This past Christmas Eve, I had the delight of holding my friends’ newborn baby for a long time while visiting their home after Mass. I cradled him in my arms as I walked around the house and sang to him softly, enchanted by his smallness and his coos and his sustained gazes into my eyes. My own “baby” is not so much a baby anymore, and it refreshed my soul to recall the feeling of a newborn in my arms and to enjoy the wonder of his tenderness. It crossed my mind that Mary must have felt similar delight while holding baby Jesus on the night he was born.
God’s presence seemed as palpable to me as the infant in my arms, revealing a truth through my senses about the grace present in those gentle moments. To be honest, the first image the words “tenderness” and “gentleness” bring to my mind is that of a soft, meek, little lamb—at best, adorable but kind of cutesy; at worst, weak and helpless. What sort of ideal is that to strive for when our daily context instills in us so much discomfort with vulnerability and sincerity?
Yet we know by now that God’s reign is a surprising place, where the ineffable Word became incarnate in the form of an infant born to humble parents, and would grow up to be executed on the cross like a lamb led meekly to the slaughter. Small wonder, then, that mercy, at the heart of God’s encounter with humankind, should reveal itself in the moments that soften our hearts by their gentleness. The disarming power of mercy is in its unwavering gentle embrace in response to the offense of sin and rejection. Mercy wells up when gentleness fills the space that harsh retaliation was expected to take. Our astonishment leads to gratitude, sparking a conversion born of love. St. Ignatius was no stranger to this deeply emotional phenomenon and its transformative power, and included meditations on these merciful encounters as an integral part of his Spiritual Exercises.
In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we pray together with Pope Francis that we may, as a Church, “bring good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed, and restore sight to the blind.” The work of mercy is to recognize as God’s beloved and minister gently to those who are most burdened under the weight of our imperfect condition and our structures of sin. Mercy is the fruit of compassion, which cannot occur without an encounter with others’ suffering and deeply felt needs. It means first putting ourselves in the midst of those who are most downtrodden and marginalized, even the most offensive among us, and letting our whole demeanor be humbled and softened by what (and whom) we encounter.
A bearing of gentleness is the vision I carry with me into this new year and throughout the Year of Mercy. Gentleness seems to be a gift we don’t give each other frequently enough. In moments of frustration and irritation, in moments of drudgery, in moments of disgust, in moments of self-doubt and insecurity, in moments of encounter with suffering and vulnerability—let me embrace it all and respond with gentleness, and so be a conduit of God’s mercy.