Mercy and the humility of God

by Ilia Delio

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Christmas is a wonderful time of the year to slow down and reflect on the great mystery of God among us. This year I was reflecting how God shows up unexpectedly in people we might otherwise pass by.

In mid-November while rushing to catch the D.C. Metro, I tripped over my suitcase while running down a set of concrete steps and landed flat on my face. Actually, my chin bore the brunt of the impact. My plans that day came to an abrupt halt. I lay stunned on the ground, for a moment thinking that I had broken my jaw and that I would never speak again. I was not on the ground for more than a minute when I looked up and saw the face of a young man whose dark eyes were looking intensely at my ripped and bleeding chin. "M'am, are you all right? Can I help you?" He gently took my arm and lifted me up (only to realize that I had injured my knee as well). He notified the Metro police right away and then slowly walked me to a holding place in the station.

What deeply struck me, however, was the gaze of this kind man. I remember looking up from the ground and seeing his dark-skinned face with black-rimmed glasses. It was his eyes that said everything. He looked at my bruised face and asked, "Are you hurt?" It was not so much what he said but how he said it, as if in that moment I was the sole concern of his entire life. I was deeply touched by his compassion and care.

The Gospel passage of the Good Samaritan came to mind; in fact, it lit up my thoughts in a way that diverted me from the physical pain of my injuries. My Good Samaritan waited with me at the Metro police quarters until the ambulance arrived, assured that I would be properly treated and cared for. He forfeited his immediate plans, waiting about 45 minutes before I was whisked off to the emergency room for stitches. Now I have to admit that I called Sister Lisa right away and she promptly came to my rescue as well. But this young man, whom I had never met and whose name I still do not know, was in that moment a brother to me. Once he was confident that I would be properly looked after, he continued on his way.

I do not know whether he was Catholic, Muslim or of no particular religion. Nor did it matter. In the midst of being wounded, I saw in that young man the face of Jesus. Christmas had come early.

God is love

In a sermon on the nativity of the Lord, the medieval theologian Bonaventure described the Incarnation as "the eternal God humbly bending down and lifting the dust of our nature into unity with his own person." Divine love is not an abstract concept; it is deeply personal, shown to us in the humble birth of a tiny baby. This mystery of divine love boggles the modern mind, whether it is the scientific mind of measurement, the intellectual mind of facticity or the cultural mind of materialism. We can't quite get a handle on what God is because we treat God like a concept, rather than a deeply personal "fountain fullness" of love, as Bonaventure described.

Christianity sees this mystery of divine love in a particular way, as wisdom and Word, expressed in the person of Jesus Christ. Divine love is personally self-expressive and self-giving: the Word became flesh and dwells among us. The operative words are "flesh" and "us" — the God "above us" is "within us;" heaven has come to Earth.

Looking around using Google, we might find this Christian God either overly pietistic or outright fictitious, as the media displays a daily dose of war, violence, poverty, misery and corruption. A God who is fountain fullness of love is in our midst? Where is this God made flesh? The humility of God is deeply troublesome to other monotheistic faiths, rendering the Christian God outright scandalous. Imagine us claiming that the omnipotent Creator of all, the great I AM is now present as a tiny, helpless human baby! How could we possibly make this claim with such ease and assurance? Even better, where is the proof? Yet, this is the mystery of Christmas — love bending low, so low as to be humble and hidden in the visible faces of you and me.

The Victorine scholar, Hugh of Saint-Victor, of the medieval school of Chartres, once wrote that "love goes further than knowledge;" love takes us beyond the visible into the invisible and ineffable experience of unitive life. We know more by way of love than by way of knowledge because love is based on personal relationship and experience. To say "God is love" and the one who "lives in love lives in God" (1 John 4:16) is to say that experience and encounter trump conceptual ideas of the divine. The Christian God requires the right brain of deep connectivity, passion, vision and freedom. The emotional brain is called to connect through the senses: touch, taste, sight and smell. What does this divine Word made flesh call us to see? That the mystery of absolute divine love is absolutely given to us; divinity is relinquished into humanity (and the evolution of life leading up to the human). The gift is in the given, which means the source of All, Love unconditional, the Alpha and Omega, lies at the core of you and me.

Love dwells within

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger spoke of Being, not as a conceptual argument for God, but as an activity immanent in this world, a self-giving presence rather than a transcendent Creator God. In his view we are "immersed in a world of finite material things that we try to control for our own individual purposes but which in the end control us because we have lost perspective on how to deal with them in meaningful ways."

We accept without thinking the givenness of the world around us and most of the things within it. It takes an "emergency," a break in our everyday consciousness, to become aware of what is always already there awaiting our response. This may be the real import of the birth of Jesus, an awakening of consciousness to what is already present. And the first level of consciousness is awareness of our own subjectivity. In the thought of philosopher Edith Stein, "I do not exist of myself, and of myself I am nothing. Every moment I stand before nothingness, so that every moment I must be dowered anew with being . . . this nothinged being of mine, this frail received being. . . . It thirsts not only for endless continuation of its being but for full possession of being." The "I" is not alone and experiences loneliness only when it becomes unconscious of its very existence.

The late polyglot and Catholic priest, Raimon Panikkar, wrote that "there is in Man an urge, an aspiration to know the source of all knowledge, and by knowing this, all becomes known." God is the absolute power and depth of the seeker him or herself. Delving into ourselves, we find the presence of this Mystery in our dynamism toward it. As we search outside ourselves for meaning, we must search ever more within. In the total movement of our being, and becoming conscious of it, we reach an awareness of the reality of God who dwells among us and within us.

