Pope Francis, Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy (11 April 2015), section 1 – “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him.”
Pope Francis commanded that a Year of Mercy happen for all members of the Catholic Church, commencing on December 8th and concluding in late November 2016. His conviction is that the divine mercy, and our Christian mission to manifest it in convincing ways, is an essential redemptive reply to much that our world is facing right now. He invites Catholics to pay closer attention to the biblical witness concerning the activity of God, and especially in the Gospels, so that we might be taught by God directly how often it is mercy that motivates that divine action. Pope Francis invites all other Christians to join in this same holy search for the heart of God in His divine mercy.
But consider first something more simple.
One of the things that is so interesting about people is our remarkable capacity to imitate. For example, studies have shown how newborn children learn as quickly as they do because of their extraordinary capacity to mimic those around them – think how quickly they learn their native language. Parents of middle school children are often embarrassed hearing their children repeat what they say at home to others. And sometimes adults try to imitate their children as a way, it appears, to make themselves be younger than they are. We have great capacity to mimic.
Or consider this. We all notice how when someone laughs, everyone around that person smiles or begins to laugh too. Our faces change. Almost unconsciously we imitate what we see and hear. In fact, I have often noticed how people in such a circumstance like to look at the other faces in the crowd, enjoying watching other people laugh, watching their faces twist in unique ways and listening to all the startling sounds that constitute human laughter. Even if a person does not really “get it,” he or she will laugh or smile anyway. We have a great propensity to mimic.
My question for our consideration here has to do with that phrase – “a face of mercy” (Latin, misericordiae vultus). Could we mimic that?
What does a merciful face look like? Can we conjure up in our imagination a face like this from our life story? When someone in our past really showed us mercy, do you remember what his or her face looked like? What was it in that face and its gestures that taught you or me instantly what mercy looks like, such that we believed in the reality of the mercy that was being extended to us? I ask again, what does a merciful face look like?
We have unnumbered television shows and movies that show to us what funny, laughing, sorrowing, terrified, thoughtful, confused, aggressive, cold, mean, and sometimes kind faces look like. On what shows are the merciful faces shown us? What do they look like? Would we know what to look for? When Pope Francis visited our country recently was it that, a merciful face, that we saw? I have rarely indeed ever seen such a face like his on television shows or movies.
And when we personally were shown a merciful face in a gift of mercy, did we then go out and show a merciful face to someone else? What did seeing a merciful face do to my face?
What, then, would happen to our faces if we spent time in this jubilee year of mercy hunting for specifically merciful faces among good people we know, but especially on the face of Jesus in the Gospels? What would we learn about mercy by studying what such faces show us? How would our faces become more like the face of God if we were exposed habitually to the face of Jesus in our prayerful imagination and contemplation of his earthly ministry? We have been entrusted with a requirement to mimic what we see. Or as the ancient philosopher Plotinus once so insightfully wrote: “We become what we contemplate.”