mary," like a mother with a child holding her hand. On the path that leads to God, we look at her as the one who is "first on the path," to cite one of our chants. We see the wonders that God accomplishes in this girl, for her and with her, and we ask the Lord, "Why do you not do the same to your other children?" It is almost as if the grace of this Mother continues to unfold within the big family of humanity.
In the Annunciation story, we see how the Virgin Mary accepted God's Mercy, which helped her come out of herself and led her onto new paths.
For me, this text is like a template for every prayer. It shows to all of us the importance of being available, so that our heart and all our being be ready to welcome God when he enters into our lives. In this narrative, we witness a wonderful dialogue. This girl – who listens to the Word of God and is very willing of course to obey Him – does not fail to ask freely things that come to her mind. Seeing how this amazing encounter between Mary and the Archangel Gabriel unfolds, we can better understand praying. The best thing may be seeing how the Virgin cites what God told her through the Angel. Thus, we hear her say, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk, 1:38).
Yes, when she hears the Annunciation, there is a word, a promise that upsets Mary. But even though she does not understand what will happen or what is being asked of her, she offers herself completely to the Word. This is both word and action, welcoming a child in her womb, and a promise that is fulfilled. This is the wonder of God’s Mercy at work in our lives!
Mary, champion of Mercy
She immediately goes to meet her old cousin Elisabeth whose life God also upended. The exchange of greetings between the two is overflowing with joy that carries them away. They were struck by God’s greatness and they know how to express it. The Church calls on its followers to sing this canticle of thanksgiving every evening in order to thank God for all He gives to His children.
In it, we can hear Mary proclaim, “His mercy is from age to age," words that are at the heart of the Magnificat, not only because it is the middle of the chant, but especially because it is its key.
Mercy touches all its children. It is the object of "his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Lk, 1; 55), words that end the thanksgiving chant. Mary contemplates and describes God's mercy through the centuries, in accordance with this promise. In the Magnificat, we discover a strong contrast between the rich and the poor. We can imagine God hold down some whilst consoling others.
In fact, God is good to everyone. Toppling the mighty from their thrones and living rich men “empty-handed” are fruits of God's mercy, as surely as lifting the humble, showing them their dignity, or filling the hungry with goodness that restore their hope. God wants the common good for everyone. "Sending the rich packing empty-handed, [and] scattering the high and mighty" are a blessing of God's mercy, since the proud will stop seeing themselves better than the others, realising that they are God's children, like everyone.
Finally, I want to emphasise that we win the battle of mercy, not only by deeds but also by singing words of praise. It is first in praising, in the joy that comes from Mercy, that we find the inner energy to take action. Charles Péguy compares our prayers to boats sailing towards the Lord. After describing the main prayers, he evokes the fourth invisible fleet:
"And it is of all the prayers which are not even said,
the words which are not uttered.
But I hear them. Those obscure impulses of the heart,
the obscure good impulses, the secret good movements,
Which unconsciously spring up and come forth
and unconsciously rise towards me.
Whoever is the source of them does not even perceive them.
But as for me I gather them up, God says”.
(The Mystery of the Holy Innocents, Charles Péguy, translated by Pansy Pakehham, London, The Harvill Press Ltd, 1956)
Such a spiritual journey can but unite us, beyond our words, prayers, and traditions. May our hearts be united in this merciful impulse, may our hearts beat to the same rhythm of God's Mercy.
Saint Charbel, this great figure of your people, said the same thing, "By your prayers, you can make Mercy rain and irrigate the land with your charity.”
John Paul II said that Lebanon was a "message-country". What is this message? It is, for me, first and foremost, a message of mercy, the very one that the Virgin Mary sings in the Magnificat. This message is more useful than ever, as the situation of our fellow Christians and Muslims deteriorates in many places.
It is essential that at your school, dear brothers and sisters, dear Lebanese friends, we re-appropriate the term of "mercy," whose roots are as deep as the cedar tree, in order to deploy harmoniously our branches towards each other! Thus, nourished and strengthened by the sap of Mercy, we shall grow heavenward!
Let me point out the similarity of two of Jesus’ Gospel teachings. In one, he said, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt, 5:48). In the Gospel of Luke, he said, "Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful" (Lk, 6:36). We can probably infer from this that mercy bears the seal of spiritual perfection.
Therefore today, let us welcome this gift of God in order to improve our humanity and become more and more servants of mercy and artisans of peace in our world.