The Virgin Mary – Artistic Diversity and Race

Artistic images of the Blessed Mother of Jesus, as portrayed in different cultures and historical periods, have been part of world history for centuries. Below are a few examples.

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Japanese
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Native American – Hopi
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Chinese
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Native American – Cheyenne
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Mexican
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Italian – Baroque Period
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African
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Medieval Europe
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European (Polish)

The various images of Jesus and His Mother portrayed by each ethnic group are beautiful and have spiritual meaning. Are the artists of these works prejudiced?

Because of the controversy over comments made by political activists over the last few weeks it would appear that the motive of cultural artistic contributions is based on racial superiority. In this climate confusion is very possible.

The belief in human racial supremacy cannot be supported by facts.

A framework to discuss these issues is found within current scientific research. Evolutionary biologist, Alan R. Templeton’s recent genetic research is very helpful. The abstract of his research is published in final form as: Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2013 Sep; 44(3): 262–271.

Highlights of Templeton’s research:

  1. “Races are highly genetically differentiated populations with sharp geographical boundaries.
  2. Alternatively, races can be distinct evolutionary lineages within a species.
  3. By either definition, races do not exist in humans but do exist in chimpanzees. [italics mine, P.O.I]
  4. Adaptive traits such as skin color do not define races and are often discordant with one another.
  5. Human populations are interwoven by genetic interchanges; there is no tree of populations.”

Thus, in the grand scheme of things superficial traits are what separate us not genetic differences. It certainly appears that the concept of five races is outmoded and not substantiated by modern genetic research. It is obviously correct to say that specific ethnic groups, with superficial physical traits, living within specific geographical areas, do exist.

If in America or Europe when “white” artists portray Jesus and all the individuals found in Holy Scripture, they would in the majority of cases, be artistically portrayed as having the superficial traits of European/Middle Eastern populations.

The images above certainly portray that the artists within another culture, or dominant ethnic group/cultures, will do the same thing. This is logical because the artist of a specific ethnicity paints or sculpts to meet their group’s spiritual needs, or, the patron’s specific request. That is not an act of ethnic supremacy or racism.

Genetically, can we say with any assurance what the genetic make-up of Jesus, Mary, and His fellow Hebrews were when they existed? There is historical evidence to contribute to the answer.

Since the time of the Patriarch Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob, there occurred the development of the twelve tribes of Israel.

These tribes definitely took shape and became a cultural, military, and political force by circa 1925 BC. Tribal leaders were very strict about intermarriage with other populations. Under Moses’ leadership, circa 1250 BC, they did not allow it at all. They were a large enough population to marry within the system of their tribes, and their members conformed to the demands of God and their leaders.

Abram (Abraham) and his flock of followers originated within the city of Ur, which was a Chaldean city-state of the Sumerian civilization. Today the archeological remains of the  city of Ur are located in Southern Iraq. Ur was Abram’s home before he, his family, and followers were given the order by God to travel to the land of Canaan.

Abram would later be given the name Abraham by God. “In various sources, “Canaan” refers to an area encompassing parts of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. The Israelites occupied and conquered Palestine, or Canaan, beginning around 1750 BC, or perhaps earlier. The Bible justifies such occupation by identifying Canaan with the Promised Land, the land promised to the Israelites by God” (source: https://www.britannica.com/place/Ur

Bottom line, Jesus, Mary, and “His friends” were ethnic Israelite/Hebrews. They were Hebrews from the genetic line of King David. David’s genetic line originated from Abraham’s son, Isaac, and grandson Jacob. There is no way to prove that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s genetics are related to the people of today’s southern Iraq, or any other ethnic group.

If a person believes in the truth of the Holy Scriptures then the answer is that Jesus, His family, and Apostles, were all of the genetic line of Israelite/Hebrews with the superficial physical traits of that ethnic group.

Ultimately, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Biblical sacred art is not about race or superficial physical traits. The entire Hebrew and Christian Scriptures point to the truth that the human nature of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, was born of Mary within Roman occupied Israel. The spiritual union of the power of the Holy Spirit with the consent of Mary  led to the birth of Jesus, the Redeemer of mankind.

Supremacy is not found in race, ethnic group, or prejudice/bigotry. It is only found in the authority and power of the Holy Trinity.

Praise be the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Copyright © 2011- 2020, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students, and those interested, may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

Virgin Mary: Trust and Obedience in the Lord

On this solemnity of the Annunciation, March 25th, we remember St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation:

“Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.”

“And when the angel had come to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.” When she had heard him she was troubled at his word and kept pondering what manner of greeting this might be.

And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he shall be king over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end”

“But Mary said to the angel, “How shall this happen, since I do not know man?”

“And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee; and therefore the Holy One to be born shall be called the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth thy kinswoman also has conceived a son in her old age, and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month; for nothing shall be impossible with God.”

And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1: 26-38)

Mary, the Blessed Mother, the Theotokos – “the God bearer” at first, questions Gabriel, “How shall this happen…” Upon his explanation Mary undertakes her all important journey with perfect trust and obedience to God’s will. She accepts her eternal role not in fear but in love. Mary will be the God Bearer, the bearer of her Son Jesus, our Savior, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

Jesus, at the moment of His conception, is both true God and true man: two natures in one Person.

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Icon of Mary: it is the icon called The Madonna of Saint Sisto, located in Rome in the Dominican convent of Monte Mario. It is one of the oldest and most beautiful icons of the Virgin from antiquity.

 

Mary is the perfect disciple of God. She provides us with the model of love, obedience, and trust in Him. There were many times throughout her life that she had to express her trust and obedience, and at times not knowing where the journey would lead. It led from the great joy of her pregnancy, Jesus’ birth, family life, through to His ministry, and her motherly presence before the Holy Cross.

A few verses later, in her beautiful canticle the Magnificat, she exclaimed to her kinswoman Elizabeth her lack of doubt in what has happened.  She praises the mercy of God and her willingness to be the servant of Him who is faithful to His word. In her humility, trust, love, and obedience to God, Mary, as the New Eve, will be given the privilege of crushing Satan at the end of time.

From the beginning, the Catholic Church has never worshipped Mary. The Church venerates her as the first disciple and its greatest saint.

On this beautiful Solemnity of the Annunciation let us join with the great St. John Henry Cardinal Newman in his prayer to Jesus: “Dear Jesus, Your Holy Mother cooperated with the divine plan for the human race. Let me try to imitate her in her obedience and service to You.” Thank you, Jesus.

Note: The sacred image that appears at the top of all of my posts is The Annunciation by Fra Angelico.

Copyright © 2011- 2020, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students, and those interested, may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

Fatima Messages, Pagans in the Vatican, and the End Times

October 13, 2019 commemorates the last message in the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary by three Portuguese children. The children’s ages were six through nine, and they lived in the town of Fatima, Portugal. The apparitions occurred over a five month period which began on May 13th and ended on October 13, 1917.

The Roman Catholic Church, after a period of study, formally declared in 1930 that these apparitions are worthy of belief by the faithful. It is wise to remember that many supposed apparitions have occurred over the centuries that have not been approved by Church authorities.

In this post let us pursue a quick review of who Mary is in the teachings of the Church, the three parts of the message of Fatima, and the ramifications of what the Blessed Virgin Mary told the children over that five month period.

Who is Mary?

  1. Mary was a human being, born during the early first century in Israel, her parents were named Anne and Joachim.
  2. Mary was engaged to a man named Joseph, whom she eventually married. The Sacred Scriptures and the Traditions of the Church teach us that prior to the marriage she conceived, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Joseph became the stepfather of Jesus. He was not His biological father. Mary remained immaculate from the stain of sin and a virgin prior, during, and after the birth of Jesus.
  3. As the Gospels clearly state, Jesus’ Mother appears at very critical times in His ministry; she was present at the Crucifixion, and at Pentecost.  The Fathers of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Rites of the Catholic Church clearly discuss and formally state Mary’s role in Salvation History in their scholarship from the first through fifth centuries.
  4. The Fathers of the Church, at the Councils of Nicaea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon in the 4th and 5th century discuss these basic points. The Council of Ephesus clearly proclaims and defines Mary as the Theotokos, the Mother of God – “the one who gave birth to God”.
  5. The Holy Trinity could have chosen any method for our Redemption. The Father chose the Son’s Incarnation through the means of a human birth to be the instrument through which the Redemption occurred. This was accomplished through the ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus the Christ.
  6. Mary’s “Yes” in response to the angel Gabriel’s invitation during the Annunciation allowed the Incarnation of Jesus to occur. The Council of Nicaea defines very specifically that Jesus, as the Son of God, has dual natures: human and divine. The human woman, Mary, gave birth to the human nature of Jesus. Yet, the two natures of Jesus – human and divine – are united in Him. Jesus has a direct human relationship and unity with us through His Blessed Mother; and He has a spiritual relationship to us through His Redemptive Act and as the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity.
  7. Early heretics denied these ideas. But the early Councils clearly refuted the heretics. The Gospel writers, and specifically St. Paul in his Epistles, stated these truths in their writings.
  8. We should always remember that our Blessed Mother Mary, was never considered by the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, to be a goddess.  We worship One God who is known through the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. We venerate Mary as the greatest of the saints. She is the perfect and most virtuous of women. She is our spiritual mother.

Mary, is the “without which nothing,” the sine qua non, of our Redemption. Of course, Jesus, as the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, accomplished the healing of the separation that occurred as a result of the sins of Adam and Eve. The Holy Trinity willed it, Jesus fulfilled it, but the instrument that started the process was the woman, Mary; this is why we call her the Blessed Mother.

Now, what does this have to do with the messages of Mary at Fatima? As our spiritual mother Mary warns us that we need to rise from our spiritual slumber and take seriously her messages to us. Below are the three basic parts of the Fatima message conveyed during the summer of 1917:

The Message of Fatima:

  1. The First Part: Heaven is real, and Hell is real, too. The extraordinary fearful vision of Hell was received by Lucia, the oldest of the children, on July 13, 1917. She saw a “lake of fire” with demons and humans within it. The Church Fathers and St. Thomas Aquinas discuss and assert the reality of Hell. It was clearly stated that many people, including members of the clergy, are going to Hell as a result of their lifestyle and  unrepented sins. Lucia, who ultimately became a religious sister, was not known to be, as a child or adult, a liar. The reality of Hell was seriously questioned by some theologians and some members of the clergy during the 20th century and it continues into the 21st century. The question can be asked “If we don’t admit to the reality of Hell, then why do we need the Sacraments? Why did Jesus need to suffer and die for us?” Jesus Himself stated and exhibited the need to fight the demons, their temptations, and the possibility of spending eternity in Hell. If we don’t believe this then we are calling Jesus a liar, and the Sacred Scriptures nothing but a collection of pious stories. The life of the average Catholic has been dramatically affected by many clergy, over the past sixty years, not preaching the doctrine of Hell. What are the spiritual consequences of unrepented sinful acts if there is no Hell? In the first message of Fatima, Mary warns us about the reality of Hell, and the fact that many in the 20th and 21st century would deny it – to their peril.
  2. The Second Part: Mary told the three children to inform the Pope that he needed to consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart. Russia would soon be renamed the Soviet Union through the Communist Revolution in  November 1917. Through this consecration to Mary’s heart, Russia would be converted and become a sensible member of the community of nations. I learned in high school, fifty-seven years ago, the phrase “To Jesus through Mary.” The Lord does not want mankind to suffer damnation or turmoil.  Mary was warning that Russia, if it wasn’t consecrated to her Immaculate Heart, would become a major cause of war, famine, turmoil and suffering during the 20th century. There is continuous discussion and debate whether or not the Popes of the 20th century formally and correctly performed this consecration, or, if it was ignored and/or performed in an incomplete way.
  3. The Third Part: This part is the most discussed, furiously debated, and controversial of the three messages of the Blessed Mother. Some declare that the entire Third Part of the message of Fatima has not been released. This part of message has been reviewed in great detail on the internet and in video on YouTube. When you view these videos make sure you are on a Catholic site, but understand that even Catholics disagree on this part of the message of Fatima. The Third part is indirectly related to the approved apparition of the Blessed Mother in Akita, Japan. Pope Benedict XVI when he was known as Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation of the Faith and a direct advisor to St. Pope John Paul II, said that the messages of Mary in Akita, Japan are related to the Third Message of Fatima. It has been recommended that you review Mary’s message at Akita, Japan for a clear understanding of many of the elements of the third part of the Fatima message. Mary repeated her warnings at Akita to again emphasize to the world that the time is short. She tells us to be on our guard. To be ready and watchful, to repent, prepare, and pray the Holy Rosary.

The Blessed Mother, as our spiritual mother, has warned mankind of the reality of Hell, the significance of Russia, and the entrance of Satan and turmoil into the Catholic Church. Did the world take her warning seriously? Did the Church?

In Rome the Amazon Synod this past week produced a series of  events that were egregious and flagrantly offensive to the theology, sacred traditions and dignity of the Church. October 4th produced the spectacle of pagan idol worship ceremonies by Amazonian shamans and tribesman in the Vatican Gardens. The Pope, certain clergy associated with the Synod, lay men and women from the nations of the Amazon region, and a Franciscan friar were present. The shaman performed ritual pagan blessings and was accompanied by two fertility symbols of naked women. The purpose of this disgraceful event was to show the Amazonian cultures’ pantheism, love of the earth and the interrelationship of all the elements of nature.

Have men forgotten the first Commandment, the preeminence of God the Father, Christ’s Redemptive Act, and the role of the Holy Spirit? Have they forgotten the dogmas of the Nicene Creed?

Hopefully, the clergy that organized the event would say that they did not forget any of these basic principles. Yet, is it not fair to say that in the case mentioned their theological judgement, pastoral sense, ignorance of the “optics” of the situation, and defiance of the dignity and sacredness of a church and its gardens was totally lacking?

Some of the Synod leaders and supporters said that we can “learn” from these cultures. Have they forgotten that their evangelization efforts are to bring the truths of Jesus Christ, His redemptive act as Savior, the grace of the Sacraments, and the truths of Sacred Scripture to the world?

God does not come from within us. God’s transcendent truths have been made immanent through the events found within Holy Scripture and specifically through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God’s truths have been revealed to us. We have the free will and reason to accept or reject it. We do not need to learn and adapt the theological truths of pantheistic cultures to our Faith.

To add insult to injury, during this past week at the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina  (close to the front piazza of St. Peter’s Basilica) what appeared to be an additional pagan like “nature” ceremony took place in front of the sanctuary and the tabernacle. Also, contained within that church were exhibits showing the tribal cultures of the Amazonian rainforest region of South America. A Brazilian guide  explained a large poster of the “nature relationships” of the Amazonian tribes to the earth. One photo portrayed a woman suckling a human infant on one breast and a dog, yes, a dog, on the other breast. See journalist George Neumayr’s (he writes for the American Spectator) video report of this event on Taylor Marshall’s podcast of October 11th, it is entitled “Dog Nursing Story & Cardinals in Rome” warning: this video is a very frank discussion of what happened).

Are the current troubles and sins a potential precursor of the “end times”? Only God the Father knows the “time and the date,” but the events of the last 102 years, 1917 – 2019, certainly indicate that it may be right around the corner.

Let us pray, Jesus, I trust in you. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us. St. Michael protect us from the snares of the devil.

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Copyright © 2011- 2019, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students, and those interested, may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you

 

 

What is Art?

Hello!  Glad to be back after a series of learning experiences which took me away from the keyboard. I see from the website’s analytics that we are still popular on a worldwide level (thank you!). I also appreciate and thank all of the hundreds of subscribers that have stayed with this blog and continue to use and enjoy the material I’ve presented and the many tens of thousands that have popped in and out over the past seven years.

