"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

Nearness, Compassion, Tenderness of Christ the King of the Universe

n February 14, 2021, Pope Francis delivered an Angelus reflection talking about the three styles of God: nearness, compassion, and tenderness. I would like to use these three points for my sharing.

When Pope Francis talked about the nearness of God, we were at the height of the pandemic that necessitated social distancing. Yet despite this, Pope Francis urged people to follow God's style of nearness. Early last year I advised my youngest sister who is a nurse against her own decision to work in the hospital. At that time she was working already in a hospice for the aged managed by religious nuns in New York City, which was a COVID hot spot. I asked my sister why she still needed to leave her previous job which I thought was a safer place away from the virus. She said, “Why not? There are more patients in the hospital! There is greater need for nurses there and I can learn so much more so I can be more useful.” After I heard her reasons I was ashamed of myself because I was not as courageous as her. She is more selfless than her brother priest. She even took a special training to become an Infectious Disease Nurse precisely not just to be near but to be right at the center of where the virus is. There was one visit she had to the Philippines right before the pandemic and she asked me if she could vonlunteer at the Jesuit Wellness Center in Ateneo Campus. I asked again why, she said she would like to give care for the elderly people.

A month ago she sent me a note informing me that she got a recognition from the JFK University Medical Center where she currently works. I was dumbstruck upon reading her citation that says, “She is often mentioned in the patient satisfaction surveys by the patients and their families, as well as in gratitude expressed by the team members for always being there for anyone in need.” If my sister listened to my advise I would have become the very stumbling block to God who was clearly calling my sister to a noble vocation. Indeed, our God is a God of nearness in the person of all the medical workers who dared to get near when everybody else wanted to flee from the deadly virus.

The second is God's style of compassion. Pope Francis spoke to pilgrims during his general audience at the conclusion of his year-long catechesis on Christian hope in 2017. He spoke about his reflections on heaven, which, he says, is the ultimate “goal of our hope.” He recalled when Jesus was hanging on the cross between two criminals, and one, whom we call the “good thief,” had the courage to make the most humble request: “Remember me when you enter into your kingdom.” The thief didn't have good deeds to bring before the Lord, but he relied on the mercy of God that was clearly being shown in Jesus who was innocent, so good and so different from all human beings. The good thief’s word of humble repentance was enough to touch the heart of Jesus and to which Jesus responded “today you will be with me in paradise.” The Holy Father also calls attention to the fact that this is the only time the borrowed word παραδείσῳ “paradiso” appears in the four Gospels. The word is indigenously Persian in origin. Perhaps it was the language of those who were enslaved and executed. Jesus, in the process of inculturation, made the Gospel message penetrate a given sociocultural milieu. The Good news was understood and received by this dying man beside him, telling him he will not leave this world empty handed. The Pope said that “the good thief reminds us of our true condition before God: that we are His children, that He has compassion for us, that He is disarmed every time we show him the nostalgia of his love.” The compassion of God is to see Jesus hanging on the cross with you. “Even when someone is on their deathbed and makes a final examination of conscience only to realize how many opportunities for good works they have missed… they must not be discouraged,” the Pope adds, “but trust in the mercy of God.”

The third point is about God’s tenderness which is akin to God’s light. If we trace where the light of day comes from it comes from a star, the sun. Stars are very much mortal, like humans. Stars are born and ultimately they die. Stars do not shine eternally, their light too is borrowed, in another way of putting it these stars live to mirror some light for a given span of time. Some of the stars we see at night have died millions of light years ago but we are seeing just now the remnants of their light. The moon although it is not a star is the clearest example of a mirror for it is visible only because of the starlight that it reflects. In the book of Exodus, the skin of Moses's face shone, after coming down from Mt Sinai, and the children of Israel were afraid to come near him (Ex 34:29-35). His face shone because he had been beholding the glory of the Lord on the mountain. After that Moses used a veil to cover this starlike radiance. I believe this is what happens to a person who has been touched by God’s tenderness and God’s radiance. He or she exudes, radiates and mirrors God’s light to others. For persons who go on retreat and spend hours upon hours of silent prayer how could their faces not shine? I often tell my retreatants that we are all mirrors of God’s tender light. As a spiritual guide I also become a mirror for another to behold himself or herself. Such is the great priviledge of a spiritual guide to be a mirror whose job is very important. There are things that could be seen only through a mirror. We can behold what we are becoming only when we stop to look at a mirror. 1 Corinthians 13 talks about seeing “as in a mirror, dimly” or tenderly. Yes all mirrors have imperfections but no matter the brokenness and imperfection, every mirror is capable of reflecting, mirroring, beholding God’s light.

Let us ask ourselves, How have I been reflecting God’s tender light thus far? St Ignatius of Loyola invites us to look to the saints as our earthly models of mirroring God’s tender light. We are created to mirror God through our praise, reverence and service. This light that we receive from God is God’s tenderness. Tenderness is Godliness. There is more than meets the eye when we talk of tenderness because at times it is misconstrued as weakness. Pope Francis calls it fortitude. Strong heartedness. Jesus accomplished more through his tenderness. He died and came back to life because of tenderness. This is the first and most important legacy of Jesus. We may ask, “Who made Jesus to overflow with tenderness like this?” It was his Father no less. No wonder he made himself so close to his Father’s tender love. May we follow Jesus’s example. To cultivate tenderness and compassion, all we have to do is to draw near to God.

Let me end with a quote from von Balthasar,
“To say that God loves us would be an empty phrase—looking at the world as it is—had it not been substantiated by the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, by his absolute solidarity with us, and had it not involved a revelation of the innermost nature of God (Trinity as love) through Jesus’ relationship with the Father in the Holy Spirit" ("Truth is Symphonic," p 65, Hans Urs von Balthasar).
  Amen. Fr JM Manzano SJ