Facing Mercy

by | Feb 14, 2016 | Formation, Reflections


Facing Mercy: In the Reign of God’s Mercy There Are No Anonymous Faces in Crowds

Writers often acknowledge the importance of opening words and lines.  Images grab; words beckon; tones compel; and even official church documents capitalize on this dynamic.  Church documents generally travel through time with settled and sometimes familiar names (yes, even Latin ones) such as Sacrasanctum Concilium, Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes, and Dei Verbum.  Pope Francis’ “Bull of Indiction” introducing the Jubilee Year of Mercy opens with two simple Latin words, Misericordiae Vultus – that is, “The Face of Mercy.”  The English translation of the its opening sentence simply states: “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy” (MV #1)

While avoiding word games, the document capitalizes with some frequency on this image of the face.  Four times Francis refers to the “face” (#1, 4, 17, 25).  Linked with this image of the face, four times Francis refers to the “gaze” either as a noun or verb, either our gaze or God’s (MV #3/2 times, 7, 8).  Francis states: “At times we are called to gaze even more attentively on mercy (MV #3).  Later in the document, when referring to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Francis emphasizes her “countenance” and her “merciful eyes” (MV #24).  Faces matter for Francis.  The question arises, why?  The answer is worth chasing a bit.

Oddly enough, excluding conversation about Veronica’s towel, her “veil” as we sometimes say (remember, Vera-nica essentially means true face) and the Shroud of Turin, we know next to nothing about Christ’s actual face; we know even less about Mary’s countenance.  The gospels tell us nothing about their facial features though possibly we might surmise – eye color, nose shapes, eyebrows bushy or not, lips thin or thick, crow’s feet, whatever.   Still, faces loom large in daily life.  Whole industries capitalize (the word choice here is purposeful) on beautifying the face.  The bane of high definition television includes closer inspection of facial imperfections.

So, why the face in the Bull?  More importantly, why the “face of mercy”?

Perhaps because faces, as Francis seems to know, touch reality.  Gym rats exercise with little concern for the face; however, beauticians attend to faces.  The face “embodies” in a way arguably different from any other part of the human person or body.  Christ’s face entails a dense or intensified locus of the Incarnation (cf. John 14:9).  Concrete, unique, communicative – the face gazes and we gaze on faces.

Interestingly, whole philosophical schools of thought have centered on the face and the gaze.  Whether Pope Francis is aware of this does not surface in the Bull of Indiction but it would be hard to think he is not.  The famous Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas crafted a quite substantial ethics based on the phenomenon of the face.  A small sampling of his thought includes the following gems of insight and provocation:

“The face is a living presence; it is an expression…  The face speaks.”

“…the face speaks to me and thereby invites me to relation…”

“The face is what forbids us to kill.”

“The skin of the face is that which stays most naked, most destitute…  [T]here is an essential poverty in the face.”

It hardly comes as a surprise that the Bull yokes both the face and the gaze/gazing.  Though Francis invites us to gaze on the face of God’s mercy in Christ, the first movement theologically resides with God.  God gaze precedes ours.  A theology of grace demands that we remember this divine antecedent gaze.  As Francis notes elsewhere, “God is always ahead of us.”

There seems a distinction of sorts between merely looking and “gazing.”  Gazing entails more than mere physical sight; it entails a lingering longing and loving, an engagement of God on the deepest levels that wells up from tender love.  One doesn’t generally gaze in crowds and on the street; try it and you’re likely to be arrested or at least admonished.  But God doesn’t simply “see” us or merely “look at” us.  God gazes deeply upon us.  To borrow an old expression, God simply can’t take his (or her) eyes off us.

Perhaps we can discern a strategy here.  Mercy has a face, namely, Christ Jesus; hence, mercy entails Incarnation, or to use fat fancy theological categories, a Trinitarian Incarnation ontology of sorts.  In Christ, the Word became flesh and, among other things, gazed on us.  Hence, responding to and in mercy involves concrete strategies and particular relationships.  While not negating the importance of meta-theories of mercy (or for that matter justice), still, Francis seems interested in concrete and particular embodiments of mercy, or to employ the image, faces of mercy.

One is reminded of the scene from the old film Monsieur Vincent in which Vincent finds himself in the presence of Richelieu awkwardly protesting that he no longer remembers the faces and the names of the poor.  While the historicity of the scene is highly suspect, the idea certainly leans upon an aspect of Vincent’s spirituality.  Imaginative fiction doesn’t negate truth.  Vincent engages not simply the face of poverty, but the concrete and particular faces of the poor.  Vulnerable and fragile skin of unique faces looms large as at least a part of Vincentian spirituality.

One is reminded here of the beautiful prose poem by Brian Doyle entitled “A Shimmer of Something” in a collection by the same title in which Doyle describes the funeral Mass of “the aged mother of the woman who married me” and the parade of friends and family who, shuffling on their way to receive Holy Communion touched his wife – “Some bent down to hug her.  Some touched her hair gently.  Some just placed a hand on her shoulder.  One woman reached down and cupped her Face in her hands for an instant.  Sure I wept.”  This adds a whole layer of meaning to the phrase “corporal works of mercy.”  There’s the face again.  To quote Francis referring to Christ: “His flesh becomes visible in the flesh of the tortured, the crushed, the scourged, the malnourished, and the exiled… to be acknowledged, touched, and cared for by us” (MV #15).

The questions raised are fairly obvious for us.  Using a kind of Ignatian imaginative meditation, what does Christ’s merciful face look like?  What do the concrete faces of the poor I know look like?  In the Reign of God’s mercy, there are no anonymous faces in the crowd.


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