The Spirituality of the Icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help

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The Icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help comes from the Eastern Tradition; for this reason the Christians of the Eastern Rite are better able to contribute to the theme of its Spirituality. Since the devotion developed in the Western, Latin Tradition, it is up to us to do a reading according to the possibilities that we are offered. We begin with “contemplata aliis tradere:” convey to others the beauties we contemplate.

TAKE OFF ONE’S SANDALS

God visits his people

In communicating his Love to the world in order to draw all to participate in his life, the Father sent his Son (Jn 3:16). The whole of Salvation History is summed up in his loving plan to visit us and establish a covenant of communion with us, and, through his people, with the whole world. That is how He accomplishes his plan of establishing a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1).

This communication of love brought joy to all who received it: overcome with awe Zachariah sings: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free… In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us” (Lk 1:68,78).

Seeing Jesus’ miracles, there was a growing consciousness on the part of the people that God had visited them, as we read in the account of the raising of the young man from Nain: “A great prophet has arisen in our midst, and God has visited his people” (Lk 7:16).

The Icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help is the representation of this permanent visit of God. God comes to meet us in his Son who is presented by the Mother who received him in her womb and now hands him over to us. Jesus, presented within the Paschal mystery, comes to meet us in a merciful visit through kenosis in the mystery of his Incarnation (Phil 2:6ff).

The Icon is an open window in the heavens, through which God comes to us and speaks to us as beloved children. It takes up again the words of John in the book of Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (Rev 3:20). It is the voice of the beloved (Song 2:8). Our heart jumps with the love that he manifests toward us.

This visit is like Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, bringing Jesus in her womb to give the Spirit to John. She is the Pneumatophora (One who carries the Holy Spirit). The Spirit, which is given to us, opens us to the mystery of Salvation. In presenting Jesus to us, Mary puts us in dialogue with Salvation.

         The first moment of spirituality is amazement before the wonderful initiative of God, and holy fear that welcomes Him reverently.       

                We come before the demand to take off our sandals because we are in a holy place (Ex 3:5). Divesting and emptying ourselves opens space for God to visit us. Therefore, divesting oneself is a necessary condition for welcoming the spirituality of the icon. We must be stripped down in order to live this spirituality. With it, we can understand what God wants to say through the Son presented by his Mother. It is the permanent attitude of Jesus who always divests himself so that the Father may speak to him.

BY HIS MERCY

He shows himself as Mercy

         The manifestation of Christ in his incarnation is the expression of the mercy of God who went out of himself and bent over the wounded man on the road, as Jesus tells in the parable of the good Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37). The Christ presented by Mary is the Glorious Lord who, in his Paschal Mystery, continues his mission of manifesting the heart of God who so loved the world that he sent his Son (Jn 3:16) and continues to give Him for our salvation. Since it is a presentation of the Passion, in which Mary exercised her mission as Co-Redeemer and Mediatrix, we have there one more stage of spirituality, which is the capacity to take in this love of God, who manifests Himself.

MERCIFUL MEMORY

The mercy presented by Mary

The Mission of Mary is to make manifest the mercy, which continues present in the world through the action of her Son. As Co-redeemer, she keeps alive the presence of this mercy, as her gesture indicates, since she is a Hodegetria (One who shows the way). As Wisdom says: “Come my children, and I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Ps 34:11). At the same time, she presents her Son who, in the fear of the Lord, carried out the work of our salvation. The whole mystery of Redemption is present there.

Why does Mary present Jesus? As the first of the redeemed, Mary carries Him in her arms. She herself received this merciful look from God and experienced his goodness because God “has looked with favour on his lowly servant… He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation” (Lk 1:48-49). All those who were touched by mercy become merciful.

Continuing the Redeemer is not just proclaiming his name, but becoming a living memory of his constant mercy. Since she received so much mercy, she knows how to be merciful and presents this mercy to us. Here we have one more indication of this spirituality. By experiencing how much God has been merciful to us, we learn to proclaim his mercy.

IN CHRIST JESUS

God redeems us in the Paschal mystery of Jesus presented by Mary

         As an icon of the Passion, it brings us to the scene of the Paschal mystery of Christ: Jesus as a Child in the arms of his Mother, as the Crucified One by what we see of the instruments of his Passion, as the Risen and Glorified One in his divine-human condition. The Lord of Glory turned the tender arms of the Mother into a throne.

