Sunday, February 5, 2017

We run to her aid

Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

It is most appropriate that we begin our first pilgrim mass with a visit to this shrine dedicated to the veneration of the icon of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help, or as Fr Simon, fondly calls her, Our Lady of the Perpetual Football (succour, soccer, get the pun?). I hope you won’t be disappointed to note that this is not the original. The original icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help turned up in Rome in the 1490’s and Pope Pius IX entrusted it to the Redemptorists in 1866 and asked them to spread devotion of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. You can see the original icon in the Church of St Alphonsus in Rome (right across the junction from the Basilica of St. Mary Major). Many miracles have been attributed to praying before this icon.

Let’s begin with the most obvious question: What is an icon? Icons are not photographs. They are not attempts by an artist to portray his or her personal ideas of how Jesus or the Blessed Virgin or a Saint may possibly have looked like. They are more like an impressionist portrait than a photograph: their task is to make us think and ponder and reflect and lead us through contemplation ever more deeply into the mystery of God. Icons are “doorways to the divine.” An icon is a work of art which speaks to the heart and evokes prayerful reflection; it is an attempt to draw us every day anew into something deeper, rather than define a static flash-photographic image. An icon is an attempt to draw us into the Mystery of a God who wishes to be close to us in all things and especially at those times when we are in distress or anxiety or troubled by a sense of helplessness. It is an image which enables us to realise that in every moment of distress, God is there with his compassion and care.

Many interpretations have been offered explaining the details of this most iconic of icons. I guess for most people, understanding the iconography, does not precede the faith which people have placed on the efficacy of this icon. For us Catholics, it is faith that seeks understanding, not understanding that precedes faith. One has to believe in order to understand. Believing is seeing.

I would like to offer one of the most common interpretations. Notice the features of both Our Lady and Jesus. Both do not possess lifelike features. Mary’s enlarged eyes creates a gaze which demands our attention. Her eyes are “for all our troubles” and are turned toward us perpetually. Her eyes, mouth and ears (ears cannot be seen) create stillness. Mary’s mouth is small for she is silent and speaks little. An important lesson for many of us who can’t stop talking. Jesus seems to be a miniature little man in the arms of Mary and from one perspective makes Mary a giantess. Perhaps, this is a reflection of how Mary looms large in popular imagination and devotion.

The face of Our Lady appears full of sorrow, yet supremely dignified in her contemplation of the sufferings of her Son. In fact, both Mary and Jesus do not look happy. Most icons depict a certain seriousness in the demeanour of the characters as this solemn caricature is meant to draw our attention once again to the heavenly realms. Heaven is serious business and not a frolic in the park. Many interpreters would also postulate that the seriousness points to the Passion. Their sobriety is the result of having glimpsed Christ’s future suffering. Notice this small little detail. Unlike other icons of this nature, Jesus is not looking towards her; he’s looking away. Perhaps, it may not be so obvious but he is looking at the Archangel Gabriel who is carrying the cross and the nails to be used in the crucifixion. On the left the Archangel Michael is carrying more of the instruments used in Calvary, the reed, the sponge and the lance.

It is here that we see how the icon brings together Christological hypostasis. Jesus is both fully God and fully human. As one who is fully human, the young Jesus is horrified by the vision of the Passion which He must undertake and so he flees, he runs to his mother and she opens her arms to comfort him. This explains the business of the sandal with the broken strap that is barely dangling from his foot. This is what happens to many when we attempt to run with sandals and I do pray that all of you possess a hardy pair of footware during this pilgrimage. If you do meet a pedantic crisis, well, you know who to pray to, Our Lady of the Broken footware. 

Also notice the way he has his hands around Our Lady’s thumb. Mary seems to be giving a thumbs-up to the mission her son must undertake, which will culminate on the cross. Perhaps, this is a most poignant symbol of a soul clinging by one last thread–devotion to Mary. Despite the daunting suffering which he would have to face as an adult, that single thumb provides him with an anchor that secures his faith. Kind of like Kungfu Panda’s secret twinky move that won the day at the end of the first movie.

As we take another look at the icon, and cast our attention on the beautiful visage of Our Lady, we see something that we may have often missed in our over familiarity with this icon. Our Lady’s face is of unspeakable majesty and calm and yet her large eyes, partly closed, express ineffable sorrow and sympathy. Our Lady is not looking at Jesus, but rather to us, to express compassion for us in our fears and sorrows.

It is here that we come to recognise that this icon is just an icon of Mary. Mary is herself the icon, a true icon who makes visible the Incarnate Word of God. She is the one who pondered and contemplated the many things about her son’s life and mission and learned day by day, in her own sorrow, to remain faithful to her son. She remained with her son and remained faithful to him even as she was pained by what was happening to him. At the Wedding Feast of Cana, she told the servants to do as her son commanded, even when she herself did not fully understand how her son would act. And it is she who stands by the cross when other stronger men fled to preserve their own miserable lives. Her faith is a model of our faith. Her tender care for her son is the guarantee of her care for us. He pondering God’s word shows us the path which leads us to her son and to an understanding of our faith. She is truly the anchor of our faith, the Lady of Perpetual Help who would not turn a deaf ear to our pleas.

Just as Jesus ran to his mother for comfort and protection we turn to Mary for help in our trials and temptations. In the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help the boy Jesus ran to Mary for protection when he foresaw his Passion. In our moments of trial, let us run to Mary for help, or for those who can no longer manage a 100 m sprint, crawl as the locals do, because she is highly favoured, she has won God’s favour, she indeed is our Perpetual Helper.

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