Each year I’m privileged to visit the Holy Land to promote the nearly 800-year-old mission of the Franciscans there. With each visit, I discover something new. God is always at work, opening up new insights for any pilgrim who visits this ancient land.
This past spring, I spent nearly a week with the friars who live at and minister in the great Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. During my stay I explored this modern church—consecrated in 1969—each day with my camera, photographing the contemporary artwork and striking architecture which helps the visitor come closer to the mystery of the Incarnation.
The Basilica of the Annunciation is divided into an upper and lower church. The lower church contains the inscription under the altar, “Here, the Word was made flesh,” on the spot which recalls the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary. The upper church contains soaring concrete arches and contemporary artwork. Over the confessionals, four marble inlaid panels, created by an Italian artist named Alessandrini, and depict Gospel passages relating to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
As I took a closer look at these four panels, I began to think about what Pope Francis has written and preached during this year—particularly about our practice of confession, and its part in the larger understanding of mercy.
Have you ever spent an excessive amount of time trying to find something you’ve lost? Especially when I’ve lost something of value—tickets to an event, a cherished photo, my car keys—there’s a strong compulsion to keep looking no matter how much time it takes. Of course, that desire to keep searching is intensified in the case if it’s a person who becomes lost—either figuratively or actually. Picture parents driving frantically through the neighborhood in search of a toddler who’s wandered off.
Searching for what is lost is a powerful image in the Gospels. In Chapter 15 of his narrative, Luke presents three parables of Jesus which show the reaction of a shepherd who finds a lost sheep, a householder who finds a lost coin, and the father who welcomes home a lost son.
Pope Francis comments on these three parables in his decree proclaiming the Year of Mercy. He understands the intensity of the three main characters, who do not give up on finding what was lost. This intensity defines mercy, the pope says: “mercy is presented as a force that overcomes everything, filling the heart with love and bringing consolation through pardon” (Misericordiae Vultus [MV], 9).
Later in the same Gospel, Jesus, after accepting the invitation to dine with Zacchaeus, the tax collector, says that “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Lk 19:10).
That is the quote which appears under one of the panels in the Basilica of the Annunciation over the confessionals—and the image is of Jesus the Good Shepherd, carrying a lost sheep on his shoulders.
That powerful image captures so many of the Gospel stories. Think of all the people Jesus dealt with who were lost—in one way or another. The imagery which Jesus uses when he speaks of himself as shepherd underscores the intensity of God’s love for us. Jesus’ audience would have understood the image, and would have understood how a shepherd would go after one of his flock which got lost—even leaving the rest of the flock to carry out the search.
Jesus broke down barriers to seek out and embrace those who were lost. Zacchaeus is just one example. Tax collectors were unpopular; prostitutes and other public sinners were shunned; lepers were outcast; Gentiles were to be avoided. Throughout the Gospels, he became—as Pope Francis declares—“the face of the Father’s mercy” (MV, 1).
Indeed, mercy, as embodied in Jesus, is truly “a force that overcomes everything”!