Octave of Christmas - January 1

            Many people in Eastern Europe attribute the collapse of their communist governments in 1989, and the opening up of their countries, to the mercy of Jesus through the intercession of the Mother of God. I would like to recount a true episode that demonstrates the faith of those people in the Son of God and in the Mother of God’s Son. It took place in a Polish village in the spring of 1945, when the Russian army were hot on the heels of the retreating Germans.

            A Red Army woman officer bailed up an old woman and demanded, “I want to billet here tonight.” She let herself in, and had no sooner closed the door behind her when she asked the old woman, “Where’s the Mother of God’s icon?”

            The old woman began to tremble. “Mother of God!”, she prayed under her breath. “There is no Mother of God here, you can see for yourself.”

            The officer turned on her, “What! No Mother of God? Listen. In Russia even in the worst times, we always kept our icon hidden in our home. Always!”

            The old woman was ashamed. She took out the icon from its hiding place. The officer unslung her rifle and took off her heavy gloves. She pulled her uniform straight and ran her hands through her hair. She walked up to the icon of Mary and Jesus, stretched out her arms in the form of a cross and prayed the traditional Russian prayers, with tears streaming down her face. This is the kind of devotion that those people have to the Mother of God.

            The Greek word “icon” means “an image”. There are many thousands of icons of Mary and the Child Jesus. Every family in the Eastern Churches has its own precious image of the Mother of God, handed down for hundreds of years. Each icon has its own way of expressing the relationship between Mary and Jesus and the faithful, depending on the school of iconography and the artist’s interpretation.

            The picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is a Greek icon from the island of Crete, at least five hundred years old, painted on wood. The letters over the head of Mary are shortened forms of the Greek words, “Mother of God”. The letters above the angels say, “The Archangel Michael”, and, “The Archangel Gabriel”. Near the child’s head, the words “Jesus Christ” are shortened. The gold background symbolises the presence of God, as in all icons, and the holiness of the persons pictured.

            The Perpetual Help icon is perhaps the best known of all the Mother of God icons in the West. The artist pictures the child Jesus frightened by the prospect of his future sufferings. The angels show him his cross and the lance and hyssop stick. He is so disturbed that he has almost kicked off his sandal and he clings to his Mother with both hands.

            Mary is aware of all this, but she is looking at us in front of her and assuring us that she will help us to face our sufferings, just as she will help Jesus when his time comes to suffer and to die.

            St Francis’s devotion to the Mother of God was no secret. The reason why he honoured Mary was that, “she made the Lord of Majesty a brother to us” (2 Cel 198). He acclaimed her as the Mother of God, Mother of Jesus, not quite Mother of the Franciscan Family although that is implied by Advocate and Protectress. Celano writes, “What gives us greatest joy is that he appointed her the Advocate of the Order, and placed under her wings the sons to be left behind, that she might protect and cherish them to the end” (2 Cel 198).

            His devotion was emotionally charged and expressively released, as became the most Italian of the saints and the most saintly of the Italians. Celano says, “he had a warm devotion to the Mother of all good” (1 Cel 21).

            His devotion penetrated to Mary’s most important privilege, he virginal motherhood. In this, it was theologically sound, but it was also an innovation that has persisted until today.

            The traditional devotion to Mary in the early Middle Ages stressed Mary’s faith. St Bernard expressed it for the Twelfth Century: “The Virgin believed, and in her faith the Virgin conceived.” Her faith was more important than her physical motherhood.

            St Francis’s devotion to Jesus the Lord of Majesty and the poor man, and his companion devotion to Mary who made him our brother has influenced the entire Church even till now, although it has suffered some devaluations at times. His devotion to Mary is divorced at times from his primary devotion to Jesus. The rich biblical foundation to his devotion needs to be appreciated. The emphasis on Mary as the model of faith, which underpins any devotion to her as the Mother of Jesus, can be lost. There is much more to St Francis’s devotion to the Mother of God than emotional fervour.

            On the first day of the new year, we thank God for his providence that has accompanied us during the past year and throughout our life. We ask God to help us to face up to our duties this year, and to whatever the future may bring.

            We are certain that the God-man will not abandon us, because he has given his own Mother to the Church, and to each of us as our mother, always ready to help us.

            Let us pray for the motherly help of Mary, so that we may always enjoy the fruit of the Passion of Jesus, especially in this new year of our Redemption, 2006.

            Whatever lies ahead of us, I wish you a happy New Year, blessed by the company of Jesus and his Mother. May the Mother of God intercede for us.