The Maternal Tenderness of God
The image of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is a manifestation of the tenderness of God—demonstrated in how the icon is painted (written). I’ve often discussed Mary’s gaze in this column and received many letters relating the effect Mary’s look has had on people as they pray before the icon.
As Mary gazes on us, we’re drawn into and experience the maternal tenderness of God. This may be the most important element of the icon. Through her gentle gaze, we’re attracted to her mystery. Her eyes center on those who look closely upon her, drawing them in.
We know from the annunciation narrative in St. Luke’s Gospel that an angel informed Mary that she had been chosen by God to be the Mother of the incarnate Son of God.
“Rejoice, O highly favored daughter!” the angel says in a New American Bible version of Luke 1:28. “Daughter” suggests she is in a familiar relationship with the Father. Thus the presence of the Father is in her. The Hail Mary goes on, stating: “…The Lord is with you; blessed are you among women.” She conveys this blessedness with compassion, her heritage as daughter, an attribute marvelously depicted in the extraordinary look of the eyes of Mary in the icon. Because she is filled with the compassion of God, the unique tenderness of God shines forth on all who gaze upon her with faith and devotion.
As we gaze, Mary calls us to silence. This begins the action of drawing us into the presence of that which she is offering us. Her hand points toward the Child Logos as if to say, “This Child is the Word of the Father.” Through the Incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ, the Father’s word shows us tenderness and compassion.
Continuing our prayer of watching, we observe the peaceful look of the Child as his eyes see the angel holding up the cross. He doesn’t let his gaze stop with the instruments of the passion. He seems to look both at and beyond the angel into the golden background that is symbolic of the divine energy of the mystery of God.
The effect of this movement of Jesus and Mary centered in the mystery of the Redemption teaches us that, even in our most terrible sufferings and pain, there is a redemptive quality in what we endure in our daily lives.
The passion of Jesus is continually alive within us, as St. Paul says: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
Let us allow ourselves the humility to embrace the shadow of this gaze of Mary as she shows us the tenderness of the Father.