If people ask us, what does it mean to be a Christian, what do we say? This is another way of asking the question: what are we waiting for in Advent? 

Of course, the correct answer is that in Advent we are waiting for the coming of Jesus Christ.

But our waiting during Advent is not something passive. The coming of Jesus is a calling for us to come to meet him in the manger at Bethlehem.

Our Christian life is a response to this calling, to the encounter with Jesus who comes to us. And that brings us back to the first question — what does it mean to call ourselves Christians?

The most basic answer is this: to be a Christian means we believe what Jesus said about himself — that he is the Son of God who comes to show us God’s mercy and the path to true happiness.

To be a Christian means we have taken Jesus as our model and teacher, and our companion on the road of life. It means we are accompanying Jesus, walking with him and trying to be more like him every day. 

As I mentioned in my column last week, Jesus gave us a practical program for following him in the Beatitudes and the corporal works of mercy.

I talked about the Beatitudes during my columns earlier this year, during Lent. You can find those reflections on the Angelus website. Now, during Advent, I want to reflect on the works of mercy. 

Mercy is at the heart of the Gospel and at the heart of our identity as Christians. Jesus came to show us God’s mercy and he is calling us to follow him in showing mercy to others.

He commands us: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” And he set an example for us that our mercy must be expressed in concrete works of service.

Jesus fed the hungry — multiplying loaves and fishes for the crowds. He gave the thirsty woman at the well the waters of eternal life. He visited the sick with his healing touch. He went about proclaiming good news to the poor, liberty to those in captivity and new life to those who are dying. 

In his parable of the final judgment found in Chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told us that the mercy we show to others is how our love for God will be measured.

So this is how Christians should live. As Jesus did — feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned and burying the dead.

The Church’s many social ministries carry out these works of mercy in an organized way. I urge everyone to be involved in the beautiful works of mercy being performed at your parishes and by Catholic Charities and the St. Vincent De Paul Society and our Catholic Cemeteries.

Mercy must be the way of life for every Christian. Through our works of mercy, Jesus is calling us to open our eyes to see others as brothers and sisters and the image of God. He is calling us to open our hearts and our hands to welcome and serve people.

Our mercy should be generous and it should be personal. For instance, making a donation to Together in Mission is one way to help hundreds of children and families in neighborhoods across the Archdiocese.

You can also reach out to neighbors in need, doing favors and small acts of kindness and friendship. You can volunteer in the good works being done in your parish. At the Cathedral we have a beautiful “Adopt-A-Family” program that provides Christmas gifts for more than 400 families living in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles.  There are many ways to get involved.

Mercy is a personal duty for each one of us. But mercy is also a political and social responsibility.  

The works of mercy call us to create a culture of encounter and communion. To resist and reject all the tendencies in our society to marginalize, divide and exclude. The works of mercy lead us to walk with others and to work for human dignity and justice — so that no one in our society is unwanted, so that no life is ignored or discarded. 

So let us keep praying for each other this week, as we continue to prepare for Christmas and the coming of Jesus.

This Friday we celebrate the great Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, our compassionate Mother and patroness of the Americas.

May she inspire in all of us a new spirit of compassion, so that more and more we are living in the spirit of the Beatitudes and performing works of mercy.