I almost entitled this “The Many Faces of Our Lady,” but then I realized I was going to deal with more than faces. And, after all, the face is a kind of expression of the whole person in all her dimensions. In fact, I’ll be using here a figure of speech known as synecdoche, in which a part of something refers to the whole. You’ll see what I mean. For the various facets of the jewel known as the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, I’ll be borrowing from traditions both East and West, for her truth and beauty cannot be contained within any one spiritual, liturgical, or artistic tradition. The mystery of Mary as virgin and mother, handmaid and queen, has captured the hearts and imaginations of artists and poets and countless Christians since the early centuries of the Church, and love for her is still a flame in the hearts of millions worldwide.
The images (usually icons) of the Mother of God in the Byzantine tradition tend to emphasize her mystery and majesty, her transcendent quality that is not expressed in naturalistic images. In the Latin tradition, her images (usually statues, but also paintings) tend to be more humanly realistic and warm. There is room in the Church and in the human heart for both of these ways of seeing and approaching Our Lady.
In the East, almost all images of the Mother include an image of the Son, for He is the reason for her holiness and glory and the veneration that is due her as the Mother of the Lord. Even though the style is often quite formal, the relationship between Mother and Son is sometimes expressed in tender, almost playful ways. This helps us understand that our relationship to her, while being reverent and respectful, ought also to be tender and spontaneous, for she is Mother as well as Queen.
Having taken a brief look at the face of Our Lady, let us look at her hands. The synecdoche here tells us that her hands represent her in the mystery of her prayerful intercession for all her children. In much of Western art, Mary’s hands are folded in prayer (though we can’t exactly call the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe “western,” since it came straight from Heaven!).
In Eastern iconography, uplifted hands express the position of the Mother’s prayer. One of the most common of these is called “Our Lady of the Sign,” which refers to the prophecy of Isaiah: “The Lord will give you a sign: a virgin shall conceive and bear a son…” In this icon she represents the whole church at prayer both bearing Christ within her and manifesting Him to the world. The intercession of Our Lady is often poetically expressed in the Byzantine Offices, as in this typical text: “Purify me, O holy Virgin, wash me with the hyssop of your intercession and make me worthy of the bridal chamber of your Son…”
In Western sacred art Our Lady’s hands have another meaning: the extension of her compassion and the communication of God’s grace to her children. So her hands are at some times folded or uplifted in prayer, and at others are stretched out lovingly toward us. These two dimensions—her prayer going to God, and God’s grace coming to us through her—reflect the understanding that she is so intimately united to the Holy Spirit because of their ineffable cooperation in bringing forth the Incarnate Son, that she shares in the Holy Spirit’s mission of being an advocate and intercessor, as well as a communicator of grace. The angle at which this photo is taken suggests that Our Lady offers to take us with her while she herself always remains in contemplation of God. We take her hand and allow her to lead us to where she is, because we want to see what she sees, we want to learn to love the Lord as she does.
A precious dimension of the mystery of Mary in the West is her heart, often called the Immaculate Heart of Mary because of her perfect purity and holiness, and because she referred to herself that way in some of her (Church approved) apparitions, most notably those that occurred in Fatima in 1917. Perhaps the Heart of the Mother says the most that one can say about who she is in all of her love for us, in all that it means concerning a mother’s vigilant care and protection of her children. Her only desire for us is the salvation of our souls and thus our eternal happiness, and at Fatima she explicitly offered her heart to us as our secure refuge as we make our way to God in the midst of the sorrows and sufferings and evils of this life.
In the East there never developed devotion to the Heart of the Mother of God, perhaps due to lack of clarity on the use of synecdoche (since I’ve heard some criticisms of devotions to “parts” of her or of Our Lord, but that misses the point). But liturgically the mystery of her heart appears in the texts associated with Jesus’ Passion, with reference to Simeon’s prophecy in the temple. “Although as Virgin I once escaped the pains of childbirth, I am now experiencing those sufferings in my broken heart. The prophecy of Simeon has now been fulfilled, for a sword is piercing my heart. But arise now, O my Son, and save those who sing your praise!”
Finally (and you might not expect this), let us also look at the feet of Our Lady! Why would we do that? Well, in a tradition that actually begins in the Book of Genesis, but was made manifest in a vision to St Catherine Laboure in 1830, Mary is the one who crushes the satanic serpent beneath her feet. So her feet represent her in the dimension of her power over evil and victory in spiritual warfare. She is the Woman whom God made the enemy of the devil, and she has been given the power to neutralize his efforts to seduce the children of Eve. This has been a part of the Latin tradition for a long time (exorcists will testify from their experience that the devil is terrified of Our Lady), and I think that we ought to invoke her aid and intercession in all of our spiritual warfare. Each of us, after all, has to crush that malignant snake in the context of our own pursuit of holiness and renunciation of evil. One thing I noticed from statues of Our Lady crushing the serpent. She’s not even paying attention to it. She’s either looking serenely at God or at us. So filled is she with the power of God that it’s not even an exertion or a distraction for her to bind the devil. Pope Pius IX wrote: “The most holy Virgin, united with [Christ] by a most intimate and indissoluble bond, was, with Him and through Him, eternally at enmity with the evil serpent, and most completely triumphed over him, and thus crushed his head with her immaculate foot.”
There’s a lot more that can be said about that text from Genesis three, the way the language and grammar of it supports this reading of it, and I hope to go into that in more detail in the future. You’ll see it, God willing, in my forthcoming book on Our Lady (I have no idea when it’s coming forth, since I’ve just barely begun to write it, so pray that I find the time! The inspiration is already coming…).
I almost forgot; I had one more image prepared, and this says a lot about who Our Lady is. It depicts her holding Jesus and pointing to Him. It is entitled, “She who shows the way.” That says it all. Yet something else still has to be said about how we ought to be like our Mother. All Christians are called to have their faces turned to the Lord and reflecting his light, their hands lifted in prayer and extended in compassion to others, their hearts loving God and all people, and their feet exercising “the authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy” (Lk. 10:19). Thus we fulfill our roles in the Body of Christ. Then not only our words but, most importantly, our very lives will “show the way” as Our Lady did and will continue to do until the Lord returns.
This has been just a brief and inadequate overview of some of the facets of that heavenly Jewel who is our own Blessed Mother. She is the icon, the glorified and personal embodiment of the redeemed Church, and therefore in speaking of her, we can speak by synecdoche of the Bride of Christ as a whole. “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel” (Rev. 21:2, 11).
If you have been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that she has made her presence felt in my life in profound and unexpected ways in the past six weeks or so, and I’m still in awestruck wonder as I go more deeply into the joyful mystery of it all. I’ll be eternally grateful for what the Almighty has done for me through her, this precious gift of God’s love, the Mother of Jesus. I just read this morning, and I want also to say it in regard to this overflowing grace: “Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it!” (Is. 44:23). Gotta hand it to Him; He sure knows what to do in order to reach the hearts of his poor, struggling servants…