In 2016, Redemptorists and millions of devotees of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Pope Pius IX giving this image to the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (the Redemptorists) with the order, “Make her known.”
Without a doubt, this is the most widespread Marian devotion, now present in over 200 countries. It escapes races and cultures, changing times and new situations. From its mysterious origin in 14th century Crete, and now housed in the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori in Rome, the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help has become a beloved focus of devotion for millions of people.
With Chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium (cf. especially Nos. 56 and 67), a new revolution in Mariology was begun. From a pre-Second Vatican Council “high” Mariology, which stressed Mary the Mother of God as Queen, we now have a veneration based more on her being the servant, a Daughter of Sion, a pilgrim who walks with faith with her other brothers and sisters. Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Marialis Cultus, called for a Marian reform and renewal through more biblical, patristic and liturgical means. As we study this icon we will discover how it is not only eminently Christological, but also fulfills the Pope’s requirements.
While it is true that, in first world countries like is the USA, public devotions and ceremonies in honor of Mary have dropped off from former times, that is not so true in Third World countries. For instance, in the Philippines, a hundred thousand people show up every Wednesday at the famous Baclaran shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
Here, in the Western north, in the name of a type of ecumenism, we have spoken less publicly so as not to offend separated brethren, in spite of the fact that Martin Luther had a devotion to our Blessed Mother. Emphasizing the smaller image of the Christ child (presented as the Logos — the Word made flesh) along with Mary, the mother whose role and purpose is to point the way to Him, can solve many ecumenical difficulties. Ad Jesus, per Mariam.
As we will see more below, this icon is much more than a mere representation or image for decorating our churches or homes. Its purpose is to motivate us with spiritual feelings and emotions which absorb us as we gaze upon it.
One needs, first of all, to understand what an icon is, to be able to grasp its power and how much influence it can exercise on a person. Icons are symbols that make known messages hidden within a particular image. They involve the viewer who is drawn into active participation, not just an admirer who keeps a distance. Icons are windows into mysteries, pulled into a living presence. And thus they become “energy-filled realities.” They have to be experienced, not simply observed in an intellectual way.
Icons make us aware of the divine in our current setting. This sacred presence invites us into the icon as we pray and “read” the image before us. Thus icons become prodigious wealth for producing holiness. Every icon, therefore, needs to be studied as to the types of images it uses, the colors which are employed, etc.
In the Western Latin Church, learned monks developed lectio divina; in the East, simple unlettered faithful practiced visio divina, which allowed them to read icons. They prayed a “gazing prayer” through the gift of sight. They learned how to let divine a energy and presence radiate into themselves. One might say that there are three ways of understanding true presence. We Latins, after Trent, concentrate it heavily in the Eucharist. Our Protestant brothers and sisters see it in the Scriptures. Orthodox and Eastern Rites Catholics have their Icons! [cf. Col 1:15-16, about Jesus becoming the visible image of the invisible God.]
If God created sacred space by creating the universe, and then there was the Ark of the Covenant, and later on Jesus in the Eucharist, we see that icons are considered sacred spaces where one encounters the divine. One venerable author wrote that all that can be said about the Ark of the Covenant can be applied to the womb of Mary. This new Ark is to be touched and embraced. This will not cause us death, but rather brings us new Life. Both are sacred spaces where the Lord would dwell. Mary calls us to enter into contemplative prayer as we gaze upon her.
The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help (in the East it is also called the Virgin of the Passion) is the culmination and combination of three schools of iconology: Mary as Mother of God (one who shows the way), the Tenderness school, and Emanuel (God is with us). Mary becomes the first evangelist and teacher who points to the mystery of Jesus.
Pope Benedict said that Mary can be considered a Living Text to be read! Or, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Christian iconography expresses in images the same gospel message that scripture communicates by words. Image and Word illuminate each other” (No. 1160).
Like a book, this icon can be read in five chapters: the most prominent figure, Mary as Mother with the 8-pointed star on her veil; her hands showing us to go to Jesus; the small Jesus who is the Logos (The Word made Flesh); the Angels with the instruments of the Passion, and the gilded background (sign of the Resurrection and the glory of heaven).
Mary ‘Pieces Together’
As one gazes upon this image, the first thing which draws our attention is the face and the eyes of Mary, who is not so much sad, but pondering the elements of Salvation History in which she will play a vital part (cf. Lk 2:19,51). In her reflecting and pondering, Mary “pieces together” (e.g. literal Greek text) all that is going on around her. She goes deeper and deeper into a more profound understanding of the plan of salvation. Mary is inviting us to accompany her on this journey of leading a Gospel life, because, as we will see, this icon offers us an image of the mystery of Jesus’ Incarnation, Passion, death and Resurrection, vibrating with divine energy.
The Virgin looks not at Jesus, but at the viewer, with an intensity which draws the viewer into herself. It is a look of contemplation, as she is wrapped up in the wonderful events surrounding her. An ancient tradition teaches that he whom Mary gazes upon will be blessed by her Son.
