A Missionary’s Meditation before the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help


1. Introduction

We celebrate the one hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the receiving of the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help to the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer through the mediation of by Pope Pius IX, and the mandate given to us by him to “make her known”. Hence, I would like to propose a missionary meditation on the Icon. The beauty of icons derives from their theological message, rooted in Biblical revelation and the Magisterial Tradition of the Church. It is for this reason that it is so important not to falsify any aspect of that teaching, but rather to remain faithful to the mystery revealed in this Marian Icon, which is an open window into our redemption. Contemplation and meditation before the Icon enriches our lives and the lives of our communities. At the same time, it provides an opportunity to appreciate the treasures of the mission entrusted to the Church. My challenge here is to present the message of the Icon in such a way that it may be taken up by any missionary as a tool in the missionary field.

2. Iconographic background to the Icon of Perpetual Help

2.1 The language of icons

Byzantine icons are a gift of God to his people. It was through contemplation of the divine mysteries and their theological development that the tradition of Byzantine iconography was born, and thus they are a fruit of the prayer and reflection of the Church throughout history. For this reason, the ‘writing’ of an icon – the process by which it is created – brings together the action of God in the world with the Church’s interpretation of that action. As such, these sacred images are not the result of the inspiration of one person, but rather they represent a new language born of the encounter between God and his people. Thus the work of iconography is an ecclesial ministry, and the one who writes an icon does so from the point of view of faith, within those ecclesial boundaries which guarantee the canonicity of the work produced. The icon writer does not autograph the image, because the author is the Holy Spirit, who writes the mystery from the heart of the Church. In the same way that the Church is responsible for transmitting, through icons, the beauty of the mystery of God, access to these truths also presupposes faith. A person without faith can  enter into an ecstasy before an icon and its beauty, or read its message objectively, but will never be able to contemplate and feel the spiritual depths revealed. Icons therefore express the faith of the Church in the mysteries they represent, and fulfil a catechetical mission. One could say that these images are part of the teaching of God by way of beautiful objects.

In this sense, iconography develops an aesthetic theological language which is quite a different thing to a theological aestheticism.[1] This language springs forth from the truths revealed in Sacred Scripture and in the dogmas of the Church, and therefore a correct reading of an icon will always be an exercise in doctrinal orthodoxy. In the same way that all languages have words to express one idea or to define another, the language and interpretation of icons also opens itself to a time-bound exegesis of the mystery represented aesthetically within the image. If we learn this ‘language’, we will be able to understand an icon’s beautiful message. As in ordinary languages, the language of iconography also has its own rules and style. Iconographic ‘grammar’ is not verbal but visual, the holy image calls us to a silent watching.  Aesthetically, the message can be read and contemplated in the profusion of colours and forms. The language of icons is profoundly human and its function is to ‘name’. For instance, in the same way that we translate the image of a square piece of wood with four legs into a ‘table’, in iconography, for example, the Holy Spirit is depicted in the form of a dove, or by way of the colour green. In the iconographic world of light, colours and forms, there is no room for the subjective interpretations of the iconographer or of the one who contemplates the image.

Although this article does not simply set out to give a deeper understanding of iconographic language, I do however want to invite all lovers of icons to become apprenticed in the meaning of each colour and form expressed in this, the Icon of our Mother of Perpetual Help. There is a good and extensive bibliography on this subject which, like all real theoretical knowledge, leads us from theory to practice.

2.2 The Marian themes of the Icon of Perpetual Help

In Marian iconography of the Byzantine tradition, the themes depicted tend to centre either on Marian and Christological feasts, or on Marian feasts only. In all such icons, however, the central figure is always Christ. Mary occupies the place ordained for her by God in his plan of salvation. The foundations for all Marian feasts are biblical, though in many cases they draw on sources from the Tradition of the Church. Icons which focus on Marian feasts might have as their subject: The Nativity of the Mother of God, the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity of Our Lord, the Presentation of Jesus and the Dormition of the Mother of God. Nevertheless, there are three basic Marian-themed iconographic traditions, and these are: the Hodegetria (She who shows the Way), the Eleousa (She who shows mercy, known in the West as The Virgin of Tenderness), and the Panagia or Our Lady of the Sign[2] (sometimes called The Prayerful). At the same time, these three ‘templates’ subdivide themselves into many others. The Virgin of Perpetual Help belongs to a sub-type of the Hodegetria known as the Virgin of the Passion. Our Icon – of Cretan origin – unites themes of the intercession of Mary with the Cross of Christ. If there are other icons which depict our Lord’s passion, such as those of the crucifixion itself, or of the deposition, the unique aspect of our Icon comes from the fact that it is Marian, and the humanity of Christ is emphasised together with the humanity of his Mother, who prays for his disciples who contemplate the Icon. Beside the cross of Christ, is the cross of Mary and the Church. It is quite possible that within Byzantine iconography, this Marian type – the Virgin of the Passion – is the most singularly profound of all theologies of the Mother of God, and the Icon has much to tell us about mission. So, let us place ourselves before her, and allow her to speak.

