by Sr. Anne Joan Flanagan, FSP
God loved us first (cf. 1 John 4:10).
That is the message of the coming Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, the day we praise God for the way his grace enfolded the Virgin Mary from the first moment of her existence, without any merit of hers. Mary's Immaculate Conception (her being created and sustained in grace, without any trace of original sin) was the first ray of the "dawn from on high" that brought the world the unsurpassable expression of God's mercy, the Incarnation.
But us, too: God loved us first. Not, it is true, under the same extraordinary sign of grace as that shown to Mary, but under the sign of mercy. And it is on Tuesday's Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception that Pope Francis will open an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.
This Jubilee Year is an unexpected gift from Pope Francis. Unexpected in two ways: first, because it does not mark an anniversary related to our salvation or the history of the Church; but also unexpected because we have never had a Jubilee of Mercy before: It is Pope Francis' own invention.
Pope Francis is inviting us first to receive mercy.
This has long been a theme in Pope Francis' preaching; the verb form of the word "mercy" even appears in his papal motto. As a young man, he had a life-changing
experience of God's mercy in his life. You could say that this is the one blessing the Pope most deeply desires for everyone on earth to know personally. This is what we see in him and why it makes such an impression. Pope Francis does not reach out to people the way a politician does; he extends his hand as if to communicate to others his own experience of God's mercy.
For Francis, "mercy" really is something personal, even concrete.
That is one reason he recommends that, in giving alms, you touch the hand of the person to whom you give that material support. In the Pope's native Spanish, the word for "alms" is limosna, which comes from the Greek word for mercy. If you've ever said "Kyrie eleison" ("Lord, have mercy") at Mass, that's the sort of personal, concrete, here-and-now mercy you are begging the Lord for. This weekend at Mass, and again on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (yes, it's like a Sunday, so find your way to Mass) when you pray "Lord have mercy," ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes to the ways God's mercy comes to you, personally, in real life.
Once we have received mercy, Pope Francis knows we will be able to extend mercy to others.
"Mercy" as we exercise it is always a response to the mercy we ourselves have received and at the same time, a new expression of God's mercy in the world! We become, in a way, part of the fulfillment of Mary's prophecy, "His mercy is from age to age." But this is not something we can do apart from the conviction that "God loved us first."