On the second Sunday after Christmas, in a small inner city church, an elderly woman and a young man brought up the end of the Communion line. The young man was having difficulty walking. It was clear he bore much neurological impairment, his facial expressions revealing a differently-abled person. After receiving the Body of Christ, he turned to go back to his seat. This took him directly in front of the Church’s manger scene. As he passed it, he extended his shaky hand toward the statues of Mary, Joseph and Jesus and smiled.
This young man seemed to embody Pope Francis’ call for a Jubilee Year of Mercy. In his own words:
“We need Christians who make God’s mercy and tenderness for every creature visible to the men of our day. We all know that the crisis of modern man is not superficial but profound. That is why the new evangelization, while it calls us to have the courage to swiw against the tide and to be converted from idols to the true God, cannot but use a language of mercy, which is expressed in gestures and attitudes even before words” (10/14/2013)
The gesture of the young man embodied acceptance and awe of Jesus’ birth, gratitude and peace in his presence, familiarity and joy with Jesus Christ. At the homily at the Mass, the priest spoke hopefully of Christ being with us no matter is happening in our lives. It was a call to hope. Yet the young man spoke with his body of unity with the Son of God and happiness in that reality.
How often in the gospel, we hear people cry out to Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Their call mirroring the gesture of the man after Communion. The expression on his face was both supplication as the man on the side of the road in Jesus’ time, and gratitude for being heard by Christ and being answered. Again in his announcement of the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis says, “With our eyes fixed on Jesus and his merciful gaze, we experience the love of the Most Holy Trinity.” (Misericordiae Vultus, #8)
Without knowing the words or being able to express the theology behind the Trinity, the young man was experiencing the love of the Trinity; and for any who looked at him, they saw the belief in him. To reach our arms to the Lord is to accept the mercy of God. The answer to every prayer is in the plea itself. “The assistance we ask for is already the first step of God’s mercy toward us. God comes to assist us in our weakness. And his help consists in helping us accept his presence and closeness to us. Day after day, touched by his compassion, we also can become compassionate towards others.” (Misericordiae Vultus, #14)
The call in this Year of Mercy is a call to forgive those who hurt us as we accept the forgiveness of God for all we have done to hurt others. It is a call to live more intensely and intentionally the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead; to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offenses, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead.
Pope Francis calls us to contemplate the mystery of mercy, to fix our eyes on Jesus, in whom we see the face of the Father, who is mercy. A good place to begin this contemplation is in the faces of those around us who are the undervalued and overlooked members of society. We may find the path to mercy shown to us by someone who struggles to walk and cannot even speak. It is to such as these that Jesus came.
Sister Patricia McCarthy is provincial for the Congregation of Notre Dame. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.