The Mother of God ~
Model of Hope
Especially for Women
Answering their Call to Beauty
(by Sister Helen Pashkevich, SSMI)
Sister Helen Pashkevich, SSMI is also editor of Awakening to our Treasures.
The icon known as "The Virgin of Tenderness," is one of the most venerated of all icons. It was painted by an anonymous Greek artist at the beginning of the 12th century. Around the year 1183 it was brought from Constantinople to Kiev, and about 20 years later from Kiev to Vladimir where it stayed until 1395. Although the icon has been in Moscow for the past six centuries, it is still called "The Virgin of Vladimir."
(note by web master: This icon is also known as Mother of God of Vyshorod because she was in Vyshorod near Kyiv before being taken by force to Vladimir.)
This sacred treasure has miraculously escaped many fires and plunderers. It has undergone several restorations, yet the faces of the mother and child are still those of the original Byzantine masterpiece. The Virgin of Tenderness does not enter into our familiar reality; she invites us to enter with her into the eternal life of God.
Her eyes look inward to the heart of God and outward to the heart of the world, thus revealing the unfathomable unity between the Creator and the creation.
They see the eternal in the temporal, the lasting in the passing, the divine in the human.
Her eyes gaze upon the infinite spaces of the heart where joy and sorrow are no longer contrasting emotions, but are transcended in spiritual unity.
The meaning of Mary's gaze is further accentuated by the bright stars on her forehead and shoulders (only two are visible; one is covered by the child). They not only indicate 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 divine Spirit, making her innermost being completely attentive to the creative power of God. Thus being mother and being virgin are no longer mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they bring each other to completion. Mary's motherhood completes her virginity, and her virginity completes her motherhood. That is why she carries in Greek the highest title that a human being has ever received: Theotokos, "The Bearer of God."
Praying to the Virgin of Tenderness, we learn that although she is not looking at us, she is truly seeing us. She sees us with the same eyes she sees Jesus. They are the eyes which saw her Lord before she conceived him, contemplated the Word before it became flesh in her and sensed God within before she heard the angel's message.
With these eyes the Virgin sees the child. Her gaze is not that of a proud mother of an exceptional baby; she sees him with the faithful eyes of the Mother of God.
Before seeing him with the eyes of her body, she saw him with the eyes of faith.
That is why the Divine Liturgy continues to praise Mary as the one who conceived God in her heart before she conceived God in her body.
As Mary sees Jesus, so she sees those who pray to her: not as interesting human beings worthy of her attention, but as people called away from the darkness of sin into the light of faith, called to become daughters and sons of God. It is hard for us to relinquish our worldly identity as noteworthy people and accept our spiritual identity as children of God.
We so much want to be looked at that we are ill prepared to be truly seen.
But the eyes of the Virgin invite us to let go of our old ways of belonging and accept the good news that we truly belong to God.
Slowly we recognize Mary's profound patience. The work "patience" comes from the Latin pati, which means to suffer.
Just as the body of the risen Lord still carries the wounds of His suffering so too is the glorified Mother of God, a woman whose heart has been pierced by sorrow. She knows what it means to be poor, oppressed, a refugee, to be uncertain and confused about the future, to be kept at a distance, to stand under the cross and to be the bearer of thoughts and feelings that cannot be shared with anyone.
These sufferings linger in the gaze of her eyes, not as frightening pain but as a glorified sign of her patience.
Therefore, she is mother not only to her crucified Son, but to all women and men who suffer in this world.
He invites us, suffering people, to come to Jesus.
She does not push us with an impatient gesture, but simply invites us as someone who fully knows our fears, hesitations, agonies, suspicions and insecurities.
She is the patient mother who waits for the right time to receive our "Yes".
But her patience is strong, unwavering and persevering.
It is easy to see that the child is not an infant. He is a wise man dressed in adult clothes. Moreover, the luminous face and golden tunic indicate that this wise man is truly the Word of God, full of majesty and splendor. He is the Word made flesh, the Lord of all ages, the source of all wisdom, the Alpha and Omega of creation, the Glory of God. All is light within and around the child. In the child there is no darkness. He is, in the words of the Council of Nicea, "God from God, Light from Light, true God from True God."
Contemplating the child of the Virgin of Tenderness is like discovering a light that was always there but could not be seen because of previous blindness.
Look at the face of the child!
A splendid light falls from the right side of the icon, gently touching the nose of the Virgin and illuminating the face of the child.
But light also comes from within.
It is an inner glow that shines outward and deepens the intimacy between mother and child already expressed by the tender embrace. The light illumines and gives warmth.
There is no sudden, intrusive flash, but the gradual appearance of a tender and radiant intimacy.
This light-giving intimacy has not only made the icon a masterpiece in the history of art, but more importantly has drawn countless people into prayerful communion with their Lord.
Faithful people from all over the world for nine centuries have come to this sacred image to be consoled and comforted by its life-giving tenderness.
Francis Bacon wrote some three centuries ago that "The job of the artist is to deepen the mystery."