The eight-pointed star on her veil (an ancient symbol from the beginning of the second century) tells us that she is the dawn, the aurora coming before the new radiant Sun of Justice, Jesus. It reminds us of the star which led the Magi to the Christ child. Mary helps to drive away the darkness and night of sin, preparing us for the goodness and pardon of the divine One who is to be manifested in flesh. As ancient sailors were guided by stars to safe harbors, Mary is the one who guides us to our Redeemer. We feel her concern for the well-being of all of her other sons and daughters. That is why Pope Francis can call her the model of evangelization.
As still happens today in many Arab countries, women cover their faces in public. Yet, in this icon, we see the small right ear exposed as she listens to the Angel Gabriel who came to her at the Annunciation. It is possible to draw a straight line from Mary’s ear right to the angel’s mouth. Here is remembered the Incarnation. Jesus is the visible manifestation of the invisible God. Mary says, “Yes,” gives her fiat to God’s will. She listened and tried to discern as best she could what God wanted from her. Ancient writers said that she conceived first in her ear! She invites us to hear the messages which we receive, to understand and fulfill what the Father has in place for her and for us.
Mary’s small mouth represents the need for silence and contemplation in order to hear the voice of God. We have to listen in silence and in the quiet of our hearts, in a meditative and pondering way. We have to create a practice of saving quiet time for prayer. Because Mary listened well, she came to realize her vocation as the Mother of God. Her eyes capture all of our needs, and she entrusts them to the care of her son (cf. Jn 2).
Mary’s right hand directs our attention to Jesus. She is pointing directly to Christ. (Also notice the red undergarment which forms a V, pointing toward Jesus). Mary’s hand is not the normal grip of a mother holding a child. She seems to be standing, and instead of drawing her son into her bosom, she is offering Him to us. It is the new Presentation (cf. Lk 2:22-38)! We are being challenged to extend our hands and hearts and receive the Word of God into our lives, to commit ourselves to Jesus by living and preaching the Gospel through our words and deeds. So the principal meaning of the Mother of Perpetual Help icon is that of the redeeming love of Jesus Christ.
This is no ordinary baby she is holding and offering to us. His face is that of an adult, a mature person who is Emanuel. His face is not that of a frightened child but, like his mother’s, one of contemplation and pondering the events which the Angels foretell. Mary’s finger points in a line though him to the angel with the instruments of the Passion. We can recognize the strain on his neck as he turns to concentrate on these objects. He invites us who have to struggle with carrying our own crosses to join Him.
Unlike so many other icons that depict Jesus holding a scroll in his hand, Jesus is presented as the Logos, the Word made flesh. His ear is much more visible, so as to hear the will of the Father. This is to create an atmosphere of a personal encounter for us with God, to transform our lives into one with more patience, charity, service, a sense of justice and ethics.
The falling golden sandal, so often told as a sign of a startled child who runs to His mother for protection, is more a message of His humility, of letting His divinity fall away (cf. Phil 2). He is emptying himself, taking on our human likeness. He is letting His divinity be overshadowed by His humanity.
The Angels Gabriel and Michael remind us of why Jesus came: to be our Savior and Redeemer. The instruments of Passion are reverently held with a cloth, like liturgical objects so often are (e.g. the humeral veil used in the Benediction).Through the cross and nails, we understand the Passion and death which will save the world from sin.
Michael, on the left, is seen as the great warrior. He is slightly behind Mary to protect her who is also in the midst of the Church (cf. Acts 1 and 2). She is now the Mother of the Church. Michael has Mary’s back! The two Angels are gazing at Jesus with love and devotion, for He is the principal object of this whole icon.
No other known icon has as much golden background as Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The light of the divine shines out upon the viewer. Mary and Jesus are already living the full glory of the Redemption. That light which comes forth is what makes this icon considered miraculous, by which great healings and reconciliations happen. “Mary will provide this for all who come before her icon with humility and faith. She will form Jesus in us. This is her mission” (Embracing the Icon of Love, p. 40).
People of all generations with a devotion to Mary through this particular icon have experienced wonderful events, including cures and prayers answered. The Servant of God Father Roman Bachtalowsky, C.Ss.R., said, “Here the sick regain their health, the suffering receive comfort, and those who dwell in darkness obtain the spiritual sight of the soul and body. . .which turns them toward Christ, the never-setting Sun.” Or as the Akathist hymn says, “God is manifested in every place where your icon is devoutly honored.”
As long as we humans have our doubts and fears, uncertainties and preoccupations, worries and problems, devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help will never grow old. She will remain relevant. Since she lived through the events in her life with faith (cf. Mt 1:18, Lk 2:35), she is ideally positioned to understand our situation today. Once the woman of prayer in Nazareth, she is now also the woman of help, who set out with haste from her own village to go to see Elizabeth and be of service (Lk 1:39). Pope Benedict describes this as the first Eucharistic procession!
It is impossible to include all the rich content of this icon in an article like this. If you would like to have more and better information and orientation, go to www.maryprayforus.org. Also, for the latest, up-to-date material for promoting devotions to our Mother of Perpetual Help, call 800-325-9521 or go to Liguori.org. For valuable insights and commentaries, get a copy of Embracing the Icon of Love by Brother Dan Korn, C.Ss.R., available from Liguori Publications.
FATHER KIRCHNER, C.Ss.R., writes from Hyde Park, Illinois.