The voice of Pope Francis rang out loud and clear, “Do not forget to take Misericordina, because it does us good: the heart, the soul, our whole life!” To the surprise of the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square on November 18, 2013 for the Sunday Angelus, the Pope distributed twenty thousand small boxes, each containing a rosary. The instructions read: “As a means of prevention it is to be taken once a day, and in emergencies, as many times at your soul requires.”
Two years before the opening of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis was already convinced that mercy is the most efficacious medicine for the spiritual illnesses of our time. Saint John XXIII shared this intuition when he revealed in the opening speech of the Second Vatican Council: “Now the Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy…”
This repeated phrase “medicine of mercy” caught my interest, and with a bit of research, I discovered that it has very ancient origins. In his Easter Vigil homily of April 3, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI quoted an ancient Jewish legend from the apocryphal book “The life of Adam and Eve.” The story recounts that in his final illness, Adam sent his son Seth together with Eve into the region of Paradise to fetch the oil of mercy so that he could be anointed with it and healed. The two of them went in search of the tree of life, and after much praying and weeping on their part, the Archangel Michael appeared to them and told them they would not obtain the oil of the tree of mercy, and that Adam would have to die.
The Jewish idea of the existence of an oil of mercy that serves as an antidote of death is found also in the Biblical text of Sirach: “A faithful friend is the medicine of life.” (Sir 6:16) What an incredible medicine is that which not only heals the wound or fights the illness, but that is able to give life! Let’s look at Tylenol, as an example. When you have the flu, you might take Tylenol to reduce your fever. In this case, the medicine doesn’t cure you of the flu, but simply fights the symptoms of fever and pain. The divine medicine, however, is capable of much more: it heals the wound, fights the origin of the illness, and it overcomes death.
God’s mercy is the medicine that gives life. In the attempt to render more comprehensible the concept of mercy, we may ask ourselves: “Who gives life?” “A mother.” “Where does this life physically come from?” “From the uterus.” In fact, the word “mercy” comes from the Greek term “splagchna” which indicates the strong sentiment of compassion that surges from the maternal womb. Pope Francis reminds us of this in Misericordiae Vultus, 6:
“The mercy of God is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality with which he reveals his love as of that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of love for their child. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that this is a “visceral” love. It gushes forth from the depths naturally, full of tenderness and compassion, indulgence and mercy.”
A mother is not only the one who generates life, but also the model of unconditional love. Even when her child rebels against her, when he makes her suffer for his bad choices, a mother doesn’t hold it against him. A mother is incapable of remembering the offenses; she forget them immediately, like the pains of labor, “she forgets the anguish because of the great joy that a child is born into the world” (Jn 16:21).
Now take a moment to recall an occasion in which you experienced tenderness towards someone; a time when you felt, as the Pope says, “a deep sentiment, full of tenderness and compassion, indulgence and mercy.”
Towards whom did you have this experience? What circumstances led you to this strong sentiment of compassion?
God feels this for us, and infinitely more so, in every instant of our lives. We may experience compassion rarely as a gift, whereas God is made of mercy: it is his very essence. We may notice that we feel tenderness more easily for a child or an elderly person, perhaps when we see them as weak and defenseless. Often our children produce compassion in us when they are in difficulty, and thus we are motivated to protect them and show them the beauty that we perceive in them. In an analogous way, God sees our beauty precisely when we see it less. God runs to our aid when we fall in order to raise us to the image of His Son that he glimpses in us.
Returning to our quotation from Sirach, we find that along with the mother that gives life, there is also the friend who is the medicine of life. Friendship is another experience through which we receive mercy. A loyal friend will never abandon us, not even when we distance ourselves from him. He leaves us free, even to hurt him, and waits patiently until we come back; he know us completely, and although his sees all of our defects and incapacities, he accepts and loves us as we are; he takes care of us, especially when we are unable to take care of ourselves. The Pope describes divine mercy like this:
God does not limit himself merely to affirming his love, but makes it visible and tangible…By its very nature, love indicates something concrete: intentions, attitudes, and behaviors that are shown in daily living. The mercy of God is his loving concern for each one of us. He feels responsible; that is, he desires our wellbeing and he wants to see us happy, full of joy, and peaceful.” Misericordiae Vultus, 9
God shows us his mercy through a thousand concrete actions throughout the day: from the sun that warms our skin to the friend that He put next to us…infinite are the ways in which God takes care of us. He cares for us because He feels responsible. We can ask ourselves: Do I feel responsible for someone? Perhaps for my son, for my husband, for my parents, or for my friend? To feel responsible means that I take to heart those people; I am genuinely interested in their (eternal!) happiness; I take upon myself their burdens; I am ready to walk the journey with them, and at the same time, I leave them free to stand on their own. I desire that they be protected in grace and in union with the Lord.
At the end of our life, we will arrive at the tree of mercy, which is the Cross, and the Lord will ask us the same question that He asked at the beginning of the history of salvation: “Janel, where is _____, your sister? Where is _____, your friend? Starting today, let’s try to respond differently than our predecessor Cain: “Here is, _____, next to me. I am my brother’s keeper.”
And then the Divine Doctor will give us the oil of mercy that is the medicine of immortality.
Think of three persons for whom I feel particularly responsible. Then think of a concrete action for each one of them through which I can express my care, my mercy.