3. What Mary tells us about mission

3.1 Prayerful reading of the Icon

We have dealt with the language of icons and in particular the Marian themes present in the of the Icon of Perpetual Help. Now we will embark on a meditation on the message contained in the image. Just as in the spiritual practice of lectio divina (the prayerful reading of Scripture), we can read, meditate, pray and contemplate the Icon. The language is not verbal, but rather comprises a pathway into silence and into the light of the colours and forms rendered in the image. As we ‘read’ the Icon of Perpetual Help, it is important to enter into silence and to overcome our speculations and distractions. Only by opening our minds and hearts can we let the Icon speak to our inner-most selves. This saving image, born from the heart of God will illuminate our lives, give meaning to the crosses we bear, and remind us that the same Spirit who lives in Mary is our own sweet guest also, and the very soul of the Church. We must remember that icons are instruments of prayer, and as such are meant to merge (disappear even) in the communion between the pray-er and God.

Firstly, we shall pause a while to think about the figures and colours. In the centre of the Icon are Mary and a young (though not an infantile) Jesus. The Virgin wears a red tunic and a dark blue mantle which – and this is particular to the Icon of Perpetual Help – has a green lining. The dark blue of the mantle alludes to the redeemed humanity of Mary, conceived without sin, mother, wife and disciple. Whereas sky-blue speaks to us of divinity, it becomes darker when mixed with earth tones, when divinity encounters humanity. In Mary, her whole being is preserved from every sin through her intimate relationship with God. The green colouring of the lining of her mantle – the colour of the Holy Spirit – expresses this intimacy between God and the Virgin Daughter of Sion. The dark red of her tunic speaks to us of the divine nature of the Trinity, present in Mary, the Mother of God. Her mantle and tunic are flecked with gold, a colour above all associated with the sun, and a reflection of the glory of God. The gold colouring of the Icon’s background has the same meaning, but there it has the effect of reflecting the whole message of the Icon back to the one contemplating it.

The Child Jesus is dressed in a green tunic and brown cloak, fastened with a red cincture. Such colourings for Jesus’ garments is highly original, given that traditionally he is represented as wearing either red, blue, or pure white, and rarely with this particular pallet combination.  The intention of the iconographer is thus very clear. Jesus is sent by and sustained by the Father (red); he is true God (green-red) and true man (brown earth tones) in intimate communion with the Holy Spirit (green). The language of these colours draws us closer to the Trinitarian mystery and to the relationship between the three Divine Persons in Jesus himself. In silent contemplation, we can pause before some of these aspects of the Icon in order to pray with the Lord, and share in his passion and glory.

As messengers of the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Archangels Michael (meaning “Who is like God?”) and Gabriel (meaning “God is my strength”), show the young Jesus the instruments of the Passion – cross, nails, spear, and vinegar sponge – and are depicted in the same green-red pallet as Jesus. They are looking at Jesus as he contemplates the instruments of the passion. As his disciples at the foot of the cross, we glimpse the way of salvation and remember those words of St Paul: “Because we preach Christ crucified.”[3] The message which the Archangels transmit is also apt for Mary and for the whole of humanity too: Our redemption begins at the foot of the cross.

If the gaze of the two Archangels are focused on Jesus, the eyes of the Mother look outwards, maintaining a silent dialogue with us. Mary, positioned centrally in the image, lives out her mission to point the way to Jesus (as shown by her right hand) and to support her Son (see her left hand), and these two aspects of her mission are reflected in her intercessory calling, which we shall return to. The large and pacific eyes of Mary, which do not betray melancholy or sadness, rest their gaze on our eyes. And here, as a popular saying would have it, “one look says it all”. In this moment we enter into a communication-communion with the mystery of the passion of the Son of God. Jesus, clutching his mother’s hand, contemplates with us the cruel instruments of his passion. His body is in motion, his feet and his clasped hands express the profoundly human emotion of fear. He is the child who teaches the elders of Israel, the Messiah and missionary who announces the Kingdom on the dusty byways of Galilee and Judea, but he is also the God-Man who sweats blood at Gethsemane as he contemplates his cross. Mary points out to us “the way, the truth and the life”[4], a life which begins for us as we stand beside the wood of the cross. She is Mother at Bethlehem and at Golgotha, and as such the whole Marian theology of the Gospel of St John is applicable to the Icon here.

