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The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception Opens the Jubilee Year of Mercy

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Dec 08, 2015

Today is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the patronal feast of the United States and a holyday of obligation. This day also marks the opening of the Holy Door and the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy

The choice of this feast day to open the Holy Year is no coincidence. In understanding this feast of Our Lady we can deepen our understanding of the Year of Mercy and the Mother of Mercy.

What Is The Immaculate Conception?

This feast day is the most misunderstood of the whole Liturgical Year for adults and children alike. The celebration is not something that is apparent and easy to illustrate for children. There are two aspects that cause even more confusion: the timing of the feast day right before Christmas, and that the Gospel reading is the passage describing the Annunciation to Mary.

The Immaculate Conception celebrates the solemn declaration that from the very moment of conception in her mother's  (St. Anne's) womb Mary never was touched or tainted by original sin. 

For illustration purposes, this one is a doozy. Although the Incarnation of Christ occurred in the privacy of Mary's home in Nazareth, we know the details because St. Luke records them in his Gospel. This important moment when Christ was conceived was announced by an angel. Mary's conception was even more private and hidden, for we do not know any special details. Anything that has been passed down about Mary's early life has only been oral tradition, such as Mary's parents were elderly and having Mary in their old age was a great miracle. But there was no herald; there is no documentation. There are no paintings to mark this special gift to Our Lady to prepare her to be the Mother of God. An image of St. Anne carrying our Lady in her womb would be most appropriate, but I haven't seen any of this type of depiction. Instead, it seems this feast is difficult to capture through illustration. It is an interior, hidden feast, reflecting the life of Mary how she pondered God's greatness in her heart and how her soul "magnified the Lord." 

The timing of this feast in the Liturgical Year is not related to the feast of Christmas but the feast of the birth of Mary celebrated on September 8. The celebration of Mary's birthday is an ancient tradition, dating back to the early Church. And December 8 is 9 months before her birthday. Yet the feast of the Immaculate Conception does relate to Advent and Christmas, because Mary was an integral part of the immediate preparation for Christ's coming. Without preparing Mary to be "Ark of the Covenant" and preserving her from sin, Jesus would not have a worthy vessel to come down to earth.

The use of the Annunciation Gospel reading from St. Luke can be confusing. The Immaculate Conception is not about that moment of Incarnation, but the preparation of His Mother for the Incarnation. The greeting of the Angel Gabriel to Mary as "full of grace" relates to the Immaculate Conception. Because of the gift of being conceived without Original Sin, Mary's soul was indeed full of grace and a worthy place for the Son of God to come to earth. 

The Year of Mercy and the Immaculate Conception

Pope Francis chose this date to be the opening of the Holy Year of Mercy, and explains in his Bull of Indiction, Misericordiae Vultus why this feast day:

The Holy Year will open on 8 December 2015, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. This liturgical feast day recalls God’s action from the very beginning of the history of mankind. After the sin of Adam and Eve, God did not wish to leave humanity alone in the throes of evil. And so he turned his gaze to Mary, holy and immaculate in love (cf. Eph 1:4), choosing her to be the Mother of man’s Redeemer. When faced with the gravity of sin, God responds with the fullness of mercy. Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive. I will have the joy of opening the Holy Door on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. On that day, the Holy Door will become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instills hope.

I find it is actually easier to explain the Immaculate Conception to children from this point of view. God had a gift to share with mankind -- to share heaven with Him forever. Man sinned and closed the gates of heaven, but God in His mercy had a plan to send an even greater gift, His Son, to save us and restore Heaven to man. His Mother Mary was an integral part of this plan and gift, and God prepared her to be the worthy vessel for His Son. 

Unfolding of the Year of Mercy

This Jubilee Year is a whole year that we can take to recognize, appreciate, and also practice mercy and share the knowledge His Mercy to others. Not all aspects of the year have to be grasped and done at once, but there are few things to plan and to start right away. 