Last week I made a church presentation (a power point lecture) on “Our Blessed Mother and Sacred Art Applied to Prayer.” For the upcoming weeks, during the Advent and Christmas seasons, I will be presenting to you – in short form – my lecture notes accompanied by relevant sacred and religious art. This is probably one of the busiest times of the year so I will be blogging it to you in small doses on a frequent basis. If you use any of it in your work, ministry, or studies please reference me. Thanks.

My lecture had  three major goals:

  1. What is Art and its forms of sacred, religious, and absurd religious painting?
  2. What are the major/minor stages of  sacred art within the history of the Roman Catholic Church?
  3. How do we apply sacred art, specifically in reference to the Blessed Mother, to the prayer form of Lectio Divina?

Let’s tackle the first part of the first goal: What is Art?

My perception is that art is a process in which an artist: 

  1. Creatively thinks,
  2. Makes a product (there are seven major historical disciplines in which products are made: architecture, drama, literature, music, painting, poetry, and sculpture),
  3. Intends that the product will cause a reaction/response (for the artist alone and/or from the public).

The above process occurs in all seven major disciplines of art. More recent historical artistic disciplines such as photography, computer art, grand and small scale landscape architecture possess this process, too.

Also, Professor Dennis J. Sporre has discussed that “Art has four functions: artifact, entertainment, social and political commentary, and therapy. These functions, or options, are not mutually exclusive, nor is one more important than the others” (found in his book The Creative Impulse, Prentice Hall, 4th ed., 1996. When I taught Humanities years ago this highly valuable book was one of the foundation blocks of my lectures and activities).

Tomorrow I will discuss Roman Catholic sacred art within the discipline of painting.

Thanks for joining me today.

Copyright © 2011- 2018 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

 

 

Fra Angelico’s Four Reliquaries for the Church of Santa Maria Novella – Part 4 of the “Heaven on Earth” Exhibition

Today’s post is Part 4 in my series that began on May 16, 2018 concerning the recently concluded exhibition of extraordinary egg tempera paintings by the Dominican friar Beato Fra Angelico. The exhibition was held at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts during the Spring of 2018 and was entitled Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth.

Nathaniel Silver, Associate Curator of the Collection for this exhibition, includes in his book, Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth, articles by eleven scholars. Each paper is a quality contribution to scholarship. There is one article authored by Chiara Pidatella, entitled “The Provenance of the Four Reliquaries for the Church of Santa Maria Novella.” It clarifies and answers the confusion surrounding the provenance of the four reliquaries. Ms. Pidatella has written an important paper in that it compiles the documentary evidence that proves that the four sacred images within the reliquaries in the sacristy of the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, were painted by Fra Angelico. These reliquaries and other Angelico masterpieces were on display in the Gardner Museum.

A reliquary is an ornate elaborately constructed box, frame, etc. that is made of wood or precious metals and contains the remains of an individual or multiple saints. These remains may be small or large particles of bone, hair, etc of the deceased saint.  Depending on the design of the frame the openings for the relics are contained in the top or bottom, and in the center if it is a box with lid. You can see the potential opening for the relics at the top of the frame in The Dormition and Assumption of Mary.  It would be within the top circle that is vertically sliced in the center, the relics would be put in that small opening behind “the doors.” It should be noted that Colnaghi & Co. built a new frame for that painting in 1899. I presume they were loyal to the original design of a gabled early Renaissance reliquary, and that the vertical slice is actually an opening for the relic(s).

The reliquaries in the exhibition are embellished with four extraordinary paintings of events in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ms Pidatella says that “The fact that the saints whose relics they [the reliquaries] contained are not explicitly named suggests that the relics were of minor importance, especially in comparison to others mentioned in the same documents and described with great precision (particularly those decorated with gemstones and precious metals). The third inventory also confirms that all four reliquaries stayed together in the sacristy until at least 1772″ [Pidatella, p. 25]. 

The history of the movements of the four reliquaries is interesting. I won’t go into the historic details yet one incident deserves mentioning  (I recommend that you purchase the book, Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth, 2018, Gardner Museum, and Paul Holberton, London). The incident concerns the events of the early 19th century when the French government was required (under orders from Napoleon) to make an inventory of Italian artworks. The result being the French government took a very hard stand in relation to Italian art. Ms. Pidatella mentions their belief “that only France deserved to exhibit works from the most important moments in the history of art” (emphasis mine) [Pidatella, p. 27].   Pretty cheeky.

While three of the reliquaries remained in Florence, the Dormition/Assumption of Mary reliquary (one of four seen below) made its way into a collection of an English family headed by Rev. John Sanford (1777 – 1855; he was the chaplain to the Duke of Cambridge, brother of the British King George IV). This acquisition occurred  in the early 19th century; however economic difficulties led to Sanford’s daughter, Anna Horatia Caroline Methuen, to put this Angelico painting on the market. When this occurred Bernard Berenson recommended Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston to purchase the piece, which she ultimately did in 1899, for £4000 [Howard, p. 18, Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth]. The Dormition and Assumption of Mary painting then became the first Fra Angelico to be displayed in the United States. Its current frame (that you will see below) was commissioned by Colnaghi & Co.(art dealers) in 1899. Their focus was to frame it in its original gable design {Howard, p. 18-19, ibid].

It is my privilege to present to you my quickly snapped photos of these masterpieces of the four reliquaries (through the courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) . I will also provide my photograph of the back of one of the reliquaries to show you the wooden panel on which the egg tempera paint was applied. You will see that the panel was covered with a decorated piece of paper-like parchment. The reliquaries are approximately 24 inches tall by 15 inches wide.

The Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi (painted 1426-27) egg tempera and gold on wood panel. This frame is not slightly tipped to the right in reality. It was my attempt to snap a photo before someone stepped in front of me; I didn’t realize the photo was tipped at the time!

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The above two are closeups of the Annunciation and Adoration. Slight tipping resulting from a quick snap occurred here, too. The green squares to the left of Mary’s head are not part of the painting. I did not use a flash. I don’t know what they are, possibly security lights. Notice the extraordinary grill work in back of the Virgin Mary, the angel Gabriel, and the Magi.

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The Dormition and Assumption of Mary (1433-34, egg tempera and gold on wood panel). Purchased by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1899, making it the first Fra Angelico painting in America. The painting shows in the lower section the Dormition (falling asleep, death, and above it the resurrection of Mary, the Mother of God ( that is, Mother of Jesus’ human nature) and her simultaneous Assumption into Heaven. The angel, dressed in a blue garment to the left of the frame, is one of a number of larger than life size posters that graced the black walls surrounding the exhibit. These poster angels were copied from Fra Angelico’s paintings. They provided a dramatic effect to the entire exhibit.

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The above is a closeup of Mary which has also been expanded into a larger than life size poster image found in the above Assumption painting. This image was the first you saw as you rounded the second floor stairs into the exhibit at the Gardner Museum. It was taken from the above reliquary on the Dormition and Assumption of Mary and introduced visitors to the beauty of the exhibit.

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The Coronation of the Virgin (1429). The lower image within this reliquary is contained in a small rectangular panel called a predella. It shows the Adoration of the Christ Child by Mary, St. Joseph, and six angels. It also is completed in egg tempera, gold, on a wooden panel. You see more poster angels taken from the Dormition and Assumption of Mary painting in pink and blue garments to the right of this reliquary on the black walls of the exhibit.

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This is a closeup of the Coronation of the Virgin found within the above reliquary. Below are gathered a group of saints. The saint looking over his shoulder at the viewer near the extraordinary translucent stairs is Saint Peter holding the keys of Heaven. St. John the Baptist is on his left. Dominican saints, St. Peter Martyr and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas are also present, St. Francis of Assisi showing the stigmata in his hands, two deacons (St. Stephen, the first martyr (protomartyr), and possibly the deacon St. Benjamin, and some Old Testament prophets. St. Thomas Aquinas (above within the  bigger photo) is looking at the viewer. He is situated next to a pope (the Benedictine Gregory the Great?), possibly placed in that position because both Aquinas and the pope were not martyrs.

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The Madonna della Stella (The Madonna of the Star, 1433/34). Within the predella are the major saints of the Dominican Order (Order of Preachers). Saint Dominic (middle) flanked on the right by St. Thomas Aquinas and on the left by Saint Peter Martyr. The small circular photo of the Church of Santa Maria Novella on the back wall of the exhibit accidentally was included in my quick snap of this picture.  It is interesting that it appeared, I did not plan it. It is the church that the four reliquary paintings were originally housed before they were split up during the last two and one-half centuries.  Presently the Gardner Museum has the Dormition/Assumption of Mary reliquary staying in its collection and the other three will be returned to the Museo San Marco in Florence, Italy.

 

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Closeup of the Madonna della Stella, showing the symbolic colors of the garments worn by the figures. The color blue represents divine attributes, which in the Blessed Mother’s case, represents the belief that she was always immaculate – without sin – and that the Holy Spirit “overshadowed” her resulting in the Incarnation taking place within her physical body. The presence of her immaculate nature was within Mary from the moment of her conception. The Latin Rite, the Eastern Rites in union with Rome, the Coptic Church, and the Orthodox Rites believe that Mary is not God, or a goddess. All of these Rites and Churches do not worship Mary; she is venerated by them. Worship and veneration are two very different concepts; they should never be equated.

The color red of Mary’s inner cloak (as well as Jesus’ outer cloak) represents their human nature. The orange trim of her cloak represents the specific spiritual illumination, and self knowledge, of her status as the Mother of Jesus’ human nature, not His divine nature.

With the two lower angels you notice that the blue/red colors are reversed. The inner cloak is blue representing their spiritual illumination and unique qualities/functions, yet, their outer cloak is red. This is done because Fra Angelico represents them all with human features, but, in the case of the two lower angels he represented their outer cloaks as red. I can place no other interpretation on it other than to say that because Jesus and Mary were resurrected from the dead, and have new physical bodies (with unique and specific qualities) the angels dressed in red outer cloaks may be serving Mary’s physical needs (whatever they may be) in Heaven. Heaven is viewed as both a physical (while different from ours) and a spiritual dimension.

As you know, angels are spiritual beings living within the divine atmosphere of Heaven. According to the Latin Rite (Roman Catholic) and other Rites, there are nine “choirs” of angels; each choir possesses specific attributes and functions. Fra Angelico may be distinguishing one “choir” from another through the different colors of the angels’ garments. Angels are pure spiritual beings; they do not have human features or bodies. They are represented that way in Latin and Greek Rite paintings, and some of them in the Holy Scriptures, in order to give the observer/reader a way to relate and understand their functions.

The Dominican Order was keen on expressing the theology of illumination as expressed in the Blessed Mother, their founder – St. Dominic (who illuminated Europe with his sermons against heretics) – and the illumination of the doctrines and dogmas of the Catholic faith provided through the writings of 13th century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas.

For Mary, Fra Angelico expressed that illumination through the orange pigment of Mary’s inner garment and the extraordinary gilding of the rays of light emanating from Mary and Jesus’ bodies. Notice that Fra Angelico shows the love between the two by having the child Jesus place His head close to His Blessed Mother as if He is about to give her a kiss with the Madonna lovingly holds Him.

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Closeup of the Madonna della Stella; also showing a lovely lavender angel on her left.

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The back of one of the reliquaries showing the structure of the wooden panel, and its decorated paper covering. On the front Fra Angelico applied a base coat of gesso, and then his egg tempera paints and gilding.

I hope you enjoyed viewing my four part series on this extraordinary work by Beato Fra Angelico – Fra (Friar) Giovanni di Fiesole. My deep gratitude to Peggy Fogelman  (Director), Nathaniel Silver (Associate Curator) and the very talented staff  of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for bringing these masterpieces to America. For my wife and I it was a once in a lifetime experience. Congratulations to them and my sincere thanks, too.

I will be featuring some of the remaining single paintings within this exhibition at appropriate times during 2018-19. Some of the remaining Fra Angelico images from this exhibit are the marriage of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother, the Deposition (taking down) of Jesus from the Cross, another painting of the Dormition of Mary, and events in the life of of Saints Cosmas and Damian.

June 12, 2018

© Deacon Paul O. Iacono 2011-2018 – text and photos. Photos were taken through the courtesy and generosity of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. I took the photos with an iPhone 6, no flash.

 

Fra Angelico and the Armadio degli Argenti – Part 3 of the “Heaven on Earth” Exhibition

Today’s post is Part 3 in my series that began on May 16, 2018 concerning the recently concluded exhibition of extraordinary egg tempera paintings by Fra Angelico. The exhibition was held at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts and entitled Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth.

Today’s  painting concerns a major piece of the exhibition – the Armadio degli Argenti.  The four panels of which the Gardner Museum only showed one is also known as the “Silver Chest.” It was commissioned in 1450 and completed in 1452, three years before Fra Angelico’s death.

This panel (123 x 160 cm) includes eleven compartments: The Road to Calvary, The Disrobing of Christ, The Crucifixion of Christ, the Entombment of Christ, The Descent into Limbo, The Three Marys at Christ’s Tomb, The Ascension of Christ, Pentecost, The Last Judgment, The Coronation of the Virgin, and the Lex Amoris (Law of Love). The panel is seen below.

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This panel is one of four that decorated a large cupboard-like chest. The chest contained highly valuable silver votive offerings that were donated by the faithful of Florence to the Church of Santissima Annunziata. Their donations were in honor of a miracle working fresco of the Annunciation of Mary in a side chapel of that church.

The entire chest was commissioned by Piero di Cosimo de’Medici during the church’s restoration. The paintings within the thirty-six “compartments” are painted in egg tempera and gold on a wood panel (The Last Judgement occupies two compartments).

In 1782, the panels were separated from the chest in, thankfully, an unsuccessful attempt to sell them. In 1812 they began their journey to the Galleria dell’Academia, and finally to their current resting place – the Museo di San Marco.

Some close-ups of the panel are found below.

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The “compartment” above was entitled Lex Amoris (Law of Love) by Fra Angelico. It shows a menorah covered with scrolls on which are written items relating to the New and Old Law, and emphasizing the New Law as superior. The scrolls specifically relate to the Sacraments of the Church and specifics of the faith. We also see the twelve Apostles and the twelve Hebrew prophets on each side of the menorah showing that they are all connected through the holy Cross of Christ (top center with red and white standard). The purpose of this panel is to explain that in the coming of Jesus Christ you see the fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy of the Messiah, which does not stand alone, but is related to other events in Jewish history. Notice the female in the lower left corner holding a shield which proclaims “Lex Amoris” (Law of Love) versus the Jewish tradition of “Lex Timoris” (Law of Fear). In her right hand she holds an open book. A beautiful allegory of faith that is beautifully executed by Fra Angelico.

IMG_1762The above photo is one of the thirty-six panels describing events of the New Testament, in this case the Coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Notice Jesus’ mother Mary at the top center of the image with the Apostles and disciples (Peter is on her top right, and John is on her top left). They are receiving the Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit symbolized by the tongues of fire. A curious crowd gathers below the upper room as described in the Acts of the Apostles. IMG_1760

This is a close-up photo of one of panels in the Armadio degli Argenti in this case showing part of the image of the Last Judgment. Notice one of the angels dragging a sinner from the right side of Christ, the abode of the saved – to the left side of Christ, the abode of the damned prior to their being cast into hell.

The beautiful book, published in union with the Gardner Exhibition, Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth – was edited by Nathaniel Silver and published in 2018 (Boston, London). It was extremely helpful (pages 210 – 215) in my commentary.

photos (iPhone 6, no flash) and text © Deacon Paul O. Iacono 2011-2018

Fra Angelico – The “Heaven on Earth” Exhibition – Part 1

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts is the only venue in America for the extraordinary “Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth” exhibition. This amazing collection of reliquaries which express the life of the Virgin Mary, and other paintings of the greatest painter of the Early Renaissance, will be on display until this Sunday May 20th, 2018. Earlier incorrect media reports had the last day as May 28th.

