There are many beautiful flowers in the nursery garden, but I am drawn at once to Baby M*. Only a few weeks old, he is the smallest of all, weighing in at only 2.5 kilos—the equivalent of a small sack of flour with an extra tablespoon or two thrown in. The list of his medical conditions is longer than he is. He can do nothing for himself; only receive.
Abandoned at birth, he is without parents; even his name is a gift of the state. Unlike the other children who reward my attention with laugher and hugs, Baby M lacks the strength even to smile. He is too weak to suck from a bottle, and so a makeshift feeding tube helps to provide nourishment. A colostomy bag compensates for his inability to digest and process food properly. Even his cry is weak—unable to raise his voice, he raises plaintive eyes instead, and his tiny fist squeezes my heart.
* * *
Before holding this little one, I would wonder at the words of Jesus to Saint Faustina: “The greater the sinner, the greater his right to my mercy.”
Surely sin has no power, no rights. But mercy is not about the power of the sinner, but the power of God’s love. Our weakness draws and compels the heart of God.
“God doesn’t love the way human beings love. We love people because they’re attractive, funny, talented, rich, and powerful,” notes author Father Michael Gaitley. “God loves us because we’re so weak, broken, and sinful. God’s merciful love is like water that rushes to the lowest place.”2
In today’s Gospel, Jesus comes to Jericho, and we are told He “intended to pass through the town.” But then Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector and sinner, the Bernie Madoff of his day, is moved by the desire to see Jesus. He too was small—so short of stature that he is unable to see Jesus because of the crowd—and so he climbs a tree to get a better look.
One can only wonder at what must have been an awkward sight, a grown man gawking from a sycamore tree. But Jesus stops and looks up, and says “Zacchaeus come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”
This desire of Zacchaeus that moves him to climb the tree to see Jesus, in turn moves Jesus, compels Him. “I must stay at your house.”
The crowd is scandalized. “They began to grumble.” Zacchaeus is a notorious sinner, a thief, one of the “bad guys”; he has not behaved in a way to earn God’s favor, he is not one of their own. His smallness was not only physical. But Jesus explains the “must”: “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what is lost.”
There is no recording of a preceding moral lecture by Jesus, no setting of prerequisites for His love. Rather it is the invitation itself which causes Zacchaeus to hasten and “receive Him with joy.” It is the Encounter with Jesus which moves him to moral conversion: “Behold, half of my possessions Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone, I will repay it four times over.”
Moral behavior is not the prior condition for the love of God, but the consequence of it. When we receive the unconditional love of God, we are freed to give it and to live it. Yes—virtue is necessary; we cannot exempt ourselves from the laws of God. But law is ultimately at the service of love.
It is our need and our desire which knock on the heart of God, which open the floodgates of His mercy. There is nothing we can do to earn it; we can only accept or refuse it.
The church has always insisted on the right to baptize infants for this reason: all is gift. We do not wait for proof of wisdom or virtue or even understanding. We are parented by a love that is gratuitous, born of the goodness of God, not our own.
* * *
Baby M’s little heart is also weak, and it is clear from the beginning that his visit with us will be a short one. And so we give him a special bath, and dress him in white, to prepare him to meet his Father.
On July 18th, his little body gives out, and he is transferred to a New Home, to be cradled in arms that will never let go. And these days I ask for his help and intercession, that he might now assist me in my weakness.
Little saints, pray for us!
* Not his real name or initial
2 Father Gaitley explores this theme extensively in his highly recommended book, 33 Days to Merciful Love. The quote cited is from this article: https://www.northtexascatholic.org/local-news-article?r=AGVJ9RUW3M
Image credit: (modified) from MaxPixel [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons