I'm not sure when I first saw the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help (or Our Lady of Perpetual Help). I do know that the first time I saw it, I didn't "get it". I was more into "realism" and I didn't like the "art", I considered it to be bad although I recognized it as a certain genre. It was just as off my radar screen as was impressionist, modernist and abstract.
Then I read a little about icons, on a blog or some other formal publication, and it made me consider the style of icons differently; they are not "realistic" for a reason, for they are asking us to go beyond what is seen and into the unseen. Icons are a window to Heaven, in a sense, asking us to overcome our own earth-bound perceptions and see things more from God's point of view. Icons are an invitation to enter into the Divine, to see beyond what is tactile, and to experience, in prayer, what cannot be described in words. Icons are meant to be meditative, and can actually cause one to enter into the contemplative, should God choose to call such a soul through a given image.
After that small lesson, Our Mother of Perpetual Help continued to appear, first here, then there, and then, while I was working on the lesson I was preparing for RCIA with regard to Sacramentals, I couldn't help but stop and read about OLPH. The description of the symbolism in the icon opened my eyes. Although I skipped forward to find what I needed, I marked the page, and realized that, in a way, I was being called. Our Lady was reaching out to me...for it is clear to me now that I did not choose this icon, this manifestation, if you will, of Our Lady...she chose me.
It is no mistake that this icon came into my own personal sphere as I was learning very deeply about the mystery of the Redemption...for this is what the icon is all about.
Non-Catholics do not understand our reverence for Our Lady, but they DO understand the Redemption, for they, like us, believe they have been saved by the Blood of the Lamb. In this icon, the lamb, the Child Jesus, is being held in his mother's arms. Stop for a moment, and consider this image, note the lines, note the expressions, note the eyes...especially the eyes - of each person.
The Archangel Gabriel (who first appeared to Mary with the invitation from God) holds the Cross and the nails which signified the death of Christ, which were, of course, the instruments leading to the Redemption. The Archangel Michael holds the sword that pierced his side, and the spear holding the sponge that wet his lips as he hung experiencing deep, physical and spiritual thirst those hours upon the cross in abject misery. Jesus as a child in this image, was so stricken by the view of these instruments of torture, these tools of his death, that he ran immediately to his Mother, so quickly that he nearly lost one of his sandals.
Note how the sandal dangles near the bottom of the icon, while the other remains attached. Note how he leans into his mother, against her heart, looking over his shoulder at the cross, seeking protection from the shadow of the cross that falls over him...seeking protection from his Mother.
Mary always points to Jesus
Do you see how the lines in the icon all point to Jesus in Mary's arms? The folds in her own mantle point to him both directly and through a diagonal line. The folds in the gold pants Jesus wears (gold signifying God and the Holy Spirit) point to him. Note that he wears a green tunic with a red sash....green to symbolize healing, red to symbolize martyrdom, the blood to be shed which brought about the healing of the Redemption.
Look at what Our Lady is wearing: blue, for the royalty of her position, chosen by God, the Queen of Heaven, the Queen of the Angels, herself a creation of God, the most perfect creation (for Jesus IS God, human and divine intermixed), but Mary was chosen from eternity, and wears the color of eternity to signify her role all to God's glory. She also wears red beneath her mantle, for, as Simon predicted at the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, she would be pierced by a sword, and indeed she was...the very sword held by the Archangel Michael who gazes at her sympathetically from her right (our left).
The Secret is in the Eyes
No icon can be really understood, however, without understanding the eyes. We have all heard the term that "the eyes are windows to the soul", and it is the eyes in this icon that indeed penetrate our very souls, inviting us to, in turn, penetrate this icon, penetrating the Paschal Mystery. Both of the Angels gaze at Our Lady as she, in turn, although her head is inclined towards her beloved Child, she gazes at US! Within her eyes, within her expression, she invites us inward. She looks at us with the wisdom that comes with understanding, the resignation to the suffering of her Son and herself in accordance with the Father's will, the deep, deep sorrow only a Mother could know, for she, too is tormented by the vision of the Angels, the instruments of her Son's torture and death as she holds Him close to her, knowing what must be, what must happen, in order for humanity to be restored and saved from our sin.
She, in her gaze, asks us all at once to come also into her arms, for we are her children as well, given to her at the foot of the Cross by Jesus himself. "There is your Mother." We are invited, with John, to take her into our homes just as she welcomes us into her arms, all so she can bring us to her Son, bring us to Jesus.
See how her hands point to him, how the fingers of her right hand point towards his face, the fingers of her left hand, cradling him, also point to his face. Her head is inclined towards Jesus, just as are the angels', and the lines from her shoulder for a direct arrow to him.
But look at the center of the picture...look at how Jesus' hands are turned downward into his Mother's upturned palm. God entrusted Himself in his human vulnerability into the hands of this human woman. When Jesus was frightened, he ran to his Mother, just as all of us have done. He ran to her, and as we see his hands turned downward, it is conveying grace...Grace into the hands of Our Lady, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, to dispense the grace according to her motherly wisdom. Jesus could trust her with such a gift...can not we, her children, not follow the example of Jesus and turn to His Mother for our needs?
Through the window that is this Icon, we see the theological truth: even as we give our own concerns and our own fears into her hands, she passes them on to Jesus. She brings us to her Son, she points, always, to the Redemption. She points to her beloved Son, never denying Him or taking attention away, but rather seeking to bring us closer, drawing us in with her motherly instinct all for the purpose of our our salvation through the blood of her beloved Child.
There is so much to this icon...there is so much to this image, such that books can be written. I have only barely touched on the imagery of this icon, and there is so much more to be said, but one of the things that strikes so many people, other than the eyes, is the sandal...the dangling sandal.
Remember how Jesus ran to his mother when overshadowed by the cross, seeking the comfort and protection of her embrace?
Look at the dangling sandal, held only by a single golden thread. Contemplate the sandal...what does it mean? What does it represent? That sandal is not an accident - it has significance. Consider how the eyes of Our Mother look at us directly, inviting us into the icon, inviting us to penetrate further. Asking us to become a part of the icon.
I am the sandal...so are you. Sometimes we are affixed to Jesus, but we, too, become frightened by the shadow of the cross, the same shadow that Jesus asks us to brave, so that we may eventually carry his same cross. It is an invitation into his suffering. The sandal is us, falling away in fright, falling away because the road is too difficult, and we can't hang on anymore.
But that thread holds us to Jesus, to that foot that was crucified, in a position for the blood to fall upon us, drop by drop. Sometimes we hold tightly to Jesus...sometimes we fall away, but he never lets go of us.
See how Jesus ran to his mother, and his sandal almost fell off...but didn't. He brings both his fears and his falling sandal to his mother to fix. Who retied the sandal when he was a child? His mother. She did...she rewound it and re-affixed it, just as she brings us all back to Jesus if we entrust ourselves to her hands, just like Jesus did.
Jesus entrusted the salvation of the world into the "yes" of a human woman, a woman with free will, a woman free to reject the very notion. But Mary said "yes", and she suffered the burden with Christ....a burden only a Mother can truly understand.
Jesus, before death, entrusted his mother into the care of the Apostle John, declaring, "There is your Mother. There is your son." Had he had siblings, this would have been a terrible insult to them, but Jesus provided for his Mother, the woman who had always provided for him. He entrusted us all, while on earth, into her hands as well. Accept her own personal invitation. Look into her eyes, place your hands in hers, and leap into her arms when you are in need of comfort. Just as she held Jesus, so she holds us all, and offers us all to her Son, all to lead us to the salvation He provides for us through his very blood.
Our Mother of Perpetual Help... pray for us!