I will be posting my photos of the Gardner Museum’s exhibit starting with this post and continuing on through the upcoming weeks and months. The exhibit consists of more than just the exquisite four reliquaries and it will be my pleasure to bring to you my photos of all of it. I am grateful to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for allowing me to take photographs of the exhibit.

I will proceed with the first photo showing the image that you see as you climb the stairs of the Museum to the second floor where the exhibit is located. That image is of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels as she ascends in a vortex-like movement, toward God the Father. The reliquary containing the complete image was acquired by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1899. This is the first time in history that all four reliquaries are reunited since they were split up and acquired by collectors and museums around the world.

My wife and I were privileged to visit the Museum and exhibition last week. Words cannot describe the restored reliquaries and paintings in this display.  I am not embarrassed to say that at one point I was choked up with emotion as to the beauty, technical skill, narrative brilliance in explaining Sacred Scripture, and the theological depth that Fra Angelico expressed in these sacred images.

Beato Fra Angelico (birth name Guido di Pietro) was a Dominican friar and known by his religious name as Brother John of Fiesole. The first historical record of Fra Angelico as a painter is the 1418 record of payment for a painting commissioned by the church of Santo Stefano al Ponte in Florence. Fra Angelico is believed to have been born in the late 1390’s and died in 1455. He is buried in Rome at the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. He was beatified (beato) by Pope Saint John Paul 2 on October 3, 1982, and in 1984 the Pope declared that Fra Angelico was the patron of Catholic artists (that is why I named this blog after him). Beato Fra Angelico’s feast day is celebrated every year on February 18th.

As you come up the stairs  leading to the second floor of the Museum and turn the corner you first see an enlarged version of Fra Angelico’s Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin located below. This image is showcased because it is found within the reliquary acquired by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1899.

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This enlarged version of the Virgin Mary is found within the reliquary, and is its centerpiece, seen below.Dormition and Assumption

The above outer frame and base, which contains Fra Angelico’s painting, is known as a   reliquary. A reliquary is a container which holds the relics (bones, hair, etc) of deceased holy people or declared saints of the Roman Catholic Church. The reliquary allows the faithful to venerate, not worship, the life, deeds, and mortal remains of the person whose relics it contains. Fra Angelico painted the four reliquaries’ images specifically for the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence between the years 1424 through 1434 The painting is rendered in egg tempera, oil glazes, and gold. It is simply stunning.

There is another separate painting in the exhibit which concentrates just on the dormition of the Virgin Mary. I will show that to you in the next post.

The “Heaven on Earth” exhibition is made possible with the support, in part, by the Robert Lehman Foundation and the Massachusetts Cultural Council (the Council receives its funding from the State of Massachusetts and the National Endowment for the Arts). The media sponsor is WBUR in Boston. The Museum’s Executive Director, chief conservator, curators, conservators, and support staff brilliantly provided the technical expertise and planning for this exhibit. The companion book, edited by Dr. Nathaniel Silver (with contributions by more than ten experts) is also very well done and a worthy addition to your library.

Photos and text © Deacon Paul O. Iacono 2011-2018. Thanks again to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for this beautiful exhibit and enabling the public to enjoy, be edified, and to take photos of it.

Albert Lapierre – Sacred Artist and Iconographer

This past July I had the pleasure of restoring an icon that was written by the fine artist, Albert Lapierre, from Attleboro, Massachusetts. It is a beautifully done and was commissioned by Joan O’Gara on the occasion of the birthday of her sister, Rosalind, in October, 1998.

Rosalind told me that her sister knew of her appreciation and devotion to the Gospel account of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth; however, Joan was not able to locate a print of this particular icon. In 1997 Joan decided to contact Albert Lapierre who was resposible for the creation of many religious objects, statues, and sacred images. Prior to his passing he had a store and studio in Attleboro, Massachusetts. There are many examples of his work at the LaSalette Shrine in Attleboro.

At the time of Joan’s request, Albert was busily engaged at the Shrine with many projects, and was reluctant to take on another commission. Joan persuaded him, however, to take on this project – telling him that “Our Lady really wanted him to paint this image.” I am told that he didn’t have a comeback for that request!

Mr. Lapierre was able to fit its creation into his busy schedule and it was varnished and ready to be delivered by October, 1998. Needless to say, Rosalind was thrilled by Joan’s gift and it remains to this day an important focal point in Rosalind’s prayer life.

Time does take its toll and the icon sustained some accidental damage over the years. Rosalind located me through a Google search and phoned for a consult. She was especially concerned about areas that had chipped and lost pigment. We met and discussed the damage and she requested that I try to repair it as best as possible.

The repair turned out to be an interesting challenge. First, I believe that it is absolutely essential that a restorer not impact or change the design, colors, or compositional elements of the piece being restored. Respect for the original artist, and what they created, is paramount. Ultimately, the viewer must be able look at the restored piece and be unaware of the fact that it has been restored. There should be no distractions from the original intent of the artist.

My biggest challenge in this restoration was matching the original colors. For this particular icon Mr. Lapierre used acrylics. Since the painting was only seventeen years old, and had not been kept in direct sunlight, the paint had not deteriorated or dulled to any great degree. Thus, my task was to repair the chips that could be restored and then blend in the pigment restoration. The restoration was a success and it was blessed, and delivered to a grateful Rosalind, at a Mass here in South Kingstown at St. Francis of Assisi Church in August 2014.

Albert Lapierre died a number of years ago. Sadly, I never met the man that created such a sensitive and dynamic icon. It was a distinct honor to work on it. I thank Joan and Rosalind O’Gara for the privilege of doing so.

Below are a few images of the piece with a close-up of Mary’s face, and the beautiful catechetical scene of Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, praying in the Temple.

Copyright © 2011- 2014 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

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Mary, The Holy Mother of God – The Sign of Our Unity

We celebrate on this the first day of the New Year the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.

Mary, by this very title, is the Holy Mother of the human nature of Jesus Christ. We receive insights on how the Church came to this title within the Holy Scriptures; for through a prayerful reading of them we come to an understanding of who this remarkable young woman was and what she means for us today. Three evangelists, Matthew, Luke, and John help us with this in their presentation of Mary as a woman who was clear minded, humble, intelligent, devout, loving, immensely strong, and quietly, yet fiercely, devoted to her Son.

Our beautiful Scriptural readings for this Solemnity (Numbers 6: 22-27, Galatians 4: 4-7, and Luke 2: 16-21) help us  approach today’s celebration through the perception of Mary herself. Today’s Scriptures remind us that Mary and  Joseph were devout Jews who understood the importance of faith, family devotion, tradition, and the fulfillment of the Jewish Law itself. It was with Holy Scripture – Hebrew and Christian – in mind, and the sacred tradition provided by the Apostolic fathers, that the debate over Mary’s title rested upon.

The designation of Mary, as the Holy Mother of God was debated and decided upon at the third Ecumenical Council of the Church. It was held in the year 431 at the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor. This Church Council was known as the First Council of Ephesus and was attended by over 250 bishops from the four (soon to be five) patriarchates of the Catholic Church: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and eventually, in 451, Jerusalem (Jerusalem, at the time of the First Council of Ephesus was part of the Patriarchate of Antioch, Syria). Now that the formal persecutions by the Roman Empire had ended, the fifth century saw much activity within the Church to formally secure theological positions on both Christ and the role of His mother in salvation history. The catechesis of the people was paramount. Using their gifts of reason and the Holy Spirit, combined with the Holy Scriptures, and the sacred Tradition of the early Church the assembled bishops determined to safeguard the Truth of the Church while simultaneously further establishing the foundations for the  catechesis of its clergy and laity.

But at the heart of the matter, for all Christians, Jesus is the human incarnation of God Almighty. He presents to us in His Person, the true, physical Presence, of God; and with His Divine Nature intact, He in turn with a true human nature, could then call us His brothers and sisters. We are, through Him, and Mary’s maternity, adopted sons and daughters of our Father in Heaven. Mary is the Mother of Jesus’ human nature, and, she is the Mother of the Church.

How do we know this?

We know it because Jesus said it was so: “Whatever you did for the least of My brothers and sisters, you did for Me” Matthew 25:40; and let us not forget John 19: 26-27: Jesus saw His own mother, and the disciple [John] standing near whom He loved; He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son.” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother.” And from that hour, he took his mother into his family.” 

Such is the love of God for His creation.

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While doing some other research a few weeks ago, I was struck  by some quotes from the three main leaders of the 16th century Protestant revolt. While certainly these men steered their new churches along a different path from the Tradition of the Western and Eastern Rites, the quotes provided below show them to have an understanding and love for Mary as the Holy Mother of God and the significance of her perpetual virginity.

Martin Luther: “It is an article of faith that Mary is Mother of the Lord and still a virgin… Christ, we believe, came forth from a womb left perfectly intact.” (Works of Luther, Vol. 11, pages 319-320; Vol. 6, page 510.)

John Calvin: “There have been certain folk who have wished to suggest from this passage [Matthew 1:25] that the Virgin Mary had other children than the Son of God, and that Joseph had then dwelt with her later; but what folly this is! For the gospel writer did not wish to record what happened afterwards; he simply wished to make clear Joseph’s obedience and to show that Joseph had been well and truly assured that it was God who had sent His angel to Mary. He had therefore never dwelt with her nor had he shared her company… And beside this Our Lord Jesus Christ is called the first-born. This is not because there was a second or a third, but because the gospel writer is paying regard to the precedence. Scripture speaks thus of naming the first-born whether or no there was any question of the second.” (Sermon on Matthew 1:22-25. Published in 1562.)

Ulrich Zwingli: “I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the gospel, as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin.” (Zwingli Opera, Vol. 1, page 424.)

Perhaps, in God’s Divine Plan, the beautiful and holy virgin Mary – the Holy Mother of God – will be the cause for the reunification of all the Christian Churches: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.

As a fellow Christian, please consider making the following prayer that I wrote a few hours ago part of your own prayer arsenal for the New Year: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, keep us within your most precious and immaculate heart. Through your maternal love, intercede with your Son to remove the painful scars of division and hurt that lie within our own hardened hearts. We implore you to ask your Son to strengthen us with His Truth, Goodness, and Beauty so that we may always fulfill His Divine Will. Amen.”

Copyright © 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Notes: Source of the sacred icon of the Holy Theotokos with the Christ: http://en.lpj.org/2011/12/30/solennite-de-marie-mere-de-dieu/ 

Protestant leader quotations taken from http://blackieschurchmilitant-apocalypsis.blogspot.com/2008/01/perpetual-viginity-of-blessed-virgin.html

 

The Magnificat of Mary – A Beautiful Analysis By The Venerable Bede

In this morning’s selection from the Office of Readings in the Roman Breviary, the Venerable Bede, an English monk  presents a beautiful analysis of Mary’s joy-filled song – The Magnificat.

Bede was born in the year 673 and died in 735. He lived in Northumbria, primarily in the two monasteries of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. These monasteries had accumulated a wonderful collection of Greek, Latin, and early Church manuscripts. Bede spent his life studying, writing, and dictating the results of his research and prayer. He is known primarily for his most famous tome which is The Ecclesiastsical History of the English People. This work resulted in later generations giving him the title “The Father of English History.”

In 1899, Pope Leo 13th made Bede a Doctor of the Church. Bede was a skilled translator, linguist, and writer. His ability to compose insightful spiritual essays, and skill in making the writings of the Early Church Fathers accessible to his fellow Anglo-Saxons, significantly contributed to the growth of Roman Catholicism in England.

Let us take a moment today to dwell upon one of his perceptive and rich essays on the Blessed Mother. In the selection below, Bede provides us with a beautiful essay on Mary’s response to the knowledge that she will be the mother of the Savior. Her poetic song is known as The Magnificat, and it is said in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth (and possibly Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah) when they rejoice in the knowledge that they are both pregnant (The Visitation).

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Mary’s song of joy, faith, and trust is here separated by Bede and some of its key phrases are analyzed by him for our prayerful consideration. Mary’s words appear in bold italics, Scriptural references are in plain italics, Bede’s are in regular print. The entire Magnificat can be found in the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, verses 46 – 55.

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Mary said: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Bede’s comments, he has Mary thinking these thoughts: “The Lord has exalted me by a gift so great, so unheard of, that language is useless to describe it, and the depths of love in my heart can scarcely grasp it. I offer then all the powers of my soul in praise and thanksgiving. As I contemplate his greatness, which knows no limits, I joyfully surrender my whole life, my senses, my judgment, for my spirit rejoices in the eternal Godhead of that Jesus, that Savior, whom I have conceived in this world of time.”

The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

“Mary looks back to the beginning of her song, where she said: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. Only that soul for whom the Lord in His love does great things can proclaim his greatness with fitting praise and encourage those who share her desire and purpose, saying: Join with me in proclaiming the greatness of the Lord; let us extol His name together.”

“Those who know the Lord, yet refuse to proclaim His greatness and sanctify His name to the limit of their power, will be called least in the kingdom of Heaven. His name is called holy because in the sublimity of his unique power He surpasses every creature and is far removed from all that He has made.”

He has come to the help of His servant Israel, for He has remembered His promise of mercy.

“In a beautiful phrase Mary calls Israel the servant of the Lord. The Lord came to his aid to save him. Israel is an obedient and humble servant, in the words of Hosea: Israel was a servant, and I loved him.”

“Those who refuse to be humble cannot be saved. They cannot say with the prophet: See, God comes to my aid; the Lord is the helper of my soul. But anyone who makes himself humble like a little child is greater in the kingdom of Heaven.”

The promise He made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.

“This does not refer to the physical descendants of Abraham, but to his spiritual children. These are his descendants, sprung not from the flesh only, but who, whether circumcised or not, have followed him in faith. Circumcised as he was, Abraham believed, and this was credited to him as an act of righteousness.

The coming of the Savior was promised to Abraham and to his descendants forever. These are the children of promise, to whom it is said: If you belong to Christ, then you are descendants of Abraham, heirs in accordance with the promise.”

The Responsory Prayer (Luke 1: 48 – 50) follows this reading:

“From this day all generations will call me blessed. The Almighty has done great things for me, holy is His name. He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.”

Beautiful words and images to bring us into the eve of Christmas. May you all have a holy and joy filled Christmas day and good fortune in the New Year! You are in my prayers.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Notes on the paintings: The first sacred image is a contemporary sacred image written/painted in the iconographic style; I do not know its author. The second sacred image of Mary lost in ecstasy as she sang The Magnificat, was completed by James J. Tissot, a French painter (1836 – 1902). This painting currently hangs in the Brooklyn Museum. The medium is opaque watercolor over graphite on gray woven paper. It is approximately five by ten inches in size. Bede’s commentary is taken from The Liturgy of the Hours, Volume 1. Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York, 1975, page 362.

 

Our Lady of Guadalupe – An Icon of The Woman Who Will Crush The Serpent

Today’s feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of all the Americas, recalls the apparition of our Blessed Mother on the hill of Tepeyac in present day Mexico City. This approved apparition occurred from December 9th through the 12th 1531. Guadalupe is the Spanish translation of the Aztec phrase that Juan Diego heard Mary associate herself with – the name, interestingly, in Aztec means “she will crush the serpent of stone.”

In the same year as this Marian apparition, rebellion and protest against the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church was sweeping Germany, France, and England. While millions of people were leaving the faith in Europe, the  Blessed Mother, through the miraculous image that appeared on Juan Diego’s tilma, convinces millions of people to enter the Catholic faith in Central America.

As the European rebellion was tearing down millennia of Church theology and sacred tradition, Our Lady was building up the understanding of both the Spanish clergy in Mexico and the Native American population of the love of God and the assurance of her compassion and protection.