Mary participates in every moment of Redemption. She teaches us to receive the Holy Spirit communicated by her Son. She is also present at each person’s Pentecost, as she was when she took Jesus in her womb to the house of Zachariah. The child leaped with joy in Elizabeth’s womb over the presence of the Redeemer who gave him the Spirit. Mary is together with the disciples when the Spirit is poured out on Pentecost. Now, giving us her Son, the Spirit is given to us with him in order to accomplish our divinization and transfiguration into his image. The spirituality is founded on Christ’s complete Paschal mystery in which Mary enters as one who is redeemed.

GO AND PROCLAIM

Icon of evangelization

         Spirituality is often presented as just a personal attitude toward God that makes us saints. This kind of thinking is spiritual individualism that ends up limiting the missionary vocation that we receive at Baptism.

         Through the precious Icon, we learn that spirituality is something that makes us go out of ourselves and go with Jesus in search of the lost sheep to show them Jesus the Savior, as Mary does. At the same time, we are the ones he sends out to search for them among the thorn bushes and precipices of existence. The purely interior spirituality referred to above has little to do with the Gospel. To be a saint is to do what Jesus did. Spirituality is the continuation of the work of the Redeemer who wants everyone to be saved and to give themselves over for their salvation.

         On December 11, 1865, when Pope Pius IX handed the Icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help over to the Redemptorist Missionaries, he said, “Make her known throughout the whole world.” It was not just a devotion that was spread, but a way of evangelizing that was encouraged. The love for Our Lady encourages us to make Jesus known, as she did. That is why, in such a short time, this devotion has penetrated so many countries, particularly among the poor and the lost sheep. It is proof of the evangelizing value of the Icon. It is a force in Redemptorist evangelization that goes in search of the most abandoned.

YOU HAVE REDEEMED US, LORD

The spirituality that accepts the redemption of the Son

         Mary, with her Son in her arms, indicates that she has already accepted him in her life, as she accepted Him in her womb. She has already been transformed by Him, as the golden colors that shine in her mantle indicate to us. The green color signifies that her nature and that of her Son are the same. The splendor of divinity already covers her, as the daughter of the king, whose raiment is threaded with gold (Ps 45:14). This is the process of each one who accepts Jesus and clothes themselves in Him. The process of transformation happens through the acceptance of redemption. We are not dealing with only a future resurrection, but with a transfiguration here and now, in order to have the same sentiments and mentality as the Redeemer (Phil 2:5).

 Jesus is secure in Mary’s hands. That which the universe cannot contain is being supported by her hands. For this reason, St. Alphonsus says that “the true devotee of Mary does not get lost,” because he/she found Jesus and is protected from evil by Him, like the happy shepherd who carries on his shoulders the lost sheep that was found.

SWEET TENDERNESS

The spirituality of tenderness that seeks out and presents.

         Jesus’ mercy is not just welcoming, but searching for the lost sheep. The gospel written by mercy is the realization of the words of Jesus: “this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day” (Jn 6:39). That is why Jesus goes in search of the lost sheep. This parable is at the heart of the Gospel.

         This is precisely the mission of Mary, mother of perpetual help: Her eyes seek out the lost sheep to indicate her Son as the way. The spirituality that we take from the Icon does not look just to interior growth, but fixes its attention on Mary’s mission to cooperate in Redemption as the one who goes out in search of the lost sheep. She does not just welcome, but seeks out those who are lost without knowing it. She is a mother worried about her children in danger. Seeking out the abandoned is the identity of the Redemptorist vocation. The Holy Icon sums up this vocation in the Church. That is why the most humble populations, where the Redemptorists work, understand that under Mary’s gaze and in her mother’s lap they can live happily, because there is the love of the Mother of God in whom Grace is abundant.

As Pope Francis teaches us, to the Redemptorists is given the incentive to “be the first,” to know how to take the initiative and get out in front (EG 24).