Reflecting on Christmas and the power of divine love in our midst opens our eyes; the love that moves the stars and the other planets is the same love that gives birth to you and me. It is the love that lies at the core of our personal being and holds us in being. This love is powerful and unconditional and yet perfectly free. God is with us at every moment with open arms, laughing when we are laughing, weeping when we are weeping, rejoicing when we are rejoicing. God shares in the brokenness of this world out of an abundance of divine love. It is because God is the fountain fullness of love that God can share in the sufferings of our lives and through these sufferings draw us into new life.

Faith, love and suffering

God's love is the power of love to heal and transform death into life. To have faith in a God of unconditional love is to realize how intimately close God is. So close that our joys and sorrows, our grief and anguish are wrapped up tightly in God's humble embrace. So close we forget God's presence.

In his own day, Jesus was immersed in a violent culture, a culture of conflict and anxiety. But he also knew of the deeper truth hidden beneath the surface of human judgment, namely, that this broken, anxious world is oozing with God. He asked us to have faith, to believe that the reign of God is among us and within us.

Jesuit Fr. Patrick Malone wrote: "Faith is more than a magical formula to conquer the worry, regret, shame and resentments that cloud our visions and make us jaded and tired. Having faith does not remove every trace of self-absorption and doubt. Those things are part of the human condition. Faith is what brings us into the deepest truth that says we are in the image of an unlimited, unrestricted, unimaginable love. And when we forget that, as Jesus reminded the religious authorities of his day, then religion does become a shield, a crutch, a closed refuge instead of a way to boldly throw ourselves into a harsh world, knowing that is precisely where we discover a generous God."

There is no other path into the heart of God, Bonaventure wrote, than through the burning love of the crucified Christ. This may not make too much sense to us, especially in our own age of violence. But my friend Cynthia Bourgeault captures the insight of Bonaventure in her book The Wisdom Jesus where she writes:

Could it be that this earthly realm, not in spite of, but because of, its very density and jagged edges, offers precisely the conditions for the expression of certain aspects of divine love that could become real in no other way? This world does indeed show forth what love is like in a particularly intense and costly way. But when we look at this process more deeply, we can see that those sharp edges we experience as constriction at the same time call forth some of the most exquisite dimensions of love, which require the condition of finitude in order to make sense — qualities such as steadfastness, tenderness, commitment, forbearance, fidelity, and forgiveness. . . . Let me be clear here. I am not saying suffering exists in order for God to reveal himself. I am only saying where suffering exists and is consciously accepted, there divine love shines forth brightly.

The person who cannot love cannot suffer, Dorothee Soëlle once claimed; for she or he is without grief, without feeling, and indifferent. To find in human suffering the liberation of love, and to love by accepting human suffering, is the path of costly, salvific love, where suffering is overcome by suffering and wounds are healed by wounds. We suffer the pain of suffering when we experience the lack of love, the pain of abandonment, and the isolation of unbelief. The suffering of pain and abandonment is overcome by the suffering of love which is not afraid of what is sick and ugly but accepts it and takes it into itself to heal it. Is this not the way of mercy and compassion? Anyone who enters into love, and through love experiences the inextricable suffering of fragile humanity, enters into the human history of God.

That is why it is hard to logically explain a religion where we have a God who gets absurdly close, so incredibly close that we are forced to discover the face of God in all the mess of the world no matter how confusing or abrasive — racial injustice, terrorism, poverty, global warming. Too often we want a God who will hear our cries and fix things for us, who will be strong enough to push our painful experiences away. But the mystery of Christmas tells us otherwise. It is not that God is deaf to the cry of the poor. It is rather that God is poor. It is not that God does not see our tears but God too is weeping. Only a humble God who bends so low to pitch it all away in love can heal us and make us whole.

God has nowhere to dwell except in us which means salvation requires our participation. The young Dutch Jewess Etty Hillesum came to this realization in a stark prison cell where she wrote: "All disasters stem from us. Why is there war? Perhaps because now and then I might be inclined to snap at my neighbor. Because I and my neighbor and everyone else do not have enough love. . . . Yet there is love bound up inside us, and if we could release it into the world, a little each day, we would be fighting war and everything that comes with it." Etty opened her heart to divinity and found God dwelling in humanity, in the midst of an atrocious Holocaust.

Compassion: The arms of mercy

This "bending low" of God, this "foolish nearness" of God, says to us that God lives in human hearts. God's compassion needs human hands, human eyes and human touch. Our only credible action is to bless this world by allowing God to break through our less-than-stellar lives. We have enormous power to heal this wounded world through merciful love, loving hearts which welcome the stranger and accept the suffering of another as our own.

That is why Pope Francis' Year of Mercy may be an axial year of change toward a more unified world of justice and peace, if we can let down our intellectual guards, deconstruct our consumer- driven homes, and open our hearts to divinity wandering around like a beggar in suffering humanity. The Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky said that God is like a beggar of love who stands at the door of our soul and knocks; each of us, however, must make the personal decision to open the door.

Recently I met a young man who must have let God in, whether knowingly or not. For he looked at me with eyes of love and I am sure, at that moment, I saw the face of God.

[Ilia Delio, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Washington, D.C., is the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University. She is the author of sixteen books and the general editor of the series Catholicity in an Evolving Universe. Her newest book is Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology and Consciousness (Orbis Books 2015).]