Our Lady spoke to Juan Diego in his native dialect. She identified herself and said:  “Juanito, the humblest of my children, know and understand that I am the ever virgin Mary, Mother of the true God through whom all things live. It is my ardent desire that a church be erected here so that in it I can show and bestow my love, compassion, help, and protection to all who inhabit this land and to those others who love me, that they might call upon and confide in me. Go to the Bishop of Mexico to make known to him what I greatly desire. Go and put all your efforts into this.” (footnote 1)

You probably know the rest of the story. The Bishop is told of this event, disbelieves Juan Diego, and then the bishop asks for a sign. Juan Diego reports back to Mary and is told by her to cut the Castilian roses that are growing and put them in his poncho which is called a tilma. The tilma is opened in front of the Bishop and other witnesses, the roses fall out, and the miraculous image of Our Lady appears on the tilma.

But is this story true?

Here are some of the historical facts:

1) The extraordinary conversion of multi-millions of Native Americans, and the Aztecs in particular, who, as a blood thirsty civilization, were known to kill as many as 20,000 human beings in one day to appease the blood lust of their primary god.

2) The roses that Juan Diego cut were native of Damascus, Syria, and did grow in Spain, but were unknown in Mexico at that time.

3) The tilma, or poncho, that Juan Diego wore was made of the agave fibers traditionally used by the Native Americans. These fibers were a natural substance that should have deteriorated within 35 years, and yet, today, the 481st anniversary of the event – this tilma is still in excellent condition.

4) Through scientific analysis done over the last forty years, it has been determined that the pigments used on the tilma are not of natural or man-made material, and there is no glue or sizing on the tilma to fix the pigment in place. Plus the colorization or iridescence of the image on this “icon not made with human hands” would not have been able to be produced by a human artist in the 16th century. This iridescent effect would have been seen only in nature.

5) Our Lady is represented in the colors and dress of a pregnant Aztec princess. Modern astronomical research has shown that the stars on Our Lady’s image are in the configuration of the stars in the heavens on the nights of the apparition in 1531.

6) Most remarkably, a microscopic analysis of Our Lady’s eyes was completed by Peruvian engineer and optical scientist Dr. Jose Aste Tonsmann (who trained at Cornell University and worked at IBM). He magnified the iris of the Virgin’s eyes 2,500 times and, through mathematical and optical calculations, was able to identify the witnesses of the Guadalupan miracle at the moment Juan Diego unfurled his tilma before the bishop and other witnesses [the bishop was Juan de Zumarraga, the Franciscan bishop of Mexico City.] (footnote 2)

But most importantly, these few miraculous facts about the icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe, do not stress the key issues of this apparition:

1) You see, Our Lady came to the Mexican people – as she comes to us this Advent season – as a pregnant young woman who is promoting life and her protection – not only for her unborn child – but for all of us.

2) Our Lady calls to us through this icon to stress that she loves us, has compassion for us, sees our tears, and desires to offer us her love and comfort.

3) As the Mother of the incarnate Son of God she also points to her Son, and desires a church to be built so He can be properly worshipped, the people receive His graces, and so she can be there to assist us in our prayers to God.

4) Mary has always reminded us that He is the One, True, All Powerful God who desires our love, respect, and obedience.

As the Roman Breviary says this morning: “Who is this that comes forth like the dawn, as beautiful as the moon, as resplendent as the sun? You are the glory of Jerusalem, the joy of Israel; you are the fairest honor of our race. O Virgin Mary, how great your cause for joy; God found you worthy to bear Christ our Savior.”

And as the Book of Revelation tells us, God has found Mary worthy to crush the head of the Serpent. All praise, honor, and glory be to God! And may the Blessed Virgin’s love help transform us into the image of Christ. Amen.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Footnotes and  sites to investigate for more information:

(1) From a report by Don Antonio Valeriano, a Native American author of the 16th century; as published in the Supplement of the New Feasts and Memorials for the General Roman Calendar – The Liturgy of the Hours.

(2) “Science Sees What Mary Saw From Juan Diego’s Tilma”   Zenit News Service, 2001.

Zenit News Agency. Science Stunned by Virgin of Guadalupe’s Eyes. 1/14/2001

http://www.miraclehunter.com/marian_apparitions/index.html

The Immaculate Conception of Mary – The Beauty of the New Eve

We are about to begin the second week of Advent and as you may know the word Advent has its root in the Latin word adventus which means “coming.” The liturgical term adventus is similar to the Greek word parousia which refers to the Second Coming of Christ at the final judgment of the world.

Through the millenia Church scholars have linked these two words together because they hope to instill within us the understanding that we are on a spiritual journey. In this journey we experience the waiting period – the longing – for the coming of Jesus, the actual birth of Jesus, and then, we again experience the waiting time for His return at the Second Coming.

As part of our preparation for the great solemnity of Christmas, the Catholic Church, in both the Western and Eastern Rites, remembers the significance of Mary’s immaculate purity as being a necessary part of this entire spiritual journey.  For in her humble “Yes” to the invitation to be the Mother of the Messiah, Mary becomes the New Eve – the mother of Jesus – and the Mother of the Church.

Our sacred Tradition tells us that Mary was the daughter of Saints Joachim and Anne. They were devoted Jews who raised their child to be loyal and pure within the Jewish holy tradition. Mary was born within the royal line of King David and was betrothed, and later married under Jewish law, to Joseph, a respected Jewish carpenter from Nazareth.

Little is known of Mary’s day-to-day life other than the references to her in the Gospels. Those early references indicate that she was a loving, concerned, and devoted person. During her Son’s ministry she attended the wedding feast at Cana, was present at Jesus’ crucifixion, and was most likely with the Apostles at the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

The most famous Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah are Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 7:14 and Micah 5:1-4. In all three prophecies the Mother of the Messiah plays a prominent role.”Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” [Isaiah 7:10-14].  The name Immanuel in Hebrew means “God is with us.”

As the mother of Jesus, and the wife of Saint Joseph, Mary is the greatest saint. She is the model of faith, purity, and maternal devotion for all Christians. Mary is called the Blessed Virgin because our Sacred Scriptures tell us that she conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, so Saint Joseph is the foster father, not the biological father, of Jesus.

To become the mother of the Savior, Mary was “enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.” (Lumen Gentium). Mary freely gave herself to God with complete trust even in the face of possible confusion about what was happening to her, and she freely responded and consented to God’s Will for her life. Mary’s “Yes” to God’s request that she become the Mother of the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus, enabled our Redemption to occur.

What is the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception?

The Church teaches that Mary was conceived without sin.  This is the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception which we celebrate on December 8th of every year. This Solemnity explains to us that Mary received from God a special grace which is known as Prevenient Grace. Prevenient Grace is a “grace that comes before.” This means that prior to Mary’s biological conception, God decided that in His plan for salvation history He needed a totally pure woman to be the New Eve – to be the New Ark – free from all stain of sin and free from any future sin.

This was possible through God’s gift of Prevenient Grace which was given at her conception. Mary burned with God’s grace, purity, and love – gifts that were freely given by God.  She, like the burning bush that Moses confronted, was enriched by these gifts and, like a warming fire, softly radiated the grace of God’s love to those around her.

As The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 491, the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception means that “Mary was redeemed from the moment of her conception.”  Pope Pius 9th  announced this Dogma when he said: “Mary was preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” This was accomplished through the power of God. He willed and acted so that Mary should be free from the stain of sin. Mary, as the angel Gabriel described is “full of grace”… “Hail Full of Grace / Rejoice Highly Favored One.”

The Fathers of the Eastern Catholic Church also agree with this truth and verify it when they address the Mother of God as “the All-Holy” (Panagia) and celebrate her as free from any stain of sin.

Theotokos-the-burning-bush-Inner-Liturgy-of-the-Heart

An interesting article entitled Mary in Scripture, on the EWTN website, explains “The angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary is of great consequence for our understanding of Mary and Marian doctrine. The greeting has been variously translated as “Rejoice highly favored” and “Hail full of grace.”

The object of the varied translations is the Greek word kecharitomene which refers to one who has been transformed by God’s grace. The word is used only one other time in the New Testament and that is in the Epistle to the Ephesians where Paul is addressing those who, by becoming Christians, are transformed by grace and receive the remission of sins. It is clearly significant that Mary is considered to already have been transformed by grace before the birth of Christ.” ( Confer the article “Mary in Scripture” at this site: http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/MARYINSC.htm

So, we see that God intervened and did not allow the stain of Original Sin to be passed to Mary. She – as the pure vessel – would receive the redemptive grace of God before the actual Redemption took place. This is logical and filled with common sense. Why would God the Father have His Incarnate Son be conceived in a woman who was tainted by the stain of Original Sin? As the Scriptures state – we do not put new wine into old wineskins. To make a commonplace analogy: would any self respecting surgeon, cook, artist, or musician use soiled instruments as they were healing, creating, or performing a masterpiece in their art?

The Christian scholar Origen (AD 185 – 254) made a very interesting observation, he said,  ”Because the angel greeted Mary with new expressions, which I [Origen] have never encountered elsewhere in the Scriptures, it is necessary to comment on this. I do not, in fact, recall having read in any other place in the Sacred Scriptures these words: “Rejoice highly favored one, O Full of Grace. “ Neither of these expressions is ever addressed to a man: such a special greeting was reserved only for Mary.” (quote taken from the article referenced above – “Mary in Scripture.”

In the year AD 431, at the Council of Ephesus in present day Turkey (attended by over 200 bishops from throughout Christendom), Mary was named Theotokos (the God Bearer) and a model of Christian living. “Mary is truly “Mother of God” since she is the mother of the eternal Son of God made man, who is God Himself.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, #509).

She is called the New Eve because just as the original Eve brought sin and death into the world, Mary, as the bearer of spiritual life, brought Jesus (the New Adam) into the world. This provided the opportunity for grace, Redemption from Sin, and salvation to impact and transform mankind for all eternity.

Since 1964, Mary has been honored as the Mother of the Church She is called The Mother of the Church because through her free choice she cooperated with God’s plan to be the Mother of God – mother of our Redeemer. As a result of His life, ministry death, and resurrection He was able to transform us into a new people and build a new “arc of salvation” (the Church) for us.

By the 700’s the Catholic Church celebrated four major Marian solemnities: the Annunciation (Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would be the Mother of the Savior), the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, and the Birthday of Mary. The Immaculate Conception became popular by the tenth century. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint Louis de Montfort, Pope John Paul II and many other saints of the Church have written extensively on Mary and her role in the Church and in the lives of individuals. The Church teaches that Mary was assumed into heaven with body and soul united. 

Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and all of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches DO NOT worship Mary. WORSHIP IS RESERVED FOR GOD ALONE. The Western and Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church pay respect and reverence to Mary but never worship her.

ourlady2

The meaning of Our Blessed Mother Mary for us today is that, especially at this time in history, we must remember that she spiritually pleads for mercy on behalf of us before the throne of God. She does this in the same way that a mother would intercede with the father on behalf of her children. She loves us with the love of a true mother – for she sees not only our faults but our inherent goodness, too. Please God that we respond to the graces she has to offer us. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Some sources on the concept of Prevenient Grace: “Every time we begin to pray to Jesus it is the Holy Spirit who draws us on the way of prayer by his prevenient grace” (#2670 Catechism of the Catholic Church). “That grace is preceded by no merits. A reward is due to good works, if they are performed; but grace, which is not due, precedes, that they may be done [St. Prosper].” Can. 18. #191 Council of Orange II A.D. 529 (Second Council of Orange).  St. Augustine also wrote extensively on the concept of grace; and my Associate Pastor Rev. Joseph R. Upton, also mentioned it in his beautiful sermon for this solemnity’s vigil Mass on December 7, 2012 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Wakefield, Rhode Island.  Special thanks to the blog: http://classicalchristianity.com/category/holyfathers/theotokos-mary/ for the Orthodox sacred icon of Mary and the Child Jesus surrounded by the Burning Bush.

Our Blessed Mother’s Poverty of Spirit

Our Gospel today (Luke 21: 1-4) asks us to reflect on how we express our love for God.

At first glance, the poor woman in the Gospel looks reckless. Yet, love, regardless of whether it is for God or another person, doesn’t calculate all the percentages.

Many times, it just blissfully provides whatever the beloved needs, even to the point of true sacrifice on the part of the lover for the beloved. The lesson here is simple: love has greater value than material possessions.

This  Gospel reminded me of Our Blessed Mother Mary’s actions in a few Gospel accounts which speak about her presence, love, and the willingness to intercede with her Son; these actions reveal the condition and generosity of her heart.

So our Gospel is not just about what we contribute to the collection basket. It is all about the condition of our hearts – the state of our generosity to the Lord.

You see this Gospel challenges us to ask ourselves this question: “When we give to others, whether it is money, time, talent, or just a sympathetic ear, do we do it out of love or out of a sense of obligation?”

Mary and the poor woman’s witness is that our generosity should always be linked to God’s spirit of charity. These women show us that true selfless generosity must always come from the heart and that we must be willing to give of ourselves for the love of God.

This may not mean cleaning out our bank accounts and giving it all away, a few like St Francis of Assisi, were called to do that; but the vast majority of us are called to clean out our hearts of all those things that interfere with our witness to God’s spirit of love and generosity in our own lives.

As we conclude this liturgical year, and look forward to beginning a new one next weekend, let us pray to Mary to intercede with her Son so that we, too, may share in her poverty of spirit and love of God’s charity.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Our Lady of Sorrows – Seven Sorrows – Seven Graces

Today is the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows.

The Roman Breviary tells us that in a sermon by St. Bernard of Clairvaux he explains that “The martyrdom of the Virgin is set forth both in the prophecy of Simeon and in the actual story of our Lord’s passion. The holy old man said of the infant Jesus: He has been established as a sign which will be contradicted. He went on to say to Mary: And your own heart will be pierced by a sword.”

Yesterday, we celebrated the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. That feast asks us to remember that it was through the Cross, through the violent execution of our Lord, that our redemption took place. The triumph of the Father’s love for His creation, and the Son’s sacrifice, was able to reorder a sin filled world.

As St. Andrew of Crete reminds us “the legal bond of our sin was cancelled and through His death we obtained our freedom and death was trodden underfoot.” Today, the Church in its wisdom again reminds us of the scene of Christ’s victory – and the people that witnessed it.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux eloquently reminds us that along with the death of Christ you have Golgotha being the scene of the martyrdom of Mary. He stresses the phrase, the martyrdom of Mary, because Jesus, as Mary’s child, held a unique and special place in her heart. This is true of the relationship of every mother to their child or children.

All mothers will tell you that every one of their children is special to them; all the more so with Mary, who knew and understood the role that her child was to play in our lives. So when the lance tore through His chest and entered His heart, the prophecy of Simeon, uttered so many years earlier flooded into her mind: “He has been established as a sign which will be contradicted, and your own heart will be pierced by a sword.”

Mary witnessed the execution, she saw the spear tear through her Son’s lifeless body and the violence of that act ripped through her as well. Her body and soul filled with pain and, at that moment, she suffered the martyrdom of every mother who witnesses the death of an innocent child.

At Golgotha, watching the agonizing death of her Son, our blessed Mother, in obedience to the Father’s will for her life, stood by the Cross not only to witness the death of her obedient Son, but to hear her Son say that she was to now be the mother, not only of John, but all of us who believe in Him as Lord and Savior.

Through the sufferings of Mary, the mother of God, we have been made sharers in Christ’s passion. Through Mary’s original obedience to the Father’s will and invitation, we have be given the supreme gift of being able to participate in His Sacramental life, which enables us to share in His rising to everlasting life.