  1. Recite Pope Francis' Prayer for the Jubilee Year of Mercy:
    Lord Jesus Christ,
    you have taught us to be merciful like the heavenly Father,
    and have told us that whoever sees you sees Him.
    Show us your face and we will be saved.
    Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus and Matthew from being enslaved by money;
    the adulteress and Magdalene from seeking happiness only in created things;
    made Peter weep after his betrayal,
    and assured Paradise to the repentant thief.
    Let us hear, as if addressed to each one of us, the words that you spoke to the Samaritan woman:
    “If you knew the gift of God!”

    You are the visible face of the invisible Father,
    of the God who manifests his power above all by forgiveness and mercy:
    let the Church be your visible face in the world, its Lord risen and glorified.
    You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness
    in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error:
    let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God.

    Send your Spirit and consecrate every one of us with its anointing,
    so that the Jubilee of Mercy may be a year of grace from the Lord,
    and your Church, with renewed enthusiasm,
    may bring good news to the poor,
    proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed.

    We ask this through the intercession of Mary, Mother of Mercy,
    you who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever.
    Amen.

  2. Read and contemplate about God's mercy.

    The beginning of Misericordiae Vultus mentions several areas worthy of contemplation:

    Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him. The Father, “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4), after having revealed his name to Moses as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex34:6), has never ceased to show, in various ways throughout history, his divine nature. In the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), when everything had been arranged according to his plan of salvation, he sent his only Son into the world, born of the Virgin Mary, to reveal his love for us in a definitive way. Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God.

    We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.

    We can read passages from the Bible that depict God's mercy, such as the mercy of the Father in the Old Testament, the Psalms of Mercy, the life of Christ, and the Parables of Mercy. We can also read from the Fathers of the Church and lives of the Saints that illustrate and elaborate God's mercy in the life of the Church.

  3. Dwell on Images of Mercy

    While I love the Divine Mercy devotion, I am not fond of the image of Jesus as Divine Mercy as it feels limiting to me. As Pope Francis says, "Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's mercy" and He has many other depictions than just this one. The Gospels are a great source of other ways Jesus illustrated mercy, such as the Good Shepherd or Good Samaritan or Loving Father. I think this is important especially when working with children to not limit, but show the many ways Jesus and mercy are shown in art and Scripture.

    An easy place to begin is displaying the logo of the Jubilee of Mercy. There is an explanation on the Jubilee website. For children who have been involved in atria of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, this is a familiar and well-loved image. The children already know and rejoice they are that lost sheep embraced by and in Jesus' care. 

  4. Embrace Opportunities of Mercy for Ourselves

    This is the time to experience the loving mercy of Jesus in the Sacrament of Penance. For those that have been going to confession, this could be the year to establish more frequent and regular confession times and perhaps finding a spiritual director.

    Receive Jesus in the Eucharist more frequently is another area to behold the face of Jesus and His mercy.

    Embrace the opportunities of special indulgences during this Jubilee Year.

    Be a pilgrim during this year of Mercy to different churches with Holy Doors.

  5. Be a Missionary of Mercy to Others

    Brush up on the practice of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.

    "At times we are called to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives." Let others know by our actions and words of the merciful love of Jesus. 

It is on this feast of the Immaculate Conception that we contemplate Mary, the Mother of Mercy and open our hearts to the graces of this Jubilee Year of Mercy. In the words of Pope Francis:

May the sweetness of her countenance watch over us in this Holy Year, so that all of us may rediscover the joy of God’s tenderness. No one has penetrated the profound mystery of the incarnation like Mary. Her entire life was patterned after the presence of mercy made flesh. The Mother of the Crucified and Risen One has entered the sanctuary of divine mercy because she participated intimately in the mystery of His love.

Chosen to be the Mother of the Son of God, Mary, from the outset, was prepared by the love of God to be the Ark of the Covenant between God and man. She treasured divine mercy in her heart in perfect harmony with her Son Jesus. Her hymn of praise, sung at the threshold of the home of Elizabeth, was dedicated to the mercy of God which extends from “generation to generation” (Lk 1:50). We too were included in those prophetic words of the Virgin Mary. This will be a source of comfort and strength to us as we cross the threshold of the Holy Year to experience the fruits of divine mercy.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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