St Augustine has some interesting things to say about the Latin word for mercy, misericordia. It is made of two words: cor and miseria. Cor means ‘heart’, miseria ‘misery’, or better, ‘wretchedness’, ‘misfortune’, ‘unhappiness’, the state of things not being right. So, he says, a merciful person is someone who first takes the miseria, the unhappy plight, of someone else into their own heart / cor. He feels for it, identifies with it, empathises, interiorises it, makes it his own. Then, as a second element, he does something to relieve this plight, to rescue the person, to change their situation for the better. He offers help. So mercy is both a feeling and an action.
The great message of this year is that our God is merciful. This is to use human language, a human comparison. It’s to say God takes our miseria into his heart, into his very self. He’s not indifferent to it, though we may think he is. He makes it his own. He has done that in the person of Christ. The Son of God has taken into his divine person our body, our life, our human condition, our human suffering and death, and made it his own. Think of the Cross. And at the same time he has done something about it. He has brought us, is bringing us and will bring us into a better place. And the effective sign of that is his Resurrection, which opens up a new way of being human.
So Christ’s death and resurrection are the great expression in history of divine mercy. They are its sacrament. And they are kept before us daily in the Eucharist.
Let’s explore this a little more, with today’s feast in mind.
One of the most iconic acts of mercy in Christian tradition is the story of St Martin of Tours and the beggar. There are many paintings of it, by El Greco among others. Martin was a Roman soldier at the time, a catechumen, not yet baptised. The weather was cold, a freezing ill-clad beggar approached him, Martin cut his large, warm cloak in two, and gave half to the beggar. Later in a dream Christ appeared to him, wearing the half-cloak he had given away. Clothing the naked is one of the corporal works of mercy and mentioned in the Gospel (Mt 25:36).
In today’s 1st reading, Adam, after his sin, realises he is naked. And he hides from God. This is symbolic language. Before their sin, Eve and he had been clothed in grace, as it were, protected by the love of God. And then they turned away from that. And so they found themselves naked. Exposed, unprotected, very vulnerable, open to the elements, as it were, a prey to others, ashamed, needing to hide. It is a symbol of fallen humanity, of us stripped, denuded of the all-encompassing presence of God, dis-graced. That’s the meaning of original sin: to be deprived of the clothing of grace. And God’s whole work of mercy is to re-clothe us, to clothe the naked human being again. The very next thing God does in the Genesis story is something touching and quaint. He becomes a dressmaker, a tailor: ‘And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them’ (Gen 3:21). It was a prophecy of still better garments to come. And so in today’s Entrance Antiphon, words from Isaiah are put in Mary’s mouth: ‘I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation, and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, like a bride adorned with her jewels’ (Is 61:10). Mary’s Immaculate Conception was her clothing. As a child of Eve, like the rest of us, Mary would have been conceived without sanctifying grace, spiritually naked, but the merciful Father took this unhappy possibility into his heart and averted it. He showed her mercy. The redeeming grace of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, even before its historical unfolding, covered her nakedness, clothed her in the splendour of holiness, filled her with the Holy Spirit. She was, after all, destined to clothe the Son of God with our humanity and to wrap him in swaddling clothes when he was born. And what we see in her – in glorious technicolour, in bold, in high definition, as it were – is God’s merciful will for us. He wants to take away our nakedness, our shame, our need to hide from him and each other, and clothe us in mercy. Mary’s clothing was her Immaculate Conception. Ours is our baptism. It’s the teaching of St Paul: ‘For as many of you as were baptized into Christ, have put on Christ’ (Gal 3:27). So when, at a baptism, the godparents put a white garment on the child or adult, the priest says: ‘Rupert / Hermione, you have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ. Receive this baptismal garment and bring it unstained to the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that you may have everlasting life.’ ‘Before the world was made, he chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in his presence’ – clothed in mercy.
No wonder Mary says in her Magnificat: ‘And his mercy is from age to age on those who fear him.’ No wonder she says, ‘He has come to the aid of Israel his servant, remembering his mercy.’ This mercy of God, like St Martin’s, covers our nakedness and clothes us, wraps and protects us in his love, his grace, his tenderness and peace. It gives us dignity and elegance, beauty and confidence.
There’s one more step. What we receive is what we’re to give. Mary received great mercy. Therefore in the Church she’s experienced as a great giver of mercy, of succour, of help. The oldest prayer to Mary is known as the Sub Tuum. It dates from the 3rd century. It begins, ‘we fly to your patronage’. Originally it began, ‘we fly to your mercy, O holy Mother of God.’ In the Salve Regina we call her the mother of mercy and ask her to turn her eyes of mercy towards us and show us the blessed fruit of her womb, Christ our clothing. The Alma Redemptoris Mater ends with asking her, ‘have mercy on sinners.’ We have all seen those moving images of Mary with a great cloak sheltering all sorts of people, clothing them in mercy. In old Germanic law, if a mother took an illegitimate child and sheltered it under her cloak, that child was automatically legitimated…
And Mary is our pattern: the pattern of the Church and of the Christian. Let’s try to clothe each other in mercy: in sympathy and kindness and practical help. Let’s care for each other. We want to take each other’s troubles to heart, feel them as our own. We want to cover our father’s nakedness like the good sons of Noah, hide people’s faults (cf. Gen 9: 21-27). We want our country to welcome refugees and give them shelter. Maybe we literally have more clothes than we need and can give some to the SVP or wherever! ‘I was naked and you clothed me.’ Mercy received, mercy given.
This is the invitation of this Jubilee of Mercy. This is what Pope Francis is after. Our Cathedral Door of Mercy will say, as we enter, ‘receive mercy’, and as we leave, ‘give mercy’. So Mary’s story will be ours as well.