The Church has identified “Seven Sorrows” of Mary: 1) The prophecy of Simeon, 2) The flight into Egypt, 3) The loss of the child Jesus in the Temple, 4) The meeting of Jesus and Mary on the Way of the Cross, 5) The Crucifixion, 6) The taking down of the Body of Jesus from the Cross, 7) The burial of Jesus.

According to the 14th century visions of St. Bridget of Sweden, mystic and patroness of Europe, Our Blessed Mother Mary grants Seven Graces to all souls who honor her on a daily basis by saying seven Hail Mary’s and thinking about the above Seven Sorrows. The Seven Graces are: 1) Mary will grant peace to their families; 2) They will be enlightened about the divine mysteries; 3) They will be comforted in their sickness and assisted in their work; 4) They will be given additional graces as long as what the soul asks for does not violate the will of Jesus or the eventual sanctification of their own soul;  5) Mary will defend the soul in their own particular spiritual battle with the demons, and, will provide her protection to them; 6) The soul will be helped at the time of their death and will experience seeing the face of the Blessed Mother; 7) Mary told St. Bridget that she obtained these graces from Jesus so those souls who are in the state of grace and spread this devotion among their families and friends will be attain Heaven.

St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy (2: 10-12) directs us to the Scriptural truth of these ideas when he says, “I bear with all this for the sake of those whom God has chosen, in order that they may obtain the salvation to be found in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory. You can depend on this: If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we hold out to the end we shall also reign with him.” These words, while not said by Our Blessed Mother, were in reality, lived by her.

our-lady-of-sorrows

Let us pray that through Our Lady of Sorrows, her love and grace shall bring the hearts of all of us to her Son, so that His Heart may reign in the hearts of all mankind.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Notes on the paintings: The first painting is an archetypal Gothic Lady of Sorrows from a triptych by the Master of the Stauffenberg Altarpiece, Alsace, c. 1455. The  second image is of a 15th century sculpture for a cathedral door showing the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady (by Adriaen Isenbrandt, circa 1490 – 1511). The third image, The Madonna in Sorrow, is by the 17th century Italian artist Giovanni Salvi (also known as Sassoferrato). The fourth painting is by William- Adolphe Bougereau, a French realist painter (1825 – 1905).

 

The Most Holy Name of Mary

This is my third post in as many days on Our Blessed Mother Mary. September is an appropriate time to remember the significance of Mary in the life of the Church and, more importantly, in our own lives. For as the Mother of God she is, necessarily, the mother of our own spiritual life. She nurtures us to understand that her Son is always there for us. He does not impose Himself on us and neither does Mary. They desire us to freely choose kinship with them.

Today, September 12th is the memorial of the Most Holy Name of Mary. The name Mary is one of the Greek forms (others being Maria and Mariam) of the Hebrew Miriam (Miryam; and in Aramaic, Maryam). Webster’s Dictionary defines its meaning as “rebellion,” another dictionary refers to the name as meaning  “strong.”

It is interesting to note that Mary’s name contains within it the seed of understanding who and what she means to the Church. God the Father, from all eternity, fashioned Mary in His mind to be His future daughter. The Holy Spirit, at  her immaculate conception, shaped her heart, mind, soul, and body. The incarnate Son of God, Jesus, was in turn shaped by her own womb, and at the end of those nine months, gloriously born to become the Redeemer of Man.

Our Catholic Catechism speaks of this when it says, “Mary, the all-holy ever-Virgin Mother of God, is the masterwork of the mission of the Son and the Spirit in the fullness of time. For the first time in the plan of salvation and because his Spirit had prepared her, the Father found the dwelling place where his Son and his Spirit could dwell among men. In this sense the Church’s Tradition has often read the most beautiful texts on wisdom in relation to Mary (confer Proverbs 8: 1-9: 6; Sirach 24). Mary is acclaimed and represented in the liturgy as the Seat of Wisdom. In her the “wonders of God” that the Spirit was to fulfill in Christ and the Church began to be manifested.” (confer paragraphs 721 – 722ff in the Catechism of the Catholic Church).

Are these ideas prefigured in her name?

If we are to use the terms “rebellion” and “strong” as the meaning for the name Mary then we may ask “Rebellion against what? Strong for what ends?”

The Church’s Tradition, from the earliest centuries, teaches that Mary was to was to be the faith-filled instrument that God would use to enable the Son of God to enter into the world of men, as man and God. She was the instrument of faith, humility and obedience that would model the skills that we personally need in order to rebel against the forces of this world, the forces of Satan, himself. Her name, along with the victory won for us by her Son, is the rallying cry for all who desire to see the forces of Satan destroyed. Her name – Mary – sustains us in our own fight, our own rebellion, against the serpent and his wily attempts to seduce us, too.

Satan’s victory at the Tree in the Garden was short-lived. St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon in the second century, speaks of this when he says, “The Lord came visibly to his own domain and was sustained by his own creation which he himself sustains in being. By his obedience upon a tree he reversed the disobedience shown because of another tree. The seduction to which the betrothed virgin Eve had miserably fallen victim was remedied by the truth happily announced by the angel to Mary, another betrothed virgin. As Eve, seduced by a [fallen] angel, turned away from God by disobedience to his word, so Mary, receiving the good news from an angel, bore God in her womb in obedience to his word; and as Eve had been led to disobey God, so Mary obeyed him. Thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve.” (excerpted from Mary’s Yes, edited by John Rotelle, O.S.A. Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, MI).

The most holy name of Mary also provides us with spiritual strength. As the angel Gabriel announced, and as our Catechism explains, she is full of grace. These graces, however, do not lie dormant within her. The Catechism explains: “The Holy Spirit prepared Mary by His grace. It is through Mary, that the Holy Spirit prepares men and women into communion with Christ.”

The strength of her humility, faith, obedience, and prayer act as the four cornerstones to assist us in modeling our life on hers. This appeals to humble people; and indeed, the first to witness the birth of the Redeemer were St. Joseph and the shepherds.

Mary is an example of  faith, hope, holiness, obedience, love, and prayer. As “the Daughter of the Father, the Mother of the Son, and the Spouse of the Holy Spirit” she assists us in uniting ourselves to her Son. Her quiet strength, like many human mothers down through the centuries, enables her to meet our needs in both body and soul. We are her spiritual children. Let us run to her with all our cares, with all our spiritual and bodily illnesses, with our anxiety, fears, and despair. She is here to not only comfort us, but to strengthen us, through a multitude of graces, so that we may be powerful witnesses of faith in Christ in the spiritual war that is waging all around us.  May the Holy Name of Mary always give us strength to realize that Jesus Christ is our one true Savior and the fount of all mercy.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

(“Daughter of the Father …etc” passage is taken from a meditation by Father Emanuel d’Alzon, 19th century founder of the Augustinians of the Assumption, excerpted from his book Mary Our Mother, Our Model, Our Queen, translated by M. Angeline Bouchard from the original French, Trente Jours avec Marie. which received the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur of the Church). Notes on the sacred images: The first painting is by the 17th century Italian artist Giovanni Salvi (also known as Sassoferrato). The title of the painting is The Virgin at Prayer. It is in the National Gallery of Art in London. The second image is a close-up of the Blessed Mother’s face that was sculpted by Michelangelo in 1499 for his extraordinary sculpture known as the Pieta. Michelangelo was 24 years old at the time he sculpted this masterpiece! It is located in the St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Mary – The Mystical Spouse of the Holy Spirit and the Wife of Joseph

The question may be asked “How is the word “spouse” used in reference to Mary and the Holy Spirit?

We have all read the nativity accounts of St. Matthew and St. Luke and if you are a Roman Catholic you believe that Sacred Scripture is the foundation on which we build our theology; however, Sacred Tradition and the scholarship and teaching of the Magisterium of the Church are also very important.

Sacred Tradition, scholarship, and the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church) act as the counterbalance for our understanding of God’s Truth in Scripture. These elements, together with Sacramental grace, prayer, and good works help us live our life in Christ.

Theologians, saints, and mystics have used marital language to express the love of God for His Church and the mystical relationship between our Blessed Mother and the Holy Spirit. The use of marital language in relation to Mary, the Holy Spirit, and the Church has a long and varied history. A few recent examples of a pope and documents of the Church using this language are Pope John Paul 2 in numerous homilies and encyclicals, and the very important document that resulted from the Second Vatican Council entitled The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church – Lumen Gentium.

If we go back to the earliest writings of the Church, and quickly examine some sources, we see the “marital and spousal” aspect of this mystical language used in a second century AD document called the Odes of Solomon; and as we proceed up through history we see mention of it in the writings of St. Augustine (4th century), St. Ildephonsus, archbishop of Toledo, Spain (7th century), St. Germanus, patriarch of Constantinople (7th century), Cardinal St. Peter Damian (11th century), St. Bonaventure (13th century), Emmanuel d’Alzon (19th century), and, in the many scholars of the 20th century, such as Cardinal Joseph Suenens, Karl Rahner, Pope John Paul 2, Rev. Peter Damian M. Fehlner, F.F.I., and Pope Benedict 16th.

A few examples of how the word “spouse” is used in these theological contexts may be helpful. In 1979, on Pope John Paul 2 first pilgrimage to the United States, he gave a sermon on our Blessed Mother at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and made this point in relation to Mary:

“…Through her, the Sun of Justice was to rise in the world. Through her, the great healer of humanity, the reconciler of hearts and consciences, her Son, the God-Man, Jesus Christ, was to transform the human condition and by his death and resurrection, uplift the entire human family. As a great sign that appeared in the heavens, in the fullness of time, this woman dominates all history as the Virgin Mother of the Son, as the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, and as the Handmaid of humanity.” (excerpted from Mary’s Yes – Meditations on Mary Through The Ages, edited by John Rotelle, O.S.A., Servant Press, Ann Arbor, 1988)

In his important 1986 encyclical on the Holy Spirit  “The Lord and Giver of Life” (Dominum et Vivificantem) Pope John Paul 2 continues to use these expressions to help explain his insights:

“…It is the [2nd Vatican] Council that says to us: “The Blessed Virgin…overshadowed by the Holy Spirit…brought forth…the Son…, he whom God placed as the first-born among many brethren namely the faithful (cf. Romans 8: 29). In their birth and development she cooperates with a maternal love”; she is through “his singular graces and offices…intimately united with the Church…. [She/Mary] is a model of the Church” (Lumen Gentium, note 63). “The Church, moreover, contemplating Mary’s mysterious sanctity, imitating her charity,…becomes herself a mother” and “herself a virgin, who keeps…the fidelity she has pledged to her Spouse. Imitating the Mother of the Lord, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, she preserves with a virginal purity an integral faith, a firm hope, and a sincere charity” (Lumen Gentium note 64).

Pope John Paul 2 continues, “Thus one can understand the profound reason why the Church, united with the Virgin Mother, prays unceasingly as the Bride to her Divine Spouse, as the words of the Book of Revelation, quoted by the [2nd Vatican] Council, attest: “The Spirit and the bride say to the Lord Jesus Christ: Come!” (Rev. 22: 17).

The Church’s prayer is this unceasing invocation, in which “the Spirit himself intercedes for us”: in a certain sense, the Spirit himself utters it with the Church and in the Church.”

So, we see in these few examples that the Church has used this type of mystical language to help express and make meaningful the divine union of Mary and the Holy Spirit. This, of course, was made possible by Mary’s humility, and the grace of the Holy Spirit which fashioned Mary from the moment of her conception.

God has given Himself as a divine Gift to mankind. This mirrors the gift of self that a husband and wife make of themselves to each other; or, the gift that a consecrated virgin makes of him or herself to God. Our eternal destiny has been played out on this field, for with mystical insight we understand that a divine proposal was made to this young woman Mary, and using her free will and reason, she consented to the request to become the Theotokos – the Mother of God. It is important to remember that she consented, in humility, and out of her profound sense of love, service, and faith in God. These are the characteristics of all consecrated virgins, and the characteristics of all faith-filled wives and husbands who freely give the gift of themselves to their spouse in recognition of their marriage covenant.

At the moment of her “Let it be done to me according to your word,” her Spouse, the Holy Spirit, dwelt within her and uniting with her blood conceived the child Jesus in her womb. This was the divine act of conception – the miracle of  the Incarnation – resulting in a natural child and the full flowering of Mary’s motherhood. In practical terms, her consecrated virginity was not disturbed. She was an immaculate virgin before, during, and after her pregnancy. During her pregnancy and after the birth of Jesus, the Holy Family was exactly that – a holy family. Her legal husband Joseph understood and respected her vow of consecrated virginity, and she dedicated herself to being a model wife and mother – a woman who supported her husband Joseph in his work and her Son, Jesus, in His future ministry.

Glory and Praise to God! Praise be to the Mother of God, Mary, most holy! May she always intercede with her Son for mercy on our behalf!

Notes on the paintings: The first painting of the Annunciation is by Fra Angelico (Brother John of Fiesole, died 1455) and is done in egg tempera on wood; completed between 1430-32 it is found in the Museo Diocesano in Cortona, Italy. The second painting is also by Fra Angelico it was painted between 1430-32 and is done in egg tempera on wood. It measures approximately 76 inches by 76 inches and hangs in the Prado Museum in Madrid. The third painting is by Benozzo Gozzoli entitled Madonna and Child Giving Blessings.  Painted in 1449, it is egg tempera on silk and mounted on wood. It is currently located in the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. It is approximately 100 inches high by 51 inches wide.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved.

The Nativity of Mary – Our Blessed Mother

On September 8th the Church celebrates the feast of the birthday of Mary, our Blessed Mother.

Tradition tells us that Mary was the daughter of Saints Joachim and Anne. She was betrothed to and later married Joseph, a respected Jewish carpenter from Nazareth. Little is known of Mary’s life other than the references to her in the Gospels. She attended the wedding feast at Cana, was present at Jesus’ crucifixion, and was with the Apostles at the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

St. Andrew of Crete puts this feast day, celebrated since the 5th century, in perspective for us when he says: “[In the great play of salvation] today’s festival, the birth of the Mother of God, is the joyful prelude, while the final act is the union of the Word [of God] with human flesh.  Through Mary’s birth we are led away from slavery and toward the Truth. We are led away from darkness and toward the Light. Therefore, let all creation sing and dance and unite to make a worthy contribution to the celebration of this day. Let there be one common festival for saints in heaven and people on earth. Let everything join in festive celebration, for today, [through the birth of Mary] this created world is raised to the dignity of a holy place for [her Son] who made all things. The creature is newly prepared to be a divine dwelling place for her Creator.”

We give praise to our Blessed Mother today. We celebrate her being the new Temple, the pristine Tabernacle, our Virgin Mother, who gave birth to our Redeemer. Mary, through her life, gave witness to the true meaning of trust and charity.

Father Joseph R. Upton, the chaplain for The Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts and assistant pastor in my parish, mentioned in a sermon a few years ago that three births are celebrated in the Church’s calendar: John the Baptist, Mary, and Jesus. All three of these people were devout Jews. It  is through them, and their understanding of trust and charity, that we can see that the Jewish people have always been a people who truly love God. Their love expresses a deep sense of trust, because in love we see that their devotion is based on the virtues of faith and hope which expresses itself in word and deed. Fr. Upton went on to say, “Mary is the bridge” that allows not only the Jewish people, but all people, to see that God has fulfilled the promise that He made to their ancestors.

Mary, our Blessed Mother, enables that promise of redemption to be fulfilled through her “Yes” to the invitation to be the spouse of the Holy Spirit, which enabled the birth of her Son, Jesus to occur. Mary’s personal qualities of simplicity, humility, love, faith, and hope combined into a dynamic personality who, as she grew to adulthood, betrothal, and marriage to Joseph, enabled her to exemplify to all generations the meaning of a life that is full of grace.

