Image: Icon of Mother of Perpetual Help
Today is a special feast day for the Redemptorist congregation as we celebrate the Feast Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Since 1866 the Redemptorists have spread devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary under this title.
According to tradition, the ancient Byzantine icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was stolen from a church in Crete, where many miracles had occurred. The image remained in the private possession of a Roman merchant and his family until 1499, when it was publicly displayed in the Church of St. Matthew in Rome between the Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.
When St. Matthew’s was destroyed in 1789, the icon was rescued and hung in an obscure monastery chapel until the Redemptorists learned that the site of their new headquarters in Rome had once been the site of St. Matthew’s, the one-time home of a miraculous icon of Our Lady.
The Redemptorists asked Pope Pius IX for permission to move the icon to their new church, San Alfonso, which was built on the location of the icon’s earlier home. The pope granted his permission and told the Redemptorists to “make her known throughout the world.”
In today’s first reading, Isaiah gave King Ahaz the sign the king said he did not want. And what a sign it was, ‘The young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.’ In the second reading, a pregnant woman cries out in the pangs of giving birth. Through the birth of her son, this mother brings about the defeat of the dragon – that symbol for evil run amok in the world. In the gospel, a mother stands by, helpless, as her son’s lifeblood slowly drains away.
All three readings give us the image of a mother – an image of Mary. Before Mary became known as Our Mother of Perpetual Help, she was simply Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Yet what power is present in that motherhood. We can all relate to a mother, and a mother can relate to us.
Imagine Mary, just as we know her from the scriptures. When we meet her in Luke’s gospel, she is a young woman betrothed to a good man, on the verge of marriage and a new life. Imagine the hopes and dreams in her heart. In a moment everything changes. God calls and she says yes. Then the angel leaves her.
In Matthew’s gospel we meet her a short time later. Joseph, her good and just man, has decided not to marry her. This pregnancy is too much for him. Dreams are shattered, hopes are put on the shelf. But God intervenes with a new dream, and Joseph takes Mary into his home.
Motherhood changes a woman. Sometimes the change is subtle, and nuanced, yet glorious – like the quiet bursting into bloom of a rosebud. At other times, the change is dramatic and difficult and unforeseen, like the uprooting of a tree in a violent storm. After giving birth there is no going back and life will never again be the same.
Mary had to cope with it all, the joys and the struggles, the comfort and the pain, the life changes and the new life growing within her. She welcomed her son with amazement, and then Mary had to let him go as he went off to preach and heal. She did not understand when the neighbours all thought he was out of his mind. She went to bring him home only to be rebuffed by him. She did not understand, but she loved him all the more.
Then rumours started to filter back to Nazareth that Jesus was walking on dangerous ground. His very life was threatened. All Mary could do was go to Jerusalem for Passover to be there whatever happened. To stand there. To gaze with compassion from a distance.
At the cross, Mary had to let go of Jesus just as she had let go of all her dreams. She had to silently trust that the God who had promised her this child would remain faithful to those promises. Silent, compassionate, helpless she would stand just where he could see her. Her heart was breaking. Did she remember Simeon, and think, ‘that old priest was right’? She could feel her heart break as she stood there for her Son’s sake.
As Mary thinks of Jesus, Jesus thinks of her and of us. He says to her, “Here is your son”, and he says to the disciple he loves, “Here is your mother”. And from that moment, the disciple Jesus’ loves made a place for her in his home, and in his heart and she became our mother as well.