Sunday, March 27, 2011

Our Lady of Perpetual Help

One of the wonderful things about historic Christianity is the use of images and icons for the edification of God’s people. One particular icon that I am falling in love with the more I learn about it is Our Lady of Perpetual Help (pictured above). It is an icon which dates back to at least the 15th century (possibly further). It is based on the Hodegetria icon, which according to legend was painted by St. Luke (pictured below).

The richness of the imagery in Our Lady of Perpetual Help really is beautiful. I for one was completely unaware of just how deep the thought of the iconographer was. I recently learned some of the deeper truths taught by the icon, and I thought I would share it with you. My prayer is that it will be as much a blessing to you as it was to me.
Firstly, the Greek initials located at various points of the picture...above the angels on the left and right are the names of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel respectively. Above their names is the title “Mother of God”. Next to the Christ Child are the Greek letters for “Jesus Christ”. And so the onlooker is introduced to those depicted in the icon.
The story behind the icon is that it depicts an episode in our Lord’s childhood when he was overwhelmed by fright when the Archangels appeared to Him showing Him the instruments of His Passion. St. Michael presented the lance which pierced His side and the gall-sop with the bowl filled with gall and vinegar. St. Gabriel presented to our Lord the cross and the nails. Our Lord ran to His mother in haste (hence the loose sandal – which may also symbolise those who are clinging to Christ by one last thread).
Upon first glance, it appears that our Lord is disproportionate to our Lady; but upon a closer look you will see that the reason the iconographer did this was so that the outline of our Lord and His Blessed Mother would be one. This is because the Life of our Lord is so closely connected with the life of Mary that it is impossible to separate the two.
The background is gold to depict heavenly glory, where both our Lord and Mary now dwell. This gold shines through their clothing showing that the glories of heaven are made available to us through the Lord and His Mother.
Mary’s right hand, as in the Hodegetria, points us to Christ. Our Lord’s hands in turn rest on hers, but they do not cling. This is to show that whilst our Lord sought Mary’s comfort, He was still her God. Also, His hands are facedown, indicating that it is to her that the graces of His redemption are entrusted.
Mary’s left hand lovingly supports her Son, just as her heart did in His Passion. Our Lord is gazing into the distance contemplating His “fate”; whilst Mary’s eyes are sorrowfully turned towards us, her children.
Mary’s mouth is unusually small – this symbolises that she was often given to silent contemplation; treasuring the Mysteries of Christ in her heart.
There is so much more depth to this icon...and I have only just scratched the surface. If you are interested in learning a little more, here is a link which has a bit of an interactive interface. Have a look, it is really quite well done.

There is so much more that could be said about the colours used, or the various other symbols included in the icon. I suppose that is the beauty of an icon – it leaves much to the contemplation of the beholder. And like the Scriptures, the more time you spend in delving their depths, the more you learn and the deeper your contemplation becomes.
So, next time you come across Our Lady of Perpetual Help...take a few minutes to stop and reflect on the wonders contained within this truly magnificent icon. And as you meditate, may you be led closer to the Lord by the hand of our Blessed Mother.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Mary - a common objection

In some discussions I have had with non-Catholic friends, they have brought up that the Catholic Church has overemphasised the role of Mary because she is hardly mentioned in the New Testament. Unfortunately, what they don’t see is that the Church’s teaching on Mary is based on the Old Testament as well as the New. In addition, and probably more importantly, they sadly don’t realise that “what the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 487). Given that Christ is central to the Scripture, and all that Mary is is based on Christ, it shouldn’t strike us as unusual that Mary is mentioned as “infrequently” in the New Testament as she is.   
Another thing that many non-Catholics fail to recognise is the significance of the New Testament references to Mary. They may be infrequent, but upon closer study it is hard to deny that they are packed with theological significance. This is especially true when one notices that the references are in the context of a critical juncture in the life of Christ or His Church.
Another thing that non-Catholics fail to recognise (well, at least the more conservative ones) is that they hold to the doctrine of the virginal conception and birth of our Lord Jesus Christ although the New Testament references to this event are extremely scant i.e. it is not referred to in the Gospel of Mark or any of the New Testament Epistles. If frequency of reference is the test of whether a teaching is pure doctrine or a traditional perversion then logic would require that the place of Mary in the Church should take ascendency over the doctrine of the virgin birth.
Of course, I’m not advocating that this should be the case. I am simply stating the above by showing how often the teachings of the Catholic Church are wrongly attacked using arguments and methods that are weak and can often be shown to be inconsistent. The truth of the matter is that every single Christian follows a tradition which has its own foundational presuppositions. The litmus test of the validity of the tradition a Christian is following then is not whether it can be “backed by the Bible” (because it is easy to proof-text the Bible to teach anything – as showcased by the thousands upon thousands of Protestant denominations in existence). Rather, the test of truth lies in whether the particular tradition can show continuity with the Apostles.
And I suppose that is my challenge to Christians who are reading this you care enough about the truth to take the time to really dig into the roots of your own tradition? Do you know for certain that it is the tradition of the Apostles? Where did your tradition originate? When? How? Take some time to make an honest study of might be surprised with what you find. Either way, it can’t be a bad thing – at the very least you will be more firmly established in knowing why you are part of your particular Christian community.

