The white lilies in the sanctuary were in full bloom still, a week after Easter. Three generations – grandma, mom, and little girl – sat in the pew ahead of me. The girl was coloring a picture of Ariel from the Little Mermaid. Easily distracted as I tend to be, I found my attention split between the readings at Mass and the drama unfolding before me.
The girl, probably five or six, squirms like kids do at Mass. Her mid-twenties mother and grandmother flank her. “Sit down and be quiet!” mom hisses, grabbing the picture and markers away, “this is how you do it!” And with that Mom begins to fill in Ariel’s wedding dress with careful, measured passes of the marker. Her daughter calms down and is transfixed. Peering over the pew, I am too.
The psalm speaks of God’s mercy – God is good, for his love is everlasting.
The daughter eagerly takes back the markers and picture. She fills in Ariel’s face and arms and dress (at least as well as young kids drawing on their laps can). She shows it to her mother several times along the way. Mom nods impatiently, looking up at the altar with the locked gaze that says, “yes, I’m ignoring you.” Grandma looks a little saddened as she considers first her daughter, and then granddaughter. Grandma leans in with a smile and a reassuring hug. “Very nice!”
Then the Gospel – Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
And then the homily, as usual, which is about God’s love and mercy and peace and forgiveness. Got it. I peak over the lip of the pew to see the girl’s progress. She is scrawling a note on the back of her picture, in caps.
“My picture is no good. Why you mad at me? This is the worse piture [sic] I ever draw!!!!!” She shows her mom the paper, tapping the words with the marker for emphasis.
Mom is not happy. She snatches the paper and pins it against the pew with her purse. They get up for communion. The girl’s eyes are red with tears, and grandma holds her hand as they move forward.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God,
and everyone who loves the Father
loves also the one begotten by him.
In this way we know that we love the children of God
when we love God and obey his commandments.
As they kneel after communion, the page wilts forward over mom’s purse, exposing the top half of the drawing. The color scheme is a little strange (Ariel was orange?). The coloring is uneven and outside the lines. Still, pretty darn good for a kid. Grandma seems to agree. She enfolds her granddaughter in that protective side-hug that grandmas do, and reaches out over to her daughter, too, with a smile.
My sympathy is for the little girl and grandma. The mom? Forget her, I think. I would never run out of patience with my own hypothetical children. With comfortable distance comes easy judgment — I imagine that I’d be the ever-patient parent who does nothing but encourage my children. Things would be perfect with us, especially in church.
But then I remember my own impatience with my students, my irritation at other drivers, my lack of charity for my brother Jesuits. I remember with a wince how I used to terrorize my younger siblings as their babysitter. And suddenly, in the midst of these uneven ponderings, I slip off the saddle of my high horse. My judgment melts into mercy for the mom as well. She has gone through the trouble of bringing her child to Mass, which is no small task. And grandma is there, too — three beautiful generations, mother and daughter and daughter — doing their best to participate in this family of faith we call Church.
The first Sunday after Easter was deemed “Divine Mercy Sunday” by St. John Paul II on April 30, 2000. John Paul was responding to Sister Faustina Kowalska, a devout Polish woman who died at 33 and experienced visions of Jesus speaking to her about his abundant mercy, who requested that the Sunday after Easter be set aside to honor his abundant mercy. She recorded his words in her diary:
Let no soul fear to draw near to Me, even though its sins be as scarlet. My mercy is so great that no mind, be it of man or of angel, will be able to fathom it throughout all eternity. Everything that exists has come forth from the very depths of My most tender mercy.
Back at church, I look around me again.
The Easter lilies continue to blossom, filling the church sanctuary with a fragrance of life. The disappointed child, who still sometimes doubts her ability and worth, has come from the depths of tender mercy. The mom, still tired of dealing with it all, has come from the depths of tender mercy. The grandmother, certainly full of tender mercy, continues to gather daughter and granddaughter in consoling hugs. And I, the chance observer of this family drama, get a glimpse of what divine mercy is about.
I don’t know what to make about Sr. Faustina’s visions of Jesus offering his mercy. But I do trust the mercy I see in the pew before me, which melted my own coolness into compassion. And I definitely believe that God’s laboring love will wrap up these women — whether Ariel was orange or not.
This piece originally ran in May 2012.