         Concern for the abandoned is the duty of the devotees of our Mother of Perpetual Help. She demonstrates with her large eyes that contemplate God and at the same time contemplate the children of the Father who is tenderness and compassion (Ex 34:6), who came down to see the suffering of the people in Egypt, heard their cries… and came down to free them and lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex 3:7-8). Because she received mercy, she is merciful.

SANDAL STRAP – THE COVENANT

Permanent life in the love of God

         The modest sign of the sandal hanging by a strap piously implies that devotion to Mary could perhaps be the last thread the ties the sinner to Christ. Going even farther, it is also the sign of the covenant that the king makes with someone. To give the sandal is a document of communion. Thus, Christ the Lord, risen and alive, in the arms of his Mother always offers a covenant to all who seek Him and find Him in Mary. A life of permanent communion of love with Christ is born. The life of the community in the Covenant of love between its members and with Christ reaches its high point. Love nourished in contemplation of the Icon becomes the life of the community that welcomes, announces and summons others to continue the mission that the Father entrusted to the Mother of his Son.

THE CHILDREN OF A BELOVED MOTHER

The Redemptorists are workers of abundant love.

         Pope Pius IX gave the Icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help to the Redemptorists as a mission in order to make her known. The devotion quickly penetrated many regions, even where the Redemptorists were not known. However, they were the ones who promoted devotion to her throughout the world wherever they went on mission, especially to the Far East, such as the Philippines, for example. Afterwards, with the Perpetual Novena, they made her known and venerated.

         One of the reasons is the popular style of the preaching and of the itinerant missionary evangelization. The missionaries were formed in the school of Saint Alphonsus, who was imbued with devotion to Mary, so much that he wrote the precious book The Glories of Mary.  The Icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help is a rendition of this priceless book in full colors. In declaring the purpose of the book, Saint Alphonsus said: “To other authors I entrust the care of writing about the other prerogatives of Mary. In this book, I want to speak principally about her great mercy and powerful intercession” (The Glories of Mary, Introduction, Liguori Publications, 2000). This is Redemptorist preaching. She is the intercessor who presents us before Mercy and implores Him in our favor. The mission of her devotee is to intercede together with Mary so that those who are abandoned and far from God seek in Jesus the Mercy which saves and frees.

         Thus, the Redemptorist Missionaries are not just responsible for the propagation of the Love of the Mother of God; they are members of a company that transforms sadness, returns joy, and sows the hopes of the very Mother of the Lord. Making use of Mary, the Redemptorist missionaries must become more and more like our Lady of Perpetual Help, who loves and who is the link that protects, defends and supports, who is the voice.

         The Redemptorist missionaries do what the Mother of God does in every instant, and what Saint Alphonsus did when He took the first steps in the direction of the poor people of Scala. Today the Redemptorist missionaries in the whole world, following Saint Alphonsus, with their eyes on our Lady of Perpetual Help, illuminate the way of the poor people of the world, giving joy back to them with the strength that comes from MARY.

A SPIRITUALITY THAT IS LIFE

A Synthesis of the Spirituality of the Icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help

         The Icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help is the representation of the permanent visit that God makes to his people. He comes to meet us in his Son presented to us by his Mother. The icon is a source of spirituality centered in the Pascal Mystery of Christ.

         Before the Mystery of God we feel a holy fear in the reverent awe and in the detachment to hear the God who speaks and to welcome the God who loves.

         Loving Him we learn to have mercy, because He is merciful. Spirituality is to go out of oneself and go in search of the lost sheep.

         Jesus, in the arms of Mary, signifies that she has already accepted Him and was transformed by the Spirit in order to cooperate with Redemption. The devotion encourages the concern for the abandoned, seeking them out with tenderness and compassion.

         Love nourished in the contemplations of the Icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help becomes the life of the community that accepts, proclaims and calls together continuers of the mission, which the Father entrusted to the Mother of his Son.

         The Redemptorists carry out this mission, share the mystery of mercy, and have it as their fundamental missionary method. They are living portraits of Christ who reproduce in themselves the mercy presented by Mary.

         The meeting of the Redemptorist missionary with the people will always be a visit from God if he is imbued with the love of Christ presented by Mary.

Fr. Luís Carlos Oliveira CSsR., Province of São Paolo
Translated from Portuguese by Fr. Karl Esker CSsR – Province of Campo Grande

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