There is much more!
The divine child is giving Himself completely to the Virgin. His arm holds her in an affectionate embrace, His eyes are fixed on hers in an affectionate embrace, His eyes are fixed on hers with complete attentiveness, and His mouth is close to hers, offering her His divine breath.
How close to the mystery of the Incarnation is this vision of God's total, unrestricted care for humanity!
This sacred image reverberates with the prayer of Jesus to His Father for His disciples:
"When the Paraclete comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who issues from the Father, He will be my witness" (Jn 15:26).
Jesus presents all His divine wisdom to the Mother of humanity.
All He has received he gives, all He has seen he reveals, all He has heard he speaks, all He is, he offers.
It also reverberates with Jesus' promise:
"If you as for anything in my name,I will do it" (Jn 14:14).
Yet Jesus not only gives everything, He also receives everything. He not only says everything he has heard, He also hears everything that is said to Him. He not only reveals everything he has seen, He also illumines everything that is shown to Him. Nothing that comes to him from the Virgin escapes his divine attention.
Everything she shows him is received, heard and understood.
Hence the Virgin is the spokesperson of humanity, the mother who intercedes for her children whatever their sorrows may be.
The tender embrace of mother and child is far from a sentimental event. It is the portrayal of the mysterious interchange between God and humanity made possible by the Incarnation of the Word.
The deep and lasting quality of this interchange becomes visible in the heavy neck of the child. The child's neck is painted so large because it represents the Holy Spirit.
Spirit means "breath". The Holy Spirit is the breath of God.
It is this divine breath which Jesus offers to humanity:
"It is for your own good that I am goingbecause unless I go the Paraclete (the Spirit) will not come to you; but if I do go. I will send him to you" (Jn 16:7).
Jesus not only offers his light to humanity; he offers his breath, his innermost life, so that we may truly belong to Him as brothers and sisters and as sons and daughters of his heavenly Father.
I have stressed that through prayerful attention we come to see that the child is the one to whom we are asked to go, and that the child offers us represented by the Virgin the gift of his own breath, which is the spiritual life.
Thus "The Virgin of Tenderness" is the iconographic articulation of Jesus' words to Nicodemus:
God loved the word so much
that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him
may not be lost
but may have eternal life (Jn 3:16).
The icon calls us to consider our role in the Church, our role in our world. In the Christian East the Mother of God is the Great Example, not the Great Excecption as she is considered in the West. As the Great Example, she becomes the model and the measure of our faith, our hope and our love.
During two homilies he preached during the pilgrimage this year Monsignor Leon Mosko declared in a rather matter of fact way that the community of Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate serve and should serve as the closest thing on earth that the people of God have to the Blessed Mother. I must admit that since pilgrimage I have endured a number to sleepless nights wrestling with my conscience. And it is little comfort to know that this is a call to all Christians, not just the Sisters Servants.
One morning I heard the Kindergarten children talking about their pet rabbit named "Floppy" as they unpacked their book bags in preparation for the day. I walked into the classroom and asked if Floppy was been good. "Oh yes!" a small boy answered with enthusiasm, "Floppy is a good kid." Like every good principal I asked, "Are you a good kid?" The young fellow stood up nice and tall and answered promptly, "Yes, I am, are you?"
I would like to reflect with you as to how I think this call to be "good," to be a reflection of the Mother of God may be answered.
In the beginning God created Man, in the image of Himself; in the image of God He created him, male and female.
From the very beginning God spoke one Word, "person" and two expressions appeared, man and woman. They were to complement and supplement each other in the image of God their Creator: man by his fidelity to Truth; woman by her faithfulness to Beauty. Both by their response to the Mighty One who does great things in them.
Who is woman? What is she? What does it mean to be called woman? By God? By man?
Woman is a call to Beauty. To be a woman is a calling, a task to be fulfilled, not just a fact to declare. Being a woman is a vocation to be beautiful, not the kind of attractiveness that is exposed and exploited in today's advertisements that use the body of woman as a Thing, as a tool to sell their products. A woman's beauty is one of mystery, of hidden interiority, of withinness. It is a kind of beauty which comes from Goodness...
...in the heart that is open to kindness
...in a mind which seeks after wisdom
...in a heart that is faithful through suffering
...in a whole presence that is full of graciousness and a strength that comes from within.
To be a woman is to say in many different ways and yet in all uniqueness:
I am beautiful before God
I am beautiful before man
and beautiful before children
when I am most truly woman.
The task given woman by God is to be that kind of presence and inspiration through which others can find their way to the Father. This is the task Jesus gave woman--to be that kind of presence and inspiration that will lead others to God. He says of woman as He said of Mary: Behold this woman
Behold this mother
Blessed is she who does the Will of the Father, who says LET IT BE DONE UNTO ME.
And the lines of inner beauty Jesus drew up in the Sermon on the Mount:
Beautiful is the woman who is poor. Like a field of daisies, she freely gives fragrance and delight to all who come to her, never contending for the center of attention--simply wishing that others live in the gladness of the day.