Scholars remind us that “The angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary is of great consequence for our understanding of Mary and Marian doctrine. The greeting has been variously translated as “Rejoice highly favored” and “Hail full of grace.” The object of the varied translations is the Greek word kecharitomene which refers to one who has been transformed by God’s grace. The word is used only one other time in the New Testament and that is in the Epistle to the Ephesians where Paul is addressing those who by becoming Christians are transformed by grace and receive the remission of sins. It is clearly significant that Mary is considered to already have been transformed by grace before the birth of Christ.”  So, we see that God intervened and did not allow the stain of original sin to be passed to Mary. She – as the pure vessel – would partake of the redemptive grace of God before the actual Redemption took place. Her “Yes” to God’s request that she become the Mother of the Incarnate God, Jesus, enabled our Redemption to occur. The scholar Origen (AD 185 -254) wrote: “Because the angel greeted Mary with new expressions, I do not, in fact, recall having read in any other place in the Sacred Scriptures these words: Rejoice, O Full of Grace. Neither of these expressions is ever addressed to a man: such a special greeting was reserved only for Mary.” (this quote is from http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/MARYINSC.htm 

We must remember that Catholics do not worship Mary. Worship is reserved for God alone. The Latin or Western Rite (Roman Catholics and those Eastern Rite churches in union with Rome), and the Eastern Rites  (Orthodox churches) pay respect and reverence to Mary but never worship her. We pay special reverence to her because, she as the mother of the Redeemer, deserves that respect and honor. We also acknowledge her in a special way because Mary intercedes (pleads for mercy on behalf of the Church) before the throne of God in the same way that a mother would intercede with the father on behalf of her children.

Thank you Blessed Mother for all you have done for us – and – Happy Birthday!

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved.  The above painting is by Fra Angelico. It is entitled Madonna with the Child and Angels, completed between 1435 and 1436. It is egg tempera on wood and measures approximately 27 inches by 4 feet 6 inches. It is in the Diocesan Museum in Camerino, Italy. Thanks to the Art Renewal Center website for the image: http://www.artrenewal.org/pages/artist.php?artistid=241&page=2
 

The Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today is the memorial of the Queenship of Mary.

Through the centuries, sacred icons and images have expressed the Queenship and Coronation of the Holy Theotokos – the Mother of God. The icon The Virgin Salus Populi Romani, a 5th century icon, displayed in the Church of Saint Mary Major in Rome, and seen below, shows the Blessed Mother dressed in typical first century Middle Eastern garb as she holds her Son who gives a blessing. This icon is reputed to

be a copy of one that was painted by St. Luke the evangelist who tradition states knew and spoke to the Blessed Mother.

A 6th century icon of Mary and Jesus displays a coronation theme portraying the Blessed Mother and her Son in Heaven. Mary sits on her throne with Her Son on her lap, surrounded by St. Theodore on the left and St. George on the right, while two angels look up as the hand of the Father gives a blessing. This icon is found in the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula.

Iconic images painted (“written”) by orthodox iconographers of both the Latin, Greek, Russian, Coptic, and other Rites agree with images found within our Holy Scriptures. For example, a Gospel passage tells us “… the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” This Scripture explains that the Lord willingly takes the initiative to come forth, with hands extended,  to meet us and share the reign of His kingdom.

In sacred art we visualize this not only in the extension of Christ’s hands on the cross – but also, in the extension of the infant Jesus’ hands, to give us a blessing as He sits in His mother’s lap, or is caressed in her arms, an image that is found not only in the above sacred images but in numerous statues found in Latin Rite churches throughout the world.

The prophet Isaiah also speaks of Christ in regal terms as Emmanuel (God is with us) and the “Prince of Peace.”  We can even get apocalyptic and speak of the Books of Daniel and Revelation which recall the truth that the world will be transformed through the birth of the Redeemer, made possible by Mary.  She is a “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars… who gave birth to a son, a boy destined to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and His throne.”  So we see that Mary enables the incorporation of the reign of God into the world. She is the woman destined to crush the head of the apocalyptic serpent.

St. John of Damascus wrote about this in the 8th century when he says of the Blessed Mother that she “has become the terror of demons, the city of refuge for those who turn to her. [He has her say:] Come to me in faith, O people, and draw as from a river of grace. Come to me in faith, without doubt, and draw from the mighty and certain source of grace.”

Last week, on the solemnity of the Assumption, we recalled Blessed John Paul 2 saying  “…the Assumption of the Mother of Christ in Heaven forms part of [the Lord’s teaching about] His victory over death, the beginning of which is found in the death and resurrection of Christ.”

So in today’s memorial, Mary, the humble daughter of Joachim and Anna and the chosen daughter of our Heavenly Father, is garbed in the majestic robes of a queen. She takes her rightful place next to the throne of her resurrected and ascended Son.

Why? 

Because the Church desires to teach us that Mary is privileged,  beyond all other women and men, to be the first and most significant human being to participate in the glory, triumph, and reign of God. By her very willingness to become the Mother of God, the Theotokos, she agreed to become our spiritual Mother, too.

In this beautiful sacred image by Blessed John of Fiesole, also known as Fra Angelico the great Dominican artist of 15th century Florence, portrays the moment of Our Lady’s Coronation with the Heavenly court surrounding her.

We observe men and women saints that were alive thousands of years after Mary’s Coronation observing the event.

Why did the good Friar do that?

He is expressing the fact that Heaven is within the eternal now of the Trinity, so it follows that all the saints are knowledgeable of the truths of Heaven. If we carefully observe the painting we see that the knowledge of that coronation moment is known by St. Thomas Aquinas. We see him looking out at us (in the lower left corner), noting the truth, goodness, and beauty of God, and the fact that God desires this coronation for His beloved and humble human daughter, the Queen of Heaven.

The Blessed Mother, in her regal beauty, authority, and power, has not left us orphans. She is “the Living Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Inviolate Mountain, the ladder” that joins Heaven and earth. Mary is the “One who Shows the Way”  (as the Greeks would say the Hodigitria) to her Son and to our Heavenly reward.

If we remain faithful and loyal to the teachings of Jesus Christ, as expressed through our Sacred Scriptures and our Church, and act on that faith, then we, too, will reign alongside our Heavenly Mother and give praise and glory to God.     Our Lady, Queen of Heaven, pray for us.

Sources: John Paul 2, L’Osservatore Romano, August 15, 1983; Pope Pius 12th – encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam, October 11, 1954.         Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Calls Us To Holiness

The book of Exodus mentions the Egyptian city of Rameses. If you travel to the Egyptian University Museum of Antiquities, in one of the side rooms, you will see two interesting artifacts: an ancient stone pillar that proclaims: “The pharaoh built the city of Rameses with Asiatic Semitic slaves,” and an ancient tomb painting showing slaves hard at work making bricks for the city. Many scholars view these “Asiatic Semitic slaves” to be the Hebrew people.

With the unveiling of Moses as a prophetic leader we read of the Hebrews release from bondage through the unstoppable combination of his leadership and the Lord’s power. Yet, four hundred years after the exodus from Egypt, Hebrew kings and their queens had thrown their traditions aside and were living sinful pagan lives. They too, had begun to oppress their people with extreme taxes and disregard of Mosaic Law.

In the 9th century BC, the Old Testament prophet, Elijah (Elias in the Greek), arrived on the scene and chastised the Hebrew king Ahab and his Phoenician wife Jezebel, a priestess of the pagan god Baal, and announced that a devastating drought would occur to punish their sins against God and their people. This drought did occur and caused great suffering in Israel; but Elijah, while praying on Mount Carmel, had a vision of a great cloud, pregnant with water, which would bring liberation and relief from the devastating effects of Israel’s sin and suffering. Some Bible scholars have linked Elijah’s rain clouds to our own Catholic traditions. The rain clouds serve as an image that foreshadows the spiritual life giving waters that Mary was to bring to the world through her being the Mother of God – the Mother of the Redeemer.

In the 13th century, Catholic monks of the community of Mt. Carmel in Israel created a formal religious order that today we call the Carmelites. They were attracted to the contemplative life of Elijah and the time that he spent on Mt. Carmel. They believed that their specific mission was to praise God while being under the protection of our Blessed Mother. Like the Hebrews of old, the Carmelites, at that time, were being persecuted and oppressed by certain groups within the Church. Amid the many persecutions raised against their Order, Simon Stock, their superior general in England, turned with confidence to the Blessed Mother, and in prayer, requested her help.

In Cambridge, England, on July 16, 1251, as Simon Stock knelt in prayer, Our Lady appeared before him and presented him with the now well-known brown scapular.  She said to him these words:  “This [scapular] shall be the privilege for you and for all the Carmelites; anyone dying [clothed] in this habit shall be saved.”

What does this mean?

It means, by our Lady’s promise, anyone who dies faithfully and lovingly wearing the brown scapular is not eternally lost. This is an extraordinary promise, one that unfortunately many Catholics have never learned or disregard as being irrelevant to their lives; but the promise is still valid and very relevant for us today. To make that point, Our Lady drives home its significance in subsequent apparitions.

At the approved apparition in Lourdes, in 1858, our Blessed Mother chose to make her last appearance on July 16th, the feast day of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel; and at the approved apparition at Fatima, on October 13, 1917, it is as Our Lady of Mount Carmel that Mary appeared when she said farewell to the three children who had witnessed her messages of warning and hope.

Eight hundred years ago, the Queen of Mt. Carmel brought relief and support to the Carmelite Order from the oppression of social sin and injustice; and today, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel continues to offer us relief from the oppression of our own transgressions and that of the world.

Let us have faith in the love of such a great Mother. Let us dedicate ourselves to imitating her and her Son. When we wear the brown scapular we unite ourselves to the Carmelite community and recognize in it the sign of the presence of Mary in our daily lives. The brown scapular is a visible commitment to be clothed in Jesus Christ and to manifest Him in our lives for the benefit of our eternal soul and the good of those around us.

Let us pray that we remain open to our Blessed Mother’s ability to refresh us from the drought of our own sinfulness; and through her intercession with the Lord and the sign of her scapular, appreciate the eternal love, power, and mercy of God.

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, pray for us.

+++The first beautiful icon of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel appears through the courtesy of the website of Father Luis Gonsalves, a priest in the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois. I recommend that you visit his website: www.overheardinthesacristy.net/ The second beautiful image of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel appears through the courtesy of the artist Terry Nelson who painted it in the 1980’s. It is painted in acrylic and gold leaf on a wood panel. He comments on it: “I can’t recall the exact date that I painted this image of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel with Saints John [of the Cross] and Teresa [of Avila], but it was sometime in the 1980’s.  At one time it was used for the cover of Soul magazine – both Spanish and English editions, and prints were subsequently sold through the World Apostolate of Fatima in New Jersey.  The original is in the possession of a local Carmelite community of men.”  I recommend that you visit his website at abbey-roads.blogspot.com

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Solemnity of the Annunciation – The Confident Sacrifice Of A Pure Heart

Many years ago, Blessed John Paul 2 spoke to the seminarians of Rome on this, the Solemnity of the Annunciation. He began his homily with the phrase: “Fear not!”  Echoing the archangel’s comments to our Blessed Mother he was trying to calm the natural anxiety of those young men as they  prepared for their Gospel ministry in the world. The Pope counseled them that “We must all accept the call. We must listen [to the Holy Spirit],  and use the grace that we have received from God. We must shore up our strength, and say, “Yes” in confidence and certainty to the call that we hear from the whispers of the Holy Spirit.”

Upon hearing the message of the archangel Gabriel, the ultimate decision by Mary that “Let it be done to me according to your word” conclusively and forever changed cosmic and spiritual history. For at the moment she said “Yes” to Gabriel, our salvation and redemption, through the Cross, began.

Let us not forget, however, that Mary’s “Yes” had a tremendous affect on her, too.  It required a great cost from her personally because it resulted in the Crucifixion – it resulted in the sacrifice of her own son Jesus – and – the sacrifice of her own heart.

Blessed John Paul 2 speaks of this when he says:  “Mary in a particular way – unlike any other – experienced mercy, and at the same time, made her participation in the revelation of the Divine Mercy possible with the sacrifice of her own heart.  Such a sacrifice is closely bound up with the Cross of Her Son, at which she was to stand at Calvary… No one has experienced the mystery of the Cross as did the Mother of the Crucified…. Mary is therefore the person who knows the Divine Mercy most deeply. She knows the price; she knows how high it is.”

He goes on to say, “Maybe there is another point: for all people are born at Mary’s Yes.” This must be understood: such a Yes in imitation of Mary creates joy, a new life, a breath, a blessing;” it creates opportunities for us to  sacrifice our own hearts in imitation of her and the Holy Family.

So as we enter the 5th week of Lent let us celebrate this Solemnity by trying our best to live like our Blessed Mother – a person with complete confidence in the Lord. Let us say Yes to God in imitation of Mary and allow the Lord to work wonders in our own lives, as well.

Images in order of appearance: A 13th Century Byzantine icon of the Annunciation from St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai; Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Annunciation (1898); John William Waterhouse’s Annunciation (1914); and Bartolome E. Murillo’s Annunciation completed between 1660 -1665, and please don’t forget to do some research and take a closer look at one of Fra Angelico’s versions of the Annunciation! Please also notice that in Waterhouse’s and Murillo’s renditions both artists have included the tradition that Mary was in the process of sewing the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the outer room which housed the Altar of Incense in the Temple in Jerusalem; other artists, such as El Greco, do that too.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Five Days Before Christmas: A Unique Story About The Graciousness of God

A very clear narrative greeted us in yesterday morning’s Gospel by St. Luke. He tells us that both Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were both righteous before God: walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord – they were blameless; but they have no child. Elizabeth was barren and both were elderly. We read of Zechariah silently bringing his heavy heart before the Lord – even after all those years – it was still burdened with disappointment. The couple probably remembered Psalm 112 which says:

“Happy the man who fears the Lord, who takes delight in his commands. His sons will be powerful on earth; the children of the upright are blessed.”

Zechariah was a priest, and on that day – by lot – it was his turn to enter the chamber within the Temple called the Holy Place and burn incense on the special altar. The Holy Place was a small chamber that led to the Holy of Holies, which housed the Ark of the Covenant.

For whatever reason, Zechariah that morning carried his disappointment with him into the Holy Place; and while he was there the archangel, Gabriel, appeared on the right side of the Altar of Incense. Gabriel tells Zechariah not to be afraid and that his prayer was heard before the throne of God. Gabriel continues with the joyous news that Elizabeth will bear a son, and that he will be called John – which in Hebrew means – “the Lord is gracious.” This child will grow and be great before the Lord, and even from his mother’s womb – he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

But, in a typically human way, Zechariah questions the archangel’s announcement. His query must have been different in tone. It must have had the typical masculine attitude of “Are you kidding me!” Zechariah’s tenor makes Gabriel, and possibly God, indignant – and Zechariah is struck speechless for his insolence.

In Scripture, few lines later, we see Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. She questions him, too, as “How can this be since I do not know man? But Gabriel does not strike her speechless. We have to be struck by this difference. What does it teach us?

It is clear that God knows our hearts. God knew what was on Zechariah’s heart when he was in the Holy Place. Zechariah does not trust the message or the messenger, and by inference – he does not trust God. God knows his heart; and disciplines this good man. Like Zechariah, we, too, may disbelieve God. In our sophistication or position in life we may say “Well that’s fine, but, the Scriptures don’t apply to our situation, or this specific teaching was acceptable years ago, but, too much time has passed and it doesn’t apply to my problems. Remember, the Gospel says that Zechariah and his wife were good and righteous people. It was mentioned that he kept all the Commandments and ordinances. Yet, when his big moment comes – where is all that goodness and righteousness? It might still be there in his heart, but, there was also a pocket of doubta crevice of skepticism – that was significant enough for him, as a priest of the Almighty God, to be struck speechless in punishment for not trusting Gabriel’s message.