3.2 Making present the Icon’s message

The Redemptorists have been on a mission with Mary of Perpetual Help for one-hundred-and-fifty years now, knowing that – as St Alphonsus put it – the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ took place in Mary first, she being the first disciple. It was providential that the mandate which Pope Pius IX gave us to “make her known” dovetailed the preaching charism of the Congregation with the message of Our Lady of the Passion, and this consonance is made present constantly to us, just as the message of our redemption must be translated afresh in every time and place.

However, we live in a culture dominated by the visual image, a culture which at its worst can be characterised as narcissistic and exhibitionistic, and a certain communications, media and internet overload has transformed our life and culture in recent decades. Societies are constructing themselves upon these new paradigms, which are now no longer only the preserve of the young. In our cultures, an image is worth a thousand words, especially so if it correlates with what a person is saying about themselves. In contemporary culture we also place a premium on beauty, which is now available to the masses like never before in human history. Nearly all of us are just one click away from viewing art and beauty. On the positive side, such a culture presents new possibilities for our missionary endeavour. The challenge for us as missionaries is how to channel the message of ‘plentiful redemption’ whilst taking advantage of the this culture dominated by the visual image?

One of the first responsibilities of a missionary is to show the way for people to encounter God. Jesus is the ‘way’ to salvation and the mediator between God and human beings. In the Icon, Mary with her right hand shows us this ‘Way’. As we in our turn point out this ‘Way’, however, we have no option but to deal with the cross, which is the hallmark of the Icon. Let us ask ourselves this question: “Is it possible for us to proclaim an encounter with Jesus Christ and ignore the cross?” As the Icon shows us, the Christian life and discipleship are simply not possible without it. “Whoever would follow me, must renounce themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”[5]. This attitude of Mary, of showing us the way – both personally and as a community – must become an integral part of our missionary spirituality. The missionary points the way to Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation, for this proclamation of the Good News is a commandment given to us by the same Lord: “Go throughout the whole world, announce the Good News to all creation.”[6] The missionary vocation, whether it be consecrated or lay, is characterised by this objective to reveal Jesus to others – as he is presented in the New Testament – through our own words and testimony. The Icon of Perpetual Help reminds us too, that every missionary activity is necessarily an intercessory one and is thus a work of self-abnegation and sacrifice. The missionary associates him or herself with Jesus’ suffering and self-offering to the Father. As we do this, we can give thanks, ask for wisdom and the grace of self-forgetfulness.[7] “My peace I leave you, my peace I give you, but not as the world gives. Do not fear!”[8]

In iconography a pronounced nose (as we see here with Mary) signifies the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the wind of God: As we ‘breathe in’ his presence, we ‘breathe out’ his will through our actions.[9] Mary is the Wife-Mother-Disciple in intimate relationship with God’s Holy Spirit. As we pray before the Icon, we can delve deeper into the relationship which exists between the Advocate and the mission entrusted to Mary and to us, remembering Jesus’ own vocation and ours (see Luke 4: 18-19, a founding text of the Congregation). We can look for the same inspiration and end as the Virgin Mary, which is to give our lives in prayer for the mission of the Church.[10]

The small, closed mouths often rendered in icons are meant to accentuate the hieratic (or priestly) features of the person depicted and, in consonance with the whole face,  to transmit peace and magnanimity. They are a symbol that there are no superfluous words to be spoken, only hidden intercession. Nevertheless, Mary is not dumbstruck. She is a valiant testimony of the wonders of God, and prayer at this juncture will lead us to question the efficacy of our own words. We might ask for the gift of ‘the word in due season’, renouncing likewise the idle chatter and gossip of the world. Our mission is born in synchronisation with Mary’s own “yes” to God, and her silent testimony here can purify our own inclination to noise and wordiness. Word and silence are prominent in the Icon, and Mary, as at the wedding fears of Cana, intercedes and asks: “Do whatever he tells you.”[11]

Continuing our prayerful exegesis of Our Mother’s face in the Icon, we can see as in all Greek icons the dark, almost olive skin. This lack of blush tones in the skin is characteristic of all icons, and expresses a sheer lack of artificiality and ornament. Mary identifies herself with humble women, who are accustomed to work in the heat of the sun, in contrast to the pale female faces found in palaces.[12] Here, our missionary meditation can lead us, together with the Virgin and her Son, to reflect on the preferential option for the poor[13] and to the crucified realities of our own peoples. The missionary Church goes out to meet our brothers and sisters most in need; as with the poor one of Nazareth, our closeness is with God’s most needy people. Here, our prayer can open itself up to the realities most in need of redemption. In order to be faithful to the mission, we need to dig in for the long-haul, giving our lives, together with Jesus and Mary, for plentiful redemption.

