When Pope Francis called for this extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy in April, he announced that it would begin today, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, for two reasons. One is that it is the fiftieth anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council and my heart rejoices at the invitation to renew the good work of the Council, tasking us to find new ways of sowing the ancient wisdom of peace, good works, and love of God and neighbor in a world marked by brokenness. The second reason that this year of mercy begins today is that because today we remember Mary, mother of Jesus, mother of mercy, and her immaculate conception: that God worked on the soul of the daughter of Joachim and Anne so she herself was conceived without original sin because God knew she would be theotokos, the God-bearer. It alone is powerful to believe that God became flesh in the world through a marginalized, uncounted young girl whose very name means bitterness.
Scripture teaches us that names are important. The Lord’s Prayer hallows not God, but the very name of the ineffable God. One story from my childhood on divine names stands out. My maternal grandparents come from a small, hillside town in southern Italy named for pine trees and known for its coppersmithy and annual polenta festival. My grandmother would tell me that as a child, the priest would ask children, “What is your mother’s name?” She answered, “Letizia!” “No!” he would reply, striking them, “Your mother’s name is Mary! The mother of God is your first, your real mother.” I remember feeling great relief that my own mother’s name is actually Mary should some late 1980s Brooklyn priest pull this stunt with me. I also remember being upset—I wanted to keep the mother I had as my real mother, thank you very much, although I concede today that I can appreciate the spiritual import of this lesson.
When we are blessed with good parents, we so much want to identify with them. The older I get, the more I realize all the subtle, unconscious ways of being I have picked up from the people that raised me. Other ways of being are more intentional. For example, some Catholics may be familiar with the practice of pinning a Miraculous Medal, the medal of the Immaculate Conception, to babies’ clothing before they are baptized. I know my grandmother did this for me. I remember the two separate occasions in my childhood when my mom and grandma, each without knowing it, gave me one of these little medals. Like them, I carry it with me wherever I go. Tucked away in my coin purse, this pewter oval is fumbled between my thumb and forefinger when I reach for nickels and dimes. I even pocket it when I step out without my wallet. I do this not because I superstitiously believe it to be a talisman that wards against evil, but because I want to be like my mom and grandma even in this small, mindful way of never walking in the world without some reminder of the mother of God.
How different, how much better would the world be if more of us remembered to carry mercy around in our pocket like a little medal? Theologian James Keenan famously writes, “Mercy is entering into the chaos of another.” How little do we see that happen. I would like to read the day’s news and not have to work so hard to remember that I live in what purports itself to be civilized society, governed by the rule of law, judiciously upheld by people with noble hearts and principles who tirelessly work together for the common good. If my mother’s name is mercy, it breaks my heart when I read arguments by Catholic children of divorce who insist that it is just and merciful to continue to prohibit their divorced and remarried parents from ever again receiving the most central sacrament of their faith. With all loving kindness, mercy asks us to confront ourselves and our relationships with hard questions about our own hearts: if we hold all parents to the impossible, unrepeatable standard of Immaculate Mary, what does that say about who we think we are? Do we then see ourselves as the salvation of the world? If justice limits harm and mercy heals, what role does stiff-necked rigidity play in teaching our parents who have suffered through divorce that God’s tender grace is still being offered to them in every moment?
Mercy is com-passion—it literally feels others’ pain. In Hebrew, the term for compassion is the love of a mother for the child in her womb. This is the love we are asked to give everyone, especially to our own parents. Let’s be very honest, this is not always easy. And yet parents are humans like other humans, sinners who make mistakes not always out of malice but for good and heartfelt reasons. We sin for good and heartfelt reasons. Those sins touch people beyond those immediately involved. Just as marriages and new babies magnify the love of families and communities, divorce unsettles those communities, but not forever. God gives us new days so we can learn from our bitterness and brokenness to heal and find joy. Time is the ultimate mercy, the ultimate mother because it is the invitation to wake up to how desperately the hearts of creation, of humanity, of God need healing and realize that we have the power to bring some of that healing into the flesh.
Today we remember that our mother’s name is mercy. Be like your mother.