When God created Mary without the stain of original sin, He created the original Holy Door. Through this original Holy Door, opened when Mary said “yes” to the angel, all humankind can enter into the Kingdom of God.
Today is a great feast, the Immaculate Conception of Mary. It begins a Jubilee Year, the Year of Mercy. Today Pope Francis will open the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was cemented shut at the end of the last Jubilee Year. Any Jubilee Year is a time of special opportunities for forgiveness and conversion, but this year is especially so, for Pope Francis has designated this Jubilee Year as the Year of Mercy.
It is very fitting that the Jubilee Year of Mercy begins today, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In our readings today we hear first how the holy door of the human soul was first closed by original sin. When our first parents chose to say “no” to God by choosing to do what God had forbidden, the door of easy, natural, just-a-part-of-life, intimacy with God naturally closed. In choosing selfishly what seemed like a good idea at the time (“You have eaten, then, from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat!”), we humans accepted that life was instead going to be a struggle with the power of evil striking at head and heel.
Mary made a different choice. She used her human reason in a different way. She questioned the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” But when the answer came back to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God,” Mary said the Great Yes: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” From the inside of her heart and will, Mary opened the holy door of the human heart for the entrance of mercy.
What is mercy? Mercy is unmerited favour. Mary’s yes to God, made possible by God’s creation of a holy door in her will and heart, was mercy to her, and, through her and her son Jesus, to us. In Mary’s Immaculate Conception, her being conceived without the stain of original sin, God opened the door for freedom for all people. He created a person free of sin; then He asked her to choose to be absolutely open to His Presence and Love.
Mary said “yes.” When she did, she crumbled the cement that had bound even the Jewish people to God by law and justice. By her yes, she instituted a new relationship possibility between God and people: a relationship of mercy and intimacy.
At the end of each Jubilee Year, the Holy Doors of four basilicas in Rome are cemented shut. When a new Jubilee Year is proclaimed they are again opened. The idea of a Jubilee Year goes back to the Jewish custom of declaring every 25th year a time for cancelling debts and redistributing wealth. This practice, though not always fully followed, was meant to create a society of justice and equality. Holy Doors within the Church developed in the 15th century. Originally, to enter through a Holy Door meant to have political asylum in an age when the politics of city states were frequently lethal. The proclamation of a Jubilee Year with its opening of Holy Doors was then extended to any pilgrim who might journey to a Holy Door and cross its threshold. Going through a Holy Door meant to choose to make a pilgrimage of conversion. It was accepting God’s invitation to relationship, mercy, and conversion. This dynamic of extended mercy and accepted conversion was made manifest through the granting of a plenary indulgence for walking through the Holy Door.
Indulgences in the Church have been mostly misunderstood. From our contemporary misunderstanding of them it can be easy to discount or even disdain them. The way Pope Francis has proclaimed this Jubilee Year calls me to look at them in a different light—the light of extended mercy.
An indulgence, according to the Catholic Catechism, is “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions of the Church.” (CCC 1471)
Going through a Holy Door is one such condition. Others in this instance include prayers for the Pope’s intentions, confession, reception of the Eucharist, and—for a plenary indulgence—freedom from attachment to sin. “An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.” (CCC 1471)
So, you see, having a Holy Door in a Jubilee Year is giving us an opportunity to say “yes” like Mary did. It gives us a freedom from effects of sin which reflects the freedom God gave Mary at the moment of her conception. Choosing to pilgrimage to such a Holy Door in a way that lets God work conversion within us—that is choosing to say with Mary, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
But does that mean we must journey to Rome? No! Not in THIS Jubilee Year. As an expression of God’s great mercy, Pope Francis has declared that the cathedral of every diocese will be a Holy Door. A local bishop may name other churches. We do not have to journey to Rome. We must only choose, with a desire to let God’s love and mercy envelope and convert us, to enter to Holy Doors within our reach.
Further, as Pope Francis declared in his letter proclaiming the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the sick and people who are elderly or live alone may enter a Holy Door of Mercy by living “their sickness and suffering as an experience of closeness to the Lord who in the mystery of his Passion, death and Resurrection indicates the royal road which gives meaning to the pain and loneliness. Living with faith and joyful hope this moment of trial, receiving communion or attending Holy Mass and community prayer, even through the various means of communication, will be for them the means of obtaining the Jubilee Indulgence.” Those incarcerated may obtain it through chapels in prisons. In his letter, Pope Francis outlines other special groups who are especially invited to enter through holy doors of forgiveness created by the Jubilee Year.
Today, as we attend mass on this Holy Day of Obligation, let us say “yes” to God’s extension of mercy as Mary did. Doubtless Mary did not know the full range of effects of her yes. Neither can we know the effects of ours. But let us, like her, give God our wills and lives. For each time we do, we open the holy doors of our own souls to be transformed by God.