Beautiful is the woman who is poor, who is a fountain that channels waters, empty of self and in her emptiness is rich with God's love for others. This is woman in her giving, possessing nothing for herself, letting others come through, and praising the gifts they have, helping them manifest potentials given them by God in their person and by their talents.
Beautiful is the woman who knows her own limitations and accepts them. Like a growing plant, she, too, is fragile but tenaciously strong, because she depends upon Someone greater than herself. And in this faith brings light out of darkness, hope out of failure.
Beautiful is the woman whose poverty echoes a liberating simplicity. such a woman is like a well-built dam that holds back flood waters of violence, hatred, resentment, anger. she is one who can change the shape of a whole situation through her inner strength; she can stem the tide of misunderstanding, take out the debris of gossip and remove the obstacles that prevent refreshing waters from flowing freely. She is the woman who continues to generate life, and her power in shaping the future cannot be measured in merely human estimates.
Beautiful is the woman who knows how to cry with others, to grieve with the sorrowful. The strength and love of God flow through her outstretched arms to others. Woman is that kind of bridge who finds God in prayer and through this relationship balances all things. I am sorry that LeeAnn Makar is not with us today. I think she is someone who answers her call to beauty extremely well.
Beautiful is the woman with a gentle spirit who can bring others into possession of themselves. She is the woman charged with sensitivity. She is the woman who can stand without defenses, because her inner strength rests not in herself but in God. Like a green-covered mountain, with its inner core of power, her values and convictions, too, are gently camouflaged with delicacy and patience.
Beautiful is the woman who can stand quietly in the midst of confusion. She is able to make decisions in the face of contradictions and lets others grow in spite of mistakes and failures. Like a tree that endures the lightening, rain, and snow, she can transform the dark and destructive into light and wholeness.
Beautiful is the woman who takes leadership in defending the helpless, the aged, the handicapped. And more beautiful is she who has the perception to see the needs of her children and her husband, her neighbor, and in seeing gives to them. Such a woman complements and supplements all she touches and all that touches her. We need to reflect on the lives of our mothers and grandmothers to realize that our church is built on the strong foundation of their faith.
Beautiful is the woman who excels in showing mercy, who can be compassionate with those that have strayed, with those who lack understanding, with those who hold a different vision. Such a woman identifies with the downtrodden, the helpless, the sinner, because she faces her own weakness and need for help from others. She is like a seedling emerging from the soil, ready to reach out tenaciously toward the light of Truth. She is the woman who listens with an open heart, and by her attentiveness teaches.
Beautiful is she who leads others to understanding. Like a cobblestone walk she is strong and supportive, providing a solid foundation that helps others move ahead more freely in carrying their own burden of existence.
Beautiful is the woman who is pure, who stands empty before God ready to conceive Him, to give Him in every relationship, in every situation. She is the woman who can stand empty before others and let them unfold in the beauty of their essence. In standing empty, she does not count the cost of breaking, nor the pain of sacrifice. She does not seek recognition for what she does, nor keep a list of failings.
Beautiful is she because she is empty of resentment, jealousy and knows how to remain faithful with a single heart.
Beautiful is the woman who is a peacemaker, She is like leaven, whose bread of love, sympathy and care makes a difference in every home. She is that kind of bread that enlightens and raises life to a new level of thinking and living.
Beautiful is the woman of peace. Her laughter and sense of humor bring joy, a kind of gentle light over everything. she is one who never takes herself seriously, because she lives in God who is beyond the whole world and greater than everything. she is never restricted by the greatest, and yet she knows how to remain enclosed in the smallest. She is like the hearth-fire that warms the chill, warms the atmosphere, brightens the room, brings others to a relaxing leisure.
Beautiful is the woman who is a peacemaker. She is the one who can take up the opposite stands of life, and in weaving the tensions produces a whole new pattern of texture, design and color.
Beautiful is the woman who brings unity where differences existed, who knows how to dissolve bitterness with a word of forbearance. She is like the open door, extending hospitality without distinction or prejudice.
Beautiful is the woman who gives life. She is like the earth, open, receptive, present, often taken for granted. And like the earth she, too, is capable of changing what is brought to her into something finer, richer, and more lasting. She can take the cries of little ones, the complaints of adolescents, the criticisms of neighbors, the doubts of friends, the taunts of relatives--all the debris of negativism and cynicism, and miraculously transform these cast--offs into a power of new vitality. Like the earth she brings what is needed to a thirtyfold, a sixtyfold, a hundredfold abundance.
She is the valiant woman who makes an impact--the one called by God to bear witness to His Beauty.
Who is woman? What is she?
She is God's call to Beauty, the one who holds a singular place in the cosmos, the one whose destiny will never occur again. God has never breathed the same breath into any woman before. And He never will again.
Father, You who created and called us to be woman, increase in us your love, made for everything small and everything great. Grant that we may continue the joy, the praise of Mary--Woman above all woman.
Msgr Paul Iwachiw
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