A gaze of tenderness

Today the Church celebrates the feast of our Lady of Perpetual Help. For the occasion I wanted to share with you a short reflection I had prepared on the icon of our Lady of Tenderness. The Virgin of Vladimir is the most venerated icon in all Russia and has escaped many fires and plunderers. The Virgin is shown inclined in an attitude of contemplation while the Child rests on her arm with His cheek against hers. This attitude expresses not so much the maternal tenderness of Mary as her power to elicit tenderness in her Son as she intercedes with Him for the human race. Her eyes look neither toward the Child, nor at the viewer, but rather inward to the heart of God and outward to the heart of the world. The meaning of Mary's gaze is further enhanced by the bright stars on her forehead and shoulders. They indicate not only her virginity before, during and after the birth of Jesus, but also speak of a divine presence that permeates part of her being. She is completely open to the Spirit, making her innermost being completely attentive to the creative power of God.

The bright face and golden tunic of the Child indicate His majesty and splendour as the Word of God, the source of all wisdom. The arm of the Child holds Mary in an embrace, His eyes fixed on hers with complete attentiveness, and His mouth close to hers, offering her His divine breath. The neck of the Child is painted large because it represents the Holy Spirit, the breath of God which Jesus offers to humanity. Far from a sentimental event, the tender embrace of mother and child is the portrayal of the mysterious interchange between God and humanity made possible by the Incarnation of the Word.
Mary, Mother of God, the gentle tenderness you share with your child is a quiet, strong thing, reflected from your image. There is no distance between his soft, but total embrace and you. He loves you. Yes, there is no doubt! O how this child loves you! You are moulded as one. His body from your body, his flesh from your flesh, his heart from your heart. His eyes praise you and thank you for your share in his humanity.
Like a strong, powerful, but peaceful magnet, your gaze holds mine. Quiet, calm, endlessly gazing at me from nine centuries of reflected wisdom. You ask only one thing of me: to share the love you share. Love is not gentle, soft tenderness in the sense of weakness. Love is gentle in the sense of strength: enduring, radical, unbroken unity.
Lady of Tenderness, your gaze is both statement and  question: If this is the unity he seeks -- a love so strong between God and the human being that nothing can divide it -- then can I not at least try to love as he has loved? Can I not at least try to break down barriers that separate the nations? Can I not make my decisions in his presence and under your gaze -- the presence of this call to unity from the fulness of tender love?  Mary, perhaps if I would pause long enough to return your gaze, stop long enough to love tenderly for just one moment, I could learn from you what wisdom really means.

This icon and many more are  from Michele Tritto and are available at our Liturgical Centres in Athlone and Dublin. For an explanation of the icon of our Lady of Perpetual Help, feel free to check out this website.