As sacred artists, as Christians, this Gospel asks us to stop, and check our souls in this last week of Advent. It asks us how patient, confident, and trusting have we been of the Lord’s message to our hearts, and have we allowed this to carry over into our actions?

Zechariah learned the hard way that when the Lord prepares us for His coming He desires us to be alive, awake, and alert to His call and to trust His message. So, our prayer this week should echo that of Zechariah, who in the months of speechless waiting, most likely in his mental prayer said,  “Lord, I believe; cleanse me of my disbelief. Lord, I trust, heal me of my distrust;” and it should also echo that of Mary – who in humility and expectation waited patiently for the graciousness of the Lord to take fruit in her womb.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Thanks to angels-angelology.com for stained glass window image.

A Beautiful Pregnant Young Woman And Her Message To A Weary World

Today’s feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of all the Americas, recalls the apparition of our Blessed Mother on the hill of Tepeyac in present day Mexico City from December 9th through the 12th in the year 1531. Guadalupe is the Spanish translation of the Aztec phrase that Juan Diego heard Mary associate herself with – the name, interestingly, in Aztec means “she will crush the serpent of stone.”

In the same year – 1531 – thousands of miles away in what today we call Germany – Martin Luther was pro- claiming his doctrine of protest and rebellion from the Catholic faith. As Martin Luther was convincing millions of Catholics to leave the faith, our Blessed Mother, through the miraculous image that appeared on Juan Diego’s tilma, convinces millions of Native Americans to convert to the faith.

As the Protestant rebellion was tearing down millennia of Church theology and sacred tradition, Our Lady was building up the understanding of both the Spanish clergy in Mexico and the Native American population, of the love of God and the assurance of her protection.

Our Lady spoke to Juan Diego in his native dialect. She identified herself and said:  “Juanito, the humblest of my children, know and understand that I am the ever virgin Mary, Mother of the true God through whom all things live. It is my ardent desire that a church be erected here so that in it I can show and bestow my love, compassion, help, and protection to all who inhabit this land and to those others who love me, that they might call upon and confide in me. Go to the Bishop of Mexico to make known to him what I greatly desire. Go and put all your efforts into this.”(1)

 

Of course you probably know the rest of the story. The Bishop is told, disbelieves Juan Diego, the bishop asks for a sign, Juan Diego reports back to Mary and is told by her to cut the Castilian roses that are growing and put them in his poncho which is called a tilma. The tilma is opened in front of the Bishop and other witnesses, the roses fall out, and the miraculous image of Our Lady appears on the tilma. But is this story true? What are the facts that surround it?

Our Lady of Guadalupe is honored as a feast throughout the Americas on this day because of the miraculous events associated with this particular three-day apparition, a very few being:

1) The extraordinary conversion of multi-millions of Native Americans, and the Aztecs in particular, who, as a blood thirsty civilization, were known to kill as many as 20,000 human beings in one day to appease the blood lust of their primary god.

2) The roses that Juan Diego cut were native of Damascus, Syria, and did grow in Spain, but were unknown in Mexico at that time.

3) The tilma, or poncho, that Juan Diego wore was made of the agave fibers traditionally used by the Native Americans. These fibers were a natural substance that should have deteriorated within 35 years, and yet, today, the 480th anniversary of the event – this tilma is still in excellent condition.

4) Through scientific analysis done over the last forty years, it has been determined that the pigments used on the tilma are not of natural or man-made material, and there is no glue or sizing on the tilma to fix the pigment in place. Plus the colorization or iridescence of the image on this “icon not made with human hands” would not have been able to be produced by a human artist in the 16th century. This iridescent effect would have been seen only in nature.

5) Our Lady is represented in the colors and dress of a pregnant Aztec princess. Modern astronomical research has shown that the stars on Our Lady’s image are in the configuration of the stars in the heavens on the nights of the apparition in 1531. Most remarkably, a microscopic analysis of Our Lady’s eyes was completed by Peruvian engineer and optical scientist Dr. Jose Aste Tonsmann (who trained at Cornell University and worked at IBM). He magnified the iris of the Virgin’s eyes 2,500 times and, through mathematical and optical calculations, was able to identify the witnesses of the Guadalupan miracle at the moment Juan Diego unfurled his tilma before the bishop and other witnesses [the bishop was Juan de Zumarraga, the Franciscan bishop of Mexico City.] (2)

But most importantly, these few miraculous facts about the icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe, do not stress the key issues of this apparition.

You see, Our Lady came to the Mexican people – as she comes to us this Advent season – as a pregnant young woman who is promoting life and her protection – not only for her unborn child – but for all of us.

Our Lady calls to us through this icon to stress that she loves us, has compassion for us, sees our tears, and desires to offer us her love and comfort. As the Mother of the incarnate Son of God she also points to her Son, and desires a church to be built so He can be properly worshipped and so she can be there to assist us in our prayers to God.

Mary has always reminded us that He is the One, True, All Powerful God who desires our love and respect. She also stresses that she is always here to provide her protection.

I commend to you to do some research this week on this magnificent Church approved apparition which indicates the Lord’s and Our Lady’s love for us. How blessed we are to have the spiritual motherhood of Mary, and the Fatherhood of the One True God.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Footnotes and  sites to investigate for more information:

(1) From a report by Don Antonio Valeriano, a Native American author of the 16th century; as published in the Supplement of the New Feasts and Memorials for the General Roman Calendar – The Liturgy of the Hours.

(2)Science Sees What Mary Saw From Juan Diego’s Tilma”   Zenit News Service, 2001.

Zenit News Agency. Science Stunned by Virgin of Guadalupe’s Eyes. 1/14/2001

http://www.miraclehunter.com/marian_apparitions/index.html

The Immaculate Conception – A Time To Reflect On The Meaning of Mary

1) Mary’s Personal History

Tradition tells us that Mary was the daughter of Saints Joachim and Anne. They were devoted Jews who raised their child to be loyal and pure within the Jewish holy tradition. Mary was born within the royal line of King David and was betrothed and later married Joseph, a respected Jewish carpenter from Nazareth. Little is known of Mary’s day-to-day life other than the references to her in the Gospels. Those early references indicate that she was a loving, concerned, and devoted person. During her Son’s ministry she attended the wedding feast at Cana, was present at Jesus’ crucifixion, and was most likely with the Apostles at the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

 2) Mary Prefigured in the Hebrew Scriptures

“The most famous Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah are Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 7:14 and Micah 5:1-4. In all three prophecies the Mother of the Messiah plays a prominent role. “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” [Isaiah 7:10-14].  The name Immanuel in Hebrew means “God is with us.”

 3) Mary as Mother and Saint

As the mother of Jesus, and the wife of Saint Joseph, Mary is the greatest saint. She is the model of faith, purity, and maternal devotion for all Christians. Mary is called the Blessed Virgin because she conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit (this is part of the Mystery of the Incarnation).  Saint Joseph is the foster father, not the biological father, of Jesus.

To become the mother of the Savior, Mary was “enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.” (Lumen Gentium). Mary freely gave herself to God (confer Chapter 1 in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew), with complete trust even in the face of possible confusion about what was happening to her, and she freely responded and consented to God’s Will for her life.  Mary’s “Yes” to God’s request that she become the Mother of the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus, enabled our Redemption to occur.

What is the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception? The Church teaches that Mary was conceived without sin.  This is the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception which we celebrate today.

As The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 491, the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception means that “Mary was redeemed from the moment of her conception.”  Pope Pius 9th announced this Dogma when he said: “Mary was preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” This was accomplished through the power of God. He willed and acted so that Mary should be free from the stain of sin. Mary, as the angel Gabriel described is “full of grace”… “Hail Full of Grace / Rejoice Highly Favored One.” The Fathers of the Eastern Catholic Church also agree with this truth and verify it when they address the Mother of God as “the All-Holy” (Panagia) and celebrate her as free from any stain of sin.

An interesting article entitled Mary in Scripture explains “The angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary is of great consequence for our understanding of Mary and Marian doctrine. The greeting has been variously translated as “Rejoice highly favored” and “Hail full of grace.” The object of the varied translations is the Greek word kecharitomene which refers to one who has been transformed by God’s grace. The word is used only one other time in the New Testament and that is in the Epistle to the Ephesians where Paul is addressing those who, by becoming Christians, are transformed by grace and receive the remission of sins. It is clearly significant that Mary is considered to already have been transformed by grace before the birth of Christ.” ( Confer the article “Mary in Scripture” at this site: http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/MARYINSC.htm

So, we see that God intervened and did not allow the stain of Original Sin to be passed to Mary. She – as the pure vessel – would receive the redemptive grace of God before the actual Redemption took place. This is logical and filled with common sense. Why would God the Father have His Incarnate Son be conceived in a woman who was tainted by the stain of Original Sin? As the Scriptures state – we do not put new wine into old wineskins. To make a commonplace analogy: would any self respecting surgeon, cook, artist, or musician use soiled instruments as they were healing, creating, or performing a masterpiece in their art?

The scholar Origen (AD 185 -254) made a very interesting observation, he said,  “Because the angel greeted Mary with new expressions, which I have never encountered elsewhere in the Scriptures, it is necessary to comment on this. I do not, in fact, recall having read in any other place in the Sacred Scriptures these words: “Rejoice highly favored one, O Full of Grace. ” Neither of these expressions is ever addressed to a man: such a special greeting was reserved only for Mary.” (This quote is also taken from the article referenced above – “Mary in Scripture.”)

 4) Some of the Titles of Mary

In the year AD 431, at the Council of Ephesus (attended by over 200 bishops from throughout Christendom), Mary was named Theotokos (the God Bearer) and a model of Christian living. “Mary is truly “Mother of God” since she is the mother of the eternal Son of God made man, who is God Himself.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, #509).

She is called the New Eve because just as the original Eve brought sin and death into the world, Mary, as the bearer of spiritual life, brought Jesus (the New Adam) into the world. This provided the opportunity for grace, redemption, and salvation to impact and transform mankind for all eternity.

Since 1964, Mary has been honored as the Mother of the Church.  She is called The Mother of the Church because through her free choice she cooperated with God’s plan to build a new “arc of salvation” (the Church) for His people.

By the eighth century (700’s) the Catholic Church celebrated the Annunciation (Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would be the Mother of the Savior), the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, the Assumption of Mary, and the Birthday of Mary. The Immaculate Conception became popular by the tenth century (900’s). Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint Louis de Montfort, Pope John Paul II and many other saints of the Church have written extensively on Mary and her role in the Church and in the lives of individuals. The Church teaches that Mary was assumed into heaven with body and soul united.  This is the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary.

5) Mary as Intercessor

Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and any of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches DO NOT worship Mary. WORSHIP IS RESERVED FOR GOD ALONE. These Churches pay respect and reverence to Mary but never worship her.

The meaning of Our Blessed Mother Mary for us today is that, especially at this time in history, we must remember that she spiritually intercedes (pleads for mercy on behalf of us – the Church) before the throne of God. She does this in the same way that a mother would intercede with the father on behalf of her children. She loves us with the love of a true mother – for she sees not only our faults but our inherent goodness, too. Please God that we respond to the graces she has to offer us. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

This painting is by Sano di Pietro an early Renaissance painter. It is entitled Our Lady of Mercy and was painted in the 1440’s. Sano di Pietro was from Siena.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

 

A Custodian of Beauty – The Talent of Artist Jamie Medeiros

After an article explaining the mission of the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts appeared last June in our Diocesan newspaper, the Rhode Island Catholic, I received a call from a lovely young woman by the name of Jamie Medeiros. She explained that she was from Massachusetts and that she, too, had been touched by the Holy Spirit to offer people the opportunity to blend the creation of beauty with personal prayer. She described the process through which she currently leads people to express themselves in art while they are praying – actually to make prayer part of their artisitc process. She told me that she calls their parish meetings Pray and Create, and that they successfully had a number of parishioners involved who were doing exactly that – joining prayer with artistic expression.

As she was explaining what she was doing in her Pray and Create sessions I couldn’t help but stand in awe of the power of the Holy Spirit to be touching people with the same impulse throughout the United States. This same impulse – the same desire – to combine prayer with art; from the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts in Rhode Island to the Catholic Artists Society in New York City, to Pray and Create in Massachusetts, and the Way of Beauty at Thomas More College in New Hampshire, to the Foundation for the Sacred Arts in Washington, D.C. – all attempting to examine and put into practice the words of Beato John Paul 2 and Pope Benedict 16th to become “custodians of sacred beauty.”

By becoming involved in the sacred movement to be a custodian of beauty we refashion culture and ourselves. We accomplish that end by evangelizing the truth, goodness and beauty of God through the study and creation of sacred art.

We continued to talk and I invited Jamie to become a member of the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts, and she graciously accepted. Jamie has a wealth of experience in the arts, having received a Master of Fine Arts in painting from the American University in Italy, and an undergraduate degree from the Catholic University of America. She currently is a self employed artist and lives in Massachusetts. A self portrait appears here:

Jamie’s talent can be appreciated in the above portrait as well as in a sampling of her sketches (seen below) – which she showed at our Autumn Meeting. To see more of Jamie’s paintings and sketches please go to her web site iliveinhope.com. She has a potpourri of different photographs, sketches, paintings, and whimsical studies. I especially like the work she has done of her dog “Daisy” and – a Rhode Island icon: Mr. Potato Head! Actually, I am sure that as soon as  Hasbro Industries (headquartered in Rhode Island and the creator of Mr. Potato Head), or Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence sees them they will snatch up those beauties!

The sketches below were done during her Pray and Create sessions at her parish church. Photos taken and used with the permission of Jamie Medeiros. Her painting and sketches are Copyright © 2011 Jamie Medeiros All Rights Reserved.

Very powerful, indeed! Thank you Jamie for the time, talent, and treasure that you are willing to share with others who accompany you on our beautiful spiritual journey back to the Lord.

Photos taken and used with the permission of Jamie Medeiros. Her painting and sketches are Copyright © 2011 Jamie Medeiros All Rights Reserved.

 Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. All Rights Reserved.

Our Lady of the Rosary

All the events of human history have to be backlit by the reality of our faith that God does not abandon His people. An example of this truth is today’s memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary. This memorial was established by Pope St. Pius 5th in thanksgiving for the Catholic victory over the Muslim army and navy at the famous battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571. Many rosaries were said by the European faithful during the battle to stem the tide of the Islamic invasion. The admiral for the Catholic Fleet, Andrea Doria, had the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe (seen below) in the stateroom of his flagship. Prior to the battle King Philip 2nd of Spain had given the Mexican icon of the Blessed Mother to Admiral Doria.

Our Gospel today tells us that our Lord God chose Mary, a humble Hebrew teenager, to be the finest being within His creation. She was offered the opportunity to be the counterpoint to the sin and evil that consumed the world. She was offered the opportunity to be the Theotokos- – the Bearer of God – the Mother of the Messiah.

It is God’s will to have beauty and purity, mercy and justice, exist along side the evil that Satan – with man’s complicity – brought into the world; and it is the Father’s will, through the actions of Jesus and His mother Mary, that they overcome and defeat the evil that Satan spawned.

God is an artist. His palette consists of many different colors. He uses the darks as well as the lights to achieve His end. We too, are artists. Like Mary we have a choice. Mary chose to humbly accept the will of God for her life, even though she did not foresee and understand all that was to take place. She decided to paint the structure of her life – and the life of her family – with the colors of faith, humility, love, and joy. Did the masterpiece of her life include the darkness of suffering, pain, and loss; yes, of course it did, but those dark shadows did not muddy the joy and happiness she was to know in doing the will of God – it was not to interfere with her accomplishing her grace filled mission for the family of God.