Friday, March 18, 2011

One Baptism

Below is a link to a short (and excellent) article by Mark Shea on the Sacrament of Baptism and how the Anabaptists "broke faith" with Apostolic Christianity by denouncing the "one baptism" of the Scriptures and the Creed:

Monday, March 14, 2011

Why Practice Penance?

For some time now I have received the monthly CHNI newsletter (CHNI = Coming Home Network International). The newsletter generally follows the format of a conversion story by someone who has "come home" to the Catholic faith (hence the name of the newsletter); which is followed by a short theological article (usually on a topic that is distinctively Catholic for those who might be grappling with them).

Of all the newsletters I have received over the months I have never found even one that hasn't been beneficial in some shape or form. The newsletter for March 2011 has a very interesting article on the practice of penance, and I'd really encourage you to read it:

The newsletter is only 12 pages long (in PDF format) and the article can be found on pg 10. Of course, if you have time and are interested, the conversion story is also quite interesting because it touches briefly on the character of the Protestant Reformers and the notions of sola fide and sola scriptura.

Enjoy! And God bless...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Christian response to the natural disasters

A question that has troubled people for countless ages is the problem of evil. If God is all-powerful and good, how is it possible that evil can exist in our world? How is it possible that God can allow terrible things to happen, such as the recent earthquakes in Christchurch and Japan that have claimed so many lives?

I won’t pretend to be able to delve into the depths of God’s mind and understand why all these things happen. But part of what practising our faith is about, is to grapple with these issues and at least come to some kind of an understanding.

Here is my own brief explanation that I gave to a dear Christian brother who asked me the question. Of course, it is brief and probably doesn’t do justice to the full breadth of the subject. Also, like I said, it is delving into things that we don’t I am more than happy to stand corrected if I am wrong. May God deal mercifully with me as I seek to understand these things myself...  

When God created everything, it was perfect and He put it under the dominion of mankind, which was also created perfect (see Gen 1:27-28). When God created Adam and Eve He also gave them a free will, which means that they were free to choose whether to obey or disobey God. As long as Adam and Eve obeyed God they would have life because God is Life. But because they disobeyed they were cut off from this Life and so death entered the world because of their sin (Rom 5:12) just as God said it would (Gen 2:16-17). God’s warning wasn’t so much to say that He wanted to punish them if they disobeyed; rather, it was a warning because He loved them and didn’t want them to be cut off from His Life.

But Adam and Eve chose to sin...and so they caused death and devastation to enter the world because they chose to be cut off from the Life of God. And because God placed the whole of creation under them, it too is now subject to death, decay, and destruction (Rom 8:22).

So, when people die, or there are natural disasters, it is not necessarily because God is punishing someone. It is because by mankind’s free choice to sin, everything in creation is subject to destruction. And this is evidenced around us in major catastrophic events like earthquakes and tsunamis; and also in the “smaller” realities of death and sickness.

But, thanks be to God, that’s not where the story ends...because God is in control and God is Love. He loved us so much that He would not leave us in death and sin. So He sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to die on the cross so that we could be restored to Him and have communion in His Life again. That is why the Bible shows Jesus to be the New Adam and Mary to be the New Eve. God is making a New Creation...and if we are Christians we are new creations in Jesus (2 Cor 5:17). Slowly but surely, through the Lord Jesus Christ, God will restore everything that He created so that it is completely in Him and full of His Life again (1 Cor 15:28).

And so we see that God is indeed working all things together for good for those who love Him and show that love through their obedience to Him (Rom 8:28).

What is truly wonderful about this being restored to God is that every time we have the privilege of attending Mass, we are able to partake in the Life of God when we receive our Lord Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament (Jn 6:51). Although we only receive the smallest of morsels, we can rest assured that if we are receiving our Lord worthily that He is slowly but surely transforming us and changing us by His Life in us.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Lent 2011

This Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent with the observation of Ash Wednesday. For those who don’t know, Lent is a period of 40 days leading up to Easter in which the Church traditionally prepares herself for Easter. The idea is that during this 40 day period we give ourselves more devotedly to works of prayer, fasting, and charity. It is a time in which we unite ourselves to our Lord in His 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. It is an opportunity to trust in God’s grace to assist us as we seek to practice discipline and self-mortification in our lives.
Like many Catholics, the period leading up to Lent can be quite interesting as we toss up the various things that we would like to “give up” for our Lord.
For Lent this year, I have decided that for my “fasting” I will endeavour to give up Facebook and spend the time more productively. As part of my works of prayer during Lent I hope to pray a Rosary for a different friend on each day of Lent.
So, if you don’t see me on Facebook, or if I haven’t responded to a message you have sent me, know that it is for a good reason J In the words of Arnie “I’ll be back” – and in the meantime, I will be lifting you up in prayer.
May God bless you over this Lenten season as you seek to draw nearer to Him in preparation for the greatest Feast of all – the Celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
P.S. If you’re a stickler for details like I am, you may have taken the time to work out that the number of days from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday is not actually 40 – it is more like 44. This is because Lent does not include Sundays, which are Feast Days and as such are days of joy and celebration; whereas Lent is a time of fasting and penance. So, I might just sneak a peak at Facebook on Sundays (and also link my latest blog).