As we have seen, Mary’s left hand gives support to her Son as he faces the instruments of his passion. The Virgin’s heart is pierced through with the pain Christ will suffer. One of the great temptations for missionaries is to turn away from the path ahead because of tiredness, disappointment or doubt, because of the size of the task ahead, or because of the seemingly unending suffering and poverty of Christ’s crucified ones. Often, these sufferings are the result of personal or institutional ills; others stem from isolation or spiritual emptiness. In the face of all these exhaustions and uncertainties, the Icon reveals to us the fear of Jesus and the way in which Mary sustains him with her maternal grace. In the same way, Mary and Jesus shelter us in their hearts, which together beat in time with the missionary heart of the Church: “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labour; if the Lord does not watch over the city, in vain does the watchman keep vigil.”[14]

Our meditation now moves on to Jesus’ hands: Prayerful, healing, peace-bringing, serving, anointed, brotherly, crucified and risen. Continuing this path we can pause and look at the feet of our Lord. They are caught in the act of motion, as is his whole body before the message which the Archangels are delivering. In the same way, as missionaries, we contemplate the steps of the Redeemer, sent to announce liberation to the oppressed. We identify ourselves with the responsibility to go out and find the lost sheep, to preach conversion and pardon for sins, to heal the wounds of our neighbour, and with a profound sense of humility and service, to wash the feet of our brothers and sisters.

We can remain by the feet of Jesus, and anoint them with the tears of our sorrow as we plea for pardon for our sins and those of the Church. Our Lord’s footsteps are an invitation to not remain immobile or perplexed in the face of the challenges of the mission he has entrusted to us. In contrast to his body, the face of Jesus remains serene when presented with the instruments of the passion, and here, Pauline theology of the cross finds a channel for meditation before the Icon. Just as the Father offers his Son for the salvation of all humanity, every missionary is an offering grafted into Christ’s sacrifice and sent into the world for the salvation of the world. In the Redeemer’s face, we identify ourselves with the mission to proclaim Christ crucified and at the same time to proclaim the victory of the Risen One.

4. Conclusion

Meditation and contemplation of the Icon of Perpetual Help affords countless treasures, and time spent before the image allows us to understand fully its iconographic language. Deciphering its message in all its fullness is a requisite for all our communities in the diverse cultures we find ourselves in. The Icon’s message is an ecclesial one and, as such, needs to be understood as a response from God to the signs of the times. One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, Mary of Perpetual Help came out of the shadows to become a missionary icon. We who share that mission should nourish ourselves from the fullness of its richness and beauty, so that we can proclaim her to the world.

Selected Bibliography:

Donadeo, María, Iconos de la Madre de Dios, Madrid, Paulinas,1991.

Etcheverry, Roberto C.Ss.R., Una ventana para orar: Icono de Ntra. Sra. del Perpetuo Socorro, Salta, Ed. Redentoristas, 2006.

Evdokimov, Paul, El arte del icono, Madrid, Claretianas, 1991.

Sáez, Alfredo S.J., El Icono esplendor de lo sagrado, Buenos Aires, Gladius, 1997.

Sendler, Ergon S.J., L Icona immagine dell invisible, Milano, San Paolo, 1985.


[1] cf. Balthasar von, Hans Urs; “De la teología estética a la estética teológica” en: Gloria T.I, Madrid, Ed. Encuentro,76-110.
[2] Isaiah 7:14
[3] I Corinthians 1:23
[4] John 14:6
[5] Matthew 16:24
[6] Mark 16:15
[7] Cf. CSsR Constitution 20.
[8] John 14,27
[9] As in the Jesus Prayer.
[10] Missionary spirituality is inextricably linked to the Holy Spirit, and it is important to develop this further theologically so that this can be understood by missionary groups and lay communities. The definition in Latin America of the baptised person as a “missionary disciple” (See Aparecida 19) cries out for greater understanding and assimilation of this concept so that it doesn’t just remain a theory. Lay formation for a missionary spirituality requires, for example, the development and growth of schools of mission and other such endeavours.
[11] John 2:5
[12] Cf. Song of Solomon 1:5-6
[13] See the CSsR Constitutions, nos. 3-6. See also the Bishops of Latin America, Aparecida nos. 391-398.
[14] Psalm 127:1

Fr. Roberto Etcheverry CSsR., Iconographer Province of Buenos Aires.

Translated from the Spanish by Charles Randall CSsR Province of London