The Synod of Ukrainian Catholic Bishops has designated this Sunday as the Sunday of “The Mother of God of Perpetual Help”. This icon, no doubt, is familiar to us: The Mother of God (Theotokos) holds her son, terrified by the vision of his future. The angels Gabriel and Michael on either side, hold symbols of the crucifixion.
As with all Byzantine iconography, the represented images guide us to contemplation, to a sacred meaning for us, both personally and collectively. This icon illuminates the fact that through our humanity and material reality we encounter God. God in Jesus is afraid of the cruelty and suffering life presents and, as the loose sandal suggests, he runs to the arms of his mother for comfort.
Every human being has a mother. Mary, the mother of Jesus grounds us in the unfathomable notion that we can see God as human. To be human is to feel pain and fear as well as pleasure and comfort. No one can escape suffering in life, yet we can endure so much when enfolded in the arms of someone who loves us. Symbolically, a mother embodies love—creative, selfless, nurturing, unconditional. The life of her son, Jesus, demonstrates that God is love.
The figures of mother and child in this icon visually suggest a profound bond. They meld into one entity. They are surrounded by horror.
Oftentimes we may imagine that as people of faith we are to be protected from life’s problems. Pandemic news has been full of stories of churches of various traditions that defy public health policies because they think God will keep them safe. Not surprisingly, time after time these same gatherings have led to viral spread. Where is God? The icon tells us unequivocally: no matter what suffering surrounds us, God is with us. But it is up to us to open our hearts, to recognize love around us and to be its purveyors. In this icon, Christ looks to the signs of His cruel death.
God’s mother looks at us while clasping her child to her heart. What do we see? Am I the child finding solace in her embrace? Do I turn to the Love of God for my strength and peace? Or am I the threat that drives away goodness? Do I have the consoling arms of a mother? Perhaps in contemplating our Mother of Perpetual Help, I can strive with greater intention to look to her for help so that I too can be an icon of divine help.