It is through the humble statement of Mary to the angel Gabriel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word,” that our salvation was made possible. It is through Mary’s “Yes” that the Holy Spirit, in an intimate and personal encounter with her, was able to accomplish the pledge made to King David that “the time of the fulfillment of God’s promises and preparations [will begin].” (CCC # 484).

As Catholic Christians we understand that the prayer that we call the Holy Rosary was given to St. Domenic (Domingo de Guzman) in 1208 by the Blessed Mother. If prayed with reverence and attention, the Holy Rosary through the recitation of the four great Mysteries: Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious, recount the entire life of our Lord and His ministry to us. Mary gave this prayer to St. Domenic so that it might become a vehicle for meditation and contemplation on all that her Son did for us. It is not meant to be a tool of mindless recitation. To say that would be as callous as saying that Michelangelo used his sculptor’s tools to just break marble.

Mary understood – and understands – that we need a process in which we can reflect on the saving actions of her Son, while at the same time, intoning – either privately in silence or audibly in a group – the beautiful prayer of the angel Gabriel at her Annunciation, the prayer that Jesus Himself taught us, and the famous doxology of the Glory be.

Faith, humility, love, and joy – these virtues will help us become better sacred artists – and better people, and the Holy Rosary is an important tool to help us achieve our goal.

The painting below is by Fra Angelico and shows St. Dominic, the Blessed Mother, and St. John the Evangelist. Fra Angelico inserted St. Dominic into the scene in an attempt to suggest to his fellow friars that Dominic’s prayer was so mystical and so intimate that he united himself to the Cross of Christ – and that he embraced the Cross in faith, humility, love, and joy. It is a worthy suggestion for us to contemplate, too.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Triumph of the Cross and Our Lady of Sorrows by Jed Gibbons

Today we celebrate the feast of the Exaltation – or Triumph – of the Holy Cross.

The early Catholic Church was intensely persecuted during the first 280 years of its life – so the symbol of the Cross – the symbol of public humiliation and excruciating death – was rarely used in our Christian iconography. But this doesn’t mean that the early Christians were reluctant to express their devotion to the Cross. Writing in the year 204, the Christian theologian Tertullian said: “At every going in and out, when we put on our clothes, when we sit at table, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon our forehead the sign [of the Cross].”

In the year 313, the Emperor Constantine signed the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed toleration for the Christian faith within the Roman Empire. Constantine’s mother, Helena, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and with the support of the local bishop – excavated the area known as the site of Golgotha. Tradition states that portions of the true Cross, with a partial nameplate still attached was found, resulting in Constantine ordering that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher be built over the site. The church was dedicated nine years later, with a portion of the Cross placed inside it. So the feast that we celebrate today marks the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the year 335. That Church was unfortunately destroyed by the Muslims in the year 1009, only to be rebuilt centuries later, with the new occupants – all Christians – vying for control of the site! Unfortunately even among our brother Christian Churches there have been numerous clashes and conflicts over the control of this holy site. It is as if all of us – as guardians of the Church’s holiest site – had not internalized the meaning of the true Cross – the meaning of what happened on that site 2000 years ago – the meaning of the Father’s supreme sacrifice of His Son for the sake of His creation. God’s love was raised up on Golgotha that day and Satan’s venom was forever neutralized, but the sting of Satan’s original bite in the Garden of Eden still remains.

The truth of our Scripture readings tell us that Moses lifted up the bronze serpent, a sign of sin, and the people were healed. Jesus makes an analogy of the serpent with the healing power of the Cross – since it is a sign of our sin and our redemption. When the Father, through the Holy Spirit, lifted up Jesus in the resurrection, the Holy Cross was no longer viewed as a sign of evil and sin – rather it became a sign of Christ’s victory and our salvation.

Our Savior, through the instrument of the Holy Cross, shows us the level of His love for His  creation. The Father shows His love for us by giving us the best He has  – His Son – and His Son shows His obedience and trust in the Father – through His willingness to take upon Himself all sin and become a perfect offering back to the Father on our behalf. The Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts chaplain, Fr. Joseph Upton, gave a beautiful homily today at morning Mass in which he emphasized that every day, we too raise up Jesus on the Cross. In every Mass, we have re-presented the sacrifice of Jesus for us. We commemorate His act and we thank Him for it in His gift of Himself to us in the Eucharist. We unite ourselves to the Triumph of the Cross through the Mass.

As sacred artists, on a daily basis, we must attempt to imitate this profound love of God in our creation of artistic works, and in our families and community. Our love must be strengthened by the truth of our faith – and by the triumph of the Cross; when we do this we will understand that the crosses that we carry, and the sufferings that we endure, unite us to the Lord, and help us transform our lives into His. Our Blessed Mother is our model for this transformation.

Tomorrow, September 15th, is the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows. The Invitatory prayer that begins the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours says, “Let us adore Christ, the Savior of the world, who called his mother to share in his passion.” Those words reminded me of a beautiful illuminated miniature by Jed Gibbons, a very fine artist from Chicago. I met Jed when he was teaching at the St. Michael’s Institute for the Sacred Arts at Enders Island in Mystic, CT. Jed has produced some truly inspirational work (his Stations of the Cross in the chapel on Enders Island are exquisite) and this piece that you see below captures not only the theme of the Triumph of the Cross but the truth of the Church’s teaching that Mary shared in the passion of her  Son. This piece is entitled   Maria, Mater Misericordiae (Mary, Mother of Mercy); it was completed in 2006, and was done in historic earth pigments and 23 karat gold. It measures 6.75 by 9.25 inches. I thank the Foundation for the Sacred Arts website for the image.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Image copyrighted by Jed Gibbons All Rights Reserved

 

The Birth of Mary – The Pure Disciple Who Shows Us the Way

We cannot allow this day, September 8th, to slip by without celebrating the nativity of  our Blessed Mother. For as the Invitatory in the Roman Breviary says for today’s feast: “Come, let us celebrate the birth of the Virgin Mary, let us worship her Son, Christ the Lord.”

It is right, and proper, and good that we do this. Inspired by divine Wisdom, the Holy Church of Jesus Christ, has through the years been fractured, tempted, and bruised by the assaults of Satan. Yet, in this feast we remember that we are saved, that Satan, ultimately, has been defeated by the willingness of a young woman to be the Mother of our Savior. It is through the grace filled moment of Mary’s conception and birth that we have the Scriptural road diverge toward final fulfillment of the Divine Will.

As Saint Luke tells us in chapter 1 of his gospel verses 26 ff., her birth began the dramatic shift in the theological paradigm since it provided the opportunity for her to ultimately see, understand, and say a quiet “Yes” to the truths that Gabriel announced to her. Mary, is the pure disciple, and because of that she “… found favor with God… the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you.”  For what end? The end is clear, Gabriel tells her “You shall conceive and bear a son and give him the name of Jesus. Great will be His dignity and he will be called Son of the Most High… hence, the holy offspring to be born will be called the Son of God.”

The sacred image below is by the late 19th century American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner. Of all the sacred art that has been done through the centuries, I believe, this is the best image of that moment of the Annunciation, the moment in which the Old Testament became the New, because it is correct in the manner in which it presents the theological, symbolic (semantic) and artistic truth of that instant in historic time (I thank freechristimages.org/index.htm for the clarity of Tanner’s painting). 

So it is at her birth that we have the road of our spiritual journey fork to the right. Mary’s decisions and actions allowed us to ultimately come to the point in our own life in which we, too, must make a decision. Mary shows us the way (as our Orthodox brothers and sisters would say – hodegetria) to Christ her Son, as she lovingly holds Him in her arms.

The ancient sacred icon, that you see below, is the earliest image of the Blessed Mother holding the Christ child. It is found in the catacombs of Priscilla, on the Via Saleria in Rome, and is dated to circa AD 225.

The sacred art of the early Church desired to express the beauty of the Scriptural truth. As you can see from the following two images – the first a Byzantine icon, and the second a painting by the great 13th century master painter – Duccio, from Siena, Italy. Duccio led a school of painters to infuse a strong sense of the humanity of Jesus and Mary into their figures.

These images, and others like them, continue to have an impact on the hearts and minds of those who are open to their Truth. As simple human beings, and as Catholic artists, it is our delight to not only appreciate them, but, to venerate and delight in the Truth that they convey – all of which was made possible by the birth of a humble Hebrew teenager two thousand years ago.

May she continue to show us the way.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Eternal Now and the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today is the memorial of the Coronation of our Blessed Mother. Sacred icons and images have expressed the Queenship and Coronation of the Holy Theotokos – the Mother of God – for at least 1500 years. The icon The Virgin Salus Populi Romani, a 5th century icon, displayed in the Church of Saint Mary Major in Rome, and seen below, shows the Blessed Mother dressed in typical first century Middle Eastern garb as she holds her Son who gives a blessing. This icon reputed to

be a copy of one that was painted by St. Luke the evangelist who tradition states knew the Blessed Mother and spoke and listened to her .

A 6th century icon of the Blessed Mother and Child displays a coronation theme – in which the Blessed Mother and her Son are in Heaven. Mary sits on her throne with Her Son on her lap, surrounded by St. Theodore on the left and St. George on the right, while two angels look up as the hand of the Father gives a blessing. This icon is found in the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula.

Our iconic images painted (“written”) by orthodox iconographers of both the Latin, Greek, Russian, Coptic, and other Rites agree with the ideas found within our Holy Scriptures. For example, today’s Gospel passage tells us “… the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” This Scripture explains that the Lord willingly takes the initiative to come forth – with hands extended – to meet us and share the reign of His kingdom.

In sacred art we visualize this not only in the extension of Christ’s hands on the cross – but also, in the extension of the infant Jesus’ hands, to give us a blessing, as He sits in His mother’s lap – or is caressed in her arms – an image that is found not only in the above icons but in numerous statues found in Latin Rite churches throughout the world.

Our first reading – from Isaiah – also speaks of Christ in regal terms – as Emmanuel (God is with us) – the “Prince of Peace.” And we can even get apocalyptic and speak of the Books of Daniel and Revelation which recall the truth that the world will be transformed through the birth of the Redeemer, made possible by Mary, (“a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars… who gave birth to a son – a boy destined to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and His throne”). – This woman, our Blessed Mother, enables the incorporation of the reign of God into the world. She is the  woman destined to crush the head of the apocalyptic serpent.

St. John of Damascus speaks about this in the 8th century when he says of the Blessed Mother that she “has become the terror of demons, the city of refuge for those who turn to her. [He has her say:] Come to me in faith, O people, and draw as from a river of grace. Come to me in faith, without doubt, and draw from the mighty and certain source of grace.”

On the solemnity of the Assumption – we recalled Blessed John Paul 2nd saying “…the Assumption of the Mother of Christ in Heaven forms part of the [Lord’s teaching about] His victory over death – the beginning of which is found in the death and resurrection of Christ.”

So in today’s memorial – Mary, the humble daughter of our Heavenly Father, garbed in the majestic robes of a queen takes her place next to the throne of her resurrected and ascended Son.

Why? 

Because the Church desires to teach us that Mary is privileged – beyond all other women and men – to be the first and most significant human being to participate in the glory, triumph, and reign of God. By her very willingness to become the Mother of God – the Theotokos – she agreed to become our spiritual Mother, too.

In this beautiful sacred image by Blessed John of Fiesole, also known as Fra Angelico, the great Dominican artist of 15th century Florence, portrays the moment of Our Lady’s Coronation – with the Heavenly court surrounding her. Interestingly, you see men and women saints that were alive thousands of years after Mary’s assumption observing the event. Why did the good Friar do that? He is expressing the fact that Heaven is within the eternal now of the Trinity – the knowledge of that coronation moment is known by St. Thomas Aquinas – who looks out at the observer (in the lower left corner) – and notes the truth, goodness, and beauty of God in desiring this for His beloved and humble human daughter – the Queen of Heaven.

The Blessed Mother, in her regal beauty, authority, and power, has not left us orphans – for she is “the Living Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Inviolate Mountain, the ladder” that joins Heaven and earth – the “One who Shows the Way” (Hodigitria) to her Son and to our Heavenly reward.

If we remain faithful and loyal to the teachings of Christ – as expressed through our Sacred Scriptures and our Church – and as the Epistle of St. James teaches – “Act on that faith…” then we, too, will reign alongside our Heavenly Mother as we give praise and glory to God.

Our Lady – Queen of Heaven – pray for us.        Sources: John Paul 2, L’Osservatore Romano, August 15, 1983; Pope Pius 12th – encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam, October 11, 1954.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Dormition – Assumption of Mary

Over the past two weeks, our Sunday Gospels have stressed the truth that to be a faithful disciple of Christ we must keep our focus – in good times and bad – on Jesus. On August 15th, the solemnity of the Assumption/Dormition of Mary, the Church again directs our gaze – for in focusing on Mary we see not only our Queen – but the one true sign – the Great Sign – who points the way to her Son.

Her signature was that of a perfect disciple – for she possessed the confident competence and the courageous commitment – of true faith.

In the “fullness of time” – after millennia of human history – the Father of Mercies saw in Mary – a loving and lovable woman who possessed great courage – the person – who in her simplicity and purity would be completely open, totally surrendering, and free from the pollution of pride or self-will.  She was the woman who would be the New Eve – the mother of the living – the mother of a new creation. She is, as the Eastern Rite proclaims, the All Holy Onethe Panagia, who as our spiritual mother shows us the way by guiding us to her Son – and through His grace – enables us to be reborn into eternal life.

It is through our own rebirth, through water and the Spirit, that we are able to bear fruit and imitate Mary in bringing the newborn Christ to others. St. Maximus the Confessor speaks of this when he says “Every soul that believes, conceives and gives birth to the Word of God according to faith. Christ is the fruit – and all of us – are mothers of the Christ.” (quote found in Vladimir Zelinsky’s  “Mary in the Mystery of the Church: The Orthodox Search for Unity” which is contained in Mary CoRedmptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate – Theological Foundations II. M.I. Miravalle, S.T.D., editor).

This beautiful sacred icon was done by one of my teachers – the master Marek Czarnecki of Seraphic Restoration Studio in Meriden, Connecticut. It is done in the traditional egg tempera and measures 13 by 17 inches. It is different from one of the most famous sacred images of  the Italian Renaissance – The Assunta by the master – Titian – yet Czarnecki’s sacred icon is theologically, aesthetically, and semantically correct. Titian painted his Assunta between 1516-18.

Our Catechism (of the Catholic Church, paragraph 966), proclaims that “The Immaculate Virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up – body and soul – into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords, and the conqueror of sin and death”

This proclaims the wonderful news that the Assumption of Mary is a participation in the act of her Son being raised from the dead – and so is a Sign – a Sign that points to our own resurrection and union with God. The Eastern Rite liturgy says on its August 15th celebration of this solemnity: “In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the Source of Life.”

Our Blessed Mother’s words in her beautiful Canticle, and her personal destiny, are inseparably linked to our own – for she is one of us; and by keeping our focus on her Son  – we too – through the grace of God – will experience His mercy which lasts from age to age on those who fear Him.

 

Below Titian’s masterpiece is a traditional Orthodox icon of the Dormition (or falling asleep) of Mary with the grieving apostles surrounding her bed. This icon was painted (“written”) by Irina Kolbneva.

One of the purposes of this blog is that we will explore how a sacred icon is painted (“written”) in the Eastern Church’s tradition and how the Western Church began to explore new avenues of visual expression after being in harmony with the Eastern Church for the first thousand years of our existence.

(Additional sources: The Book of Revelation, Chapter 19; Lumen Gentium, 59; and Pope Pius 12th in his Munificentissimus Deus (November, 1950).  Our Lady of the Assumption, pray for us.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved.