This past year the Holy Father gave us the gift of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, choosing as its motto “Merciful like the Father” (Misericordes sicut Pater). In March, on the Feast of Saint Joseph, he joined this gift with another, Amoris Laetitia, the Apostolic Exhortation on Love in the Family, tying it closely to the theme of the Jubilee, both by inviting Christian families to live in the daily spirit of forgiveness and by encouraging us to be signs of God’s mercy and closeness “wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy” (no. 5).
In Canada, 2016 was a year in which the term mercy took on heightened significance apart from the inspiration of Pope Francis. It was the year when Parliament, provincial legislatures and physicians’ colleges set policies that would permit physicians to help patients end their own lives under the misperception of mercy-as-compassion. It was also the year when Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission would release its findings and calls to action, expressing the suffering felt within indigenous communities, thus prompting Canadians to reflect on what mercy-as-forgiveness ultimately means.
Christmas is not an obvious place to look for insights on mercy, even though it is at this time of year that division and pain cry out for healing. What can Christmas teach us about mercy? The birth of the infant Christ is the event through which mercifulness is revealed as the central aspect of God’s relationship with humanity. God takes on human flesh because of his deep sympathetic concern for our pain and brokenness.
The mystery of the Incarnation is essentially the mystery of God’s compassion. Through Christ, God became like us in all things but sin (Hebrews 4:15), that by his suffering and death on the Cross he might win for us the reward of eternal life (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 457). In this way, we were taught that Christ’s new commandment, to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34 - 35), had virtually no limits in the ordinary run of life.
According to the logic of the New Testament, humility and mercy are inextricably intertwined. To those who love and keep his commandments (John 14:15), Christ’s mercy will flow from generation to generation (Luke 1:50). Such was the declaration of Mary on the occasion of her Visitation to her cousin Saint Elizabeth. It is modelled as well by Mary on Christmas night.
“His mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss,” wrote the poet Christina Rossetti, reconciling a moment of tenderness between mother and infant with the overwhelming reality that this particular infant was love incarnate destined to redeem humanity.
The reverence of Saint Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi, the ox and ass, and the angels above all follow suit. That adoration and mercy are two sides of the same reality may not be apparent at first. But just as humility is required in seeking pardon and forgiving others, so the extent of our mercy, which is the fruit of our humility, necessarily depends on the adoration of Christ: Christ in the manger, Christ on the Cross, Christ in the eucharist.
Our experience of remorse following sin, the brokenness that disrupts our families, the suffering of loved ones who have lost hope in life, the failures for which we must seek pardon and those of others we are asked to pardon, each evoke a different aspect of what it means to be merciful like the Father.
The significance of those who gather on bended knee around the infant Christ, and the many carols and hymns that have since immortalized that moment, is to remind us that the adoration of Christ precedes every great Christian act, not the least of which is mercy.
It is my prayer that this Christmas we might all find room in our lives to adore the infant Christ, seeing in him the face of God’s mercy, and be moved to radiate his love for humanity to those around us.