“Jesus Christ is the face of the [Creator]’s mercy… Everything in him speaks of mercy. Nothing in him is devoid of compassion.” (Pope Francis, “Misericordiae Vultus”)
As I sat on a sunny January morning pondering these words, I felt a resistance churning in me. This statement of truth felt almost too perfect to touch, too complete to be real. Is it possible that every piece of Christ’s existence spoke of mercy to those around him? What about the human pieces of our brother Jesus? How could I relate to a message that seemed to have no room for mistakes, for missed opportunities to show mercy?
As I sat with these questions during the Giving Voice 20’s/30’s retreat for young women religious, my mind wandered over some parables and stories from Jesus’ life. It landed on the Wedding at Cana and Mary’s suggestion that her son might help the couple who had run out of wine. His response?
“Mother, what does that have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”
(Very pastoral, Jesus.) Where was Jesus’ perfect mercy in this seemingly defensive response to his mother’s suggestion?
And then another scene from the Gospels came to mind: Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman pleading on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter,
“Have pity on me!”
We are told in Matthew 15 that Jesus at first ignored her. Then, when her persistent pleas didn’t stop, he claimed that she was not one of his sheep. In the back and forth with the Canaanite woman, Jesus repeatedly makes excuses for not helping her and even seems to label her as unworthy. The woman’s famous response, “but even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table,” is not a testament to Jesus’ mercy, but to her own faith and persistence.
So where was Jesus’ perfect mercy in these encounters with women who called him to compassion even as he seemed to resist? What does God call us to in these examples?
As I stared into the Phoenix sky, I imagined what these moments must have been like for Jesus. I realized that in both stories, Jesus was open and vulnerable enough to allow others to call him to mercy. In the end, when it came to choosing mercy or sticking with his original plan, Jesus did not dig his heels in based on his own sense of the “right time” or the “right people.” In the end, his words were, “Fill those jars with water,” and “Woman, you have great faith! Your wish will come to pass.”
The Gospels don’t tell us that Jesus apologized or moped. They don’t say that he felt like he was not enough because he didn’t initially respond to the need as he might have liked. We have no way of really knowing how it felt for Jesus to be called to mercy in these experiences. But, we can see in the outcomes of these stories a Christ living and responding to the present moment – open to the call that comes, however unexpectedly, in dialogue and relationship with others.
In pondering these stories, I found comfort and relief in the idea of relying on others to call me to mercy, especially in the moments when I’m less than present to the needs around me. One of the beautiful things about religious life – like any life in intentional relationship – is being able to count on others who know me deeply and will hold me accountable to being my best self. This, though not easy by any means, is true gift.
So, it seems the “perfect mercy” I grappled with in my meditation brought me to a new place of understanding about Jesus’ mercy, both human and transcendent. Perhaps a piece of Jesus’ mercy in these moments was for the limited, human part of himself, the part that continued growing into the mystery of mercy as it was being revealed to him in community, as he moved together with others toward greater fullness. I hope that when my “hour” comes, I can channel this same openness to the spirit and the call of the moment.