“The Best Name for God”
A mother sent her little girl to the store with instructions to come home immediately after making her purchase. When she returned more than an hour late, her worried mother asked, “What took you so long?”
“I’m sorry, Mommy, for being late, but Annie broke her doll and I stopped to help her fix it.”
“And just how were you able to help her fix that broken doll?”
The girl replied, “I really couldn’t, but I sat down with her and helped her cry.”
In the Gospels, Jesus was “moved with pity” when he encountered a widow accompanying her only son to his burial (Luke 7:13). This expression implies a deep emotion emanating from compassion and empathy. The words appear again before Jesus “made clean” a leper, and when he saw a large crowd of people in need, looking “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 1:41, 6:34).
Similarly, the shortest translated verse in the Gospels is, “And Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Those three words belie the strong emotions that Jesus felt over the death of his close friend, Lazarus, prompting the Jews to say, “See how he loved him” (John 11:36). Likewise, the Gospels record that Jesus wept over the people of Jerusalem, for he was moved with pity at their stubborn impenitence (Luke 13:31–35).
While the original readers of the Gospels would have been astonished at the concept of a God who showed emotions, it may come as no surprise to us that Jesus was compassionate like his heavenly Father. Yet, if we also believe the Son of God was fully human—like us in all things but sin—would not the absence of Jesus’ emotions in the Gospels be more conspicuous?
Emotions help define us as human beings created in God’s image. Meister Eckhart, the medieval mystic, wrote, “You may call God love, you may call God goodness. But the best name for God is Compassion.”
On occasion, I’ve been known to shed a tear or two—depending on the intensity of Tabasco sauce applied to my food. OK, full disclosure! I get emotional at weddings and funerals, and I sometimes cry louder than babies at their baptisms.
Tears of sorrow at funerals or tears of joy at weddings and baptisms—even for people we may not know—flow naturally. People who have yet to experience the profound loss of a loved one can still feel deep sympathy for those who grieve. Conversely, people unmarried or without children can still be genuinely happy for those who experience elation in marriage or childbearing.
In the novel Via Negativa by Daniel Hornsby (Alfred Knopf, 2020), a pastor baptized a baby as the parents, godparents, and associate pastor stood around the font. When he attempted to anoint the infant with chrism, her tiny arm swung around and slapped him on the head. Later, the pastor explained the comical incident to his associate as a blessing received for a blessing given. “When we administer the sacraments, those who take them—the penitent, the communicant, the bride, or the groom—are the ones who sanctify us. In giving these things, we receive their holiness. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned….”
In his first chrism Mass, Pope Francis famously called priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of sheep.” When blessings are reciprocated in compassionate ministry, we can’t help but bleat like little lambs.