Clothed in Salvation, Wrapped in Righteousness
If it’s Tuesday, it must be the day for Perpetual Help. Girls dressed in white uniform blouses and maroon plaid skirts, and boys in khaki trousers and matching button-down shirts—under the watchful eyes of their teachers—mechanically genuflected before filling uncompromising pews in the parish church adjacent to the school ground. The solemn, droopy-eyed pastor was about to begin the weekly school Mass followed by devotions to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. This occasion, however, was unlike all the rest. When the students routinely recited the prayers on their novena cards, the responses by impatient eighth-graders far outpaced the simultaneous responses from students in the primary grades. Consequently, the church resounded with an echo like, five-second delay in the pious recitations. That’s when Father snapped, and it sounded like a thunderclap: “We will start over from the beginning! And no one leaves this church until you all pray together!” But to be held captive in church before a curious image of our Blessed Mother until people learn to pray together is not as traumatizing as this recollection may make it appear.
In 1866, Pope Pius IX entrusted the Redemptorists with a special gift, the original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help (this June marks the 150th anniversary). It depicts Mary in a royal-blue garment with an eight-pointed star, cradling Jesus as a young child. Jesus, securely wrapped in a loving maternal embrace, doesn’t look traumatized by a vision of the cross; on the contrary, he seems absorbed in contemplation by it. In this iconic image, the green color of Jesus’ tunic implies that he is fully human, explains Redemptorist Br. Daniel Korn in Embracing the Icon of Love, Liguori Publications, 2015. “The red cincture indicates that all humanity and all creation are wrapped in redemptive love. The golden-brown overlay cloaking the rest of his body is filled with the ‘Golden Light’ of the resurrection.”
There is, of course, a more familiar tunic associated with the final redemptive act of Jesus, and Mary may have clothed him in it. According to tradition, Mary had woven the seamless tunic to give to her Son as a parting gift when he left home. This was the precise custom of Jewish mothers at the time. If this tunic belonging to Jesus had such sentimental value, imagine the unspeakable emotions between Jesus on the cross and his Mother at its base when soldiers callously cast lots for it nearby.
“Oh, Lady, wrap me in your starry blue robe / Make my heart a perpetual novena,” wrote Tennessee Williams, prayer like, in The Enemy: Time. Oh, God-bearer, may the tassel of your Son’s robe heal our world of discord and disharmony. Actually, to be held captive in church by the captivating icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help until people can all learn to pray together sounds more therapeutic than traumatic! Pray the icon and make your heart a perpetual novena.