An Advent reflection: Mercy and the womb

Member of the Marist Association of St Marcellin Champagnat, Carole Wark, shares some Advent thoughts.

This year I was asked to share my reflections on the connection between Mercy and the womb as part of a wider Marist reflection for the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

I’m not a gynaecologist, a Biblical scholar or a theologian, but I am a mother, and a grandmother, so I’ve had some experience with wombs and mercy. Like many of us, I’m trying to make sense of how God works in and through me.

In the Hebrew scriptures the word mercy is the translation for three different Hebrew words, which together give us a multi-dimensional understanding of God’s mercy.  One of these three is the plural of ‘womb’.  Julia Upton rsm[1] tells us that this translation suggests that God’s mercy is a nurturing womb, demonstrating that mercy is felt at one’s centre. 

‘Womb’ and ‘mercy’?  Do people even use these words anymore? Isn’t ‘revenge’ more easily recognised than ‘mercy’ these days?  And isn’t the ‘womb’ the ‘uterus’? 

Richard Rohr refers to Pope Francis as the ‘master of the symbol’[2].  By choosing a text from the Book of Exodus for his first catechesis of the Jubilee Year[3], the Pope has invited us to look at these ancient words afresh.

A God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.  Exodus 34:6

The Hebrew word used for ‘mercy’ here is the one for ‘womb’, evoking the very physical and tender love of a mother for her child.  Pope Francis suggests that, like a mother, the God of Mercy is always gracious, ever ready to understand and forgive. 

In our culture, the word ‘womb’, like ‘mercy’ in the Hebrew scriptures, is multi-dimensional. When women reflect on the word ‘womb’ there is much more to consider than the warm and fuzzy feelings of nurturing which surround motherhood.  Recently a Gen Y friend challenged my ideas with her view that the womb was a symbol of women’s oppression rather than a symbol for a merciful God. It is certainly more than that warm, dark, mysterious place where the conception and the growth of a child take place in secret and a mother gently loves the child into life (Ps 139). It is for many women the symbol for the reality of their adult lives, a time when they must take responsibility for decisions about their bodies and its availability for life as a woman rather than a child. For some women it is a continuation of an imposed silence as they see that decision-making shift from a parent to a husband, not to them.  The monthly cycle is a strong and constant reminder of the potential for life and for death. Desire, longing, anticipation, disappointment, joy and fear are intrinsically linked in that ‘secret place’ (Ps 139).  I sometimes think of Mary hearing the angel say, “Do not be afraid.”  Was Mary thinking, ‘Really?  Afraid?  You mean of losing the child or dying myself during childbirth, that is if I happen to survive the shame of telling Joseph and my parents or the public stoning that might follow???’ So much reverence and courage in such a young woman to say yes to that, to embark on such a journey confident of playing her part in fulfilling the promises of her merciful God! 

And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. Luke 1:50

As a retiree, I have the opportunity to interact with many different people in my little village. How often have I observed women stopping to speak to other women who are very pregnant?  And not only speak, but touch. It is as if the swelling of the womb is an invitation to reach out to the little stranger within, through the body of the mother, offering a kind of blessing. It really crosses the boundaries of social sensibility, and is something that only women could get away with. When I was pregnant other women would do that to me, and if I place my hands on my body like I used to at my most pregnant, I can still feel the echo of my children growing there, as if my encounter of the mystery of God in the new life remains as a physical memory.  It is extraordinary to think that when we, as women, touch another’s baby bump, the mystery is alive in us again.  I suppose this is why we seek out opportunities to stir the memory.  No wonder the meeting between Elizabeth and Mary was such a powerful one. What an intimate and holy embrace between those women and their little ones!

We cannot speak of the symbolism of the womb without recognising God’s gift of the physical and sacramental intimacy between a loving husband and wife, child and mother, father and family. These relationships are not the only means by which we form families, but they do confirm our need for interdependence, for an abiding commitment to the most vulnerable, for a steadfast love that mirrors the covenant relationship of which Mary sings in her Magnificat. Currently we still need a mother’s womb to gestate a child. Technology is taking us in directions where perhaps that won’t be so in the future. What symbols will we use then to speak of the compassionate mercy of a loving God? Pope Francis tells us that ‘the Lord wants us to belong to a Church that knows how to open her arms and welcome everyone, that is not a house for the few, but a house for everyone, where all can be renewed, transformed, sanctified by his love – the strongest and the weakest, sinners, the indifferent, those who feel discouraged or lost.’[4]  Hopefully it will be our Church that we can use as our symbol in the future!

Mary’s experience of human mercy is wrapped up in another’s power and her circumstances remain a serious question of injustice.  What’s changed?  Women in the world today are still seeking medical assistance on a donkey, in every culture in the world they are still struggling to feed and educate their kids, still living in fear of violence, still holding their dead loved ones to their wombs. 

The ‘master of the symbol’ opened the Holy Doors at St Peter’s Basilica to open the Jubilee Year of Mercy and invited the bishops to do the same in their dioceses.  But he went further by addressing us:

“Open the doors not just of your cathedral but of the church that is your body, your soul; open your hearts to God’s mercy, humbly seeking and receiving forgiveness and healing.”

The seasons of Advent and Christmas are ideal times to accept this invitation.

[1] Julia Upton rsm 2 July 2003 “Cutting to the Core Meaning of Mercy”

[2] Richard Rohr, Mercy podcast

[3] Text from the Pope’s catechesis 13 Jan 2016.

[4] Pope Francis, The Church of Mercy.

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Carole Wark Image
Carole Wark

Carole Wark is a member of the Marist Association of St Marcellin Champagnat.

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