“WHAT DO YOU SEE?” (Lk 2:16-21): 01 January 2008 (Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Tuesday)
Among the many images of Mary as the Mother of God, this 12th-century icon of the Virgin of Vladimir is my personal favorite. One of the most venerated icons in Russia, it is also known as the Icon of Tenderness not only because Mary holds her child with great tenderness, but also because the child wraps his arm around his mother’s neck and tenderly presses his cheek against hers.
What’s significant about this icon, however, is that Mary is not even gazing at Jesus or showing him any explicit maternal affection. Instead, Mary is gazing at us–and with an almost inscrutable expression that Byzantine art expert Kurt Weitzman describes as a “slight melancholy, as if she were foreseeing the passion of her son.”
I don’t know, but this might well have been the look on Mary’s face when after the shepherds told them what they had heard from the angel, “she kept all these things reflecting on them in her heart.” Hearing the wonderful words of the shepherds, she might have held her child and looked into the future–with uncertainty, perhaps with fear and melancholy. I wonder: Did she see any of what was coming? Did she have any idea, any clue or hint about the terrible fate that awaited her son?
And so on this first day of the year, I turn to the Mother of God and ask this question: “As you gaze at us this new year, what do you think lies in store for us in the world? As you look into our future, what do you see?”
If this past year is any indication, we can’t really be too optimistic about 2008 as any Year in Review will remind us: We were shocked by the news of a university student going on a rampage in Virginia Tech killing 32 unsuspecting students on campus before finally killing himself. We grieved with the parents of Madeleine McCain, the little British girl who disappeared while on vacation with her family in Portugal (she is still missing). We were stunned by the blatant military crackdown on protesters in Myanmar including the arrest of thousands of Buddhist monks. Here in Manila, exasperation reached new heights when a senator and his entourage of military officers walked out of a trial court and occupied a five-star hotel for reasons that to this day we fail to understand. Each day we learn of more killings in the ongoing war in Iraq. Our hearts sink as we continue to understand and experience the effects of climate change. Most recently, we watched in horror the tragic assassination of a leading candidate in Pakistan resulting in widespread political unrest.
Our world this past year has provided enough reason for more than just a slight melancholy. What about the new year? Does the Mother of God see a better year ahead for us? Is there hope for her children?
At the rate we are going, if human history follows its usual trajectory, what she sees is probably not too bright. But as if in response to our question, as the Virgin of Tenderness gazes upon us, she also seems to be gesturing towards her son, as though she is offering him to us as her answer. The way she holds the Christ Child and presents him to us reminds me of a line from Rilke’s poem “Autumn,” a line from which we can take comfort. Rilke writes that even if we are all falling, “… there is One who holds this falling endlessly gently in his hands.”
The icon of Tenderness reminds us that we are in good hands. As we begin the new year, it’s a good feeling to have amidst all the violence and danger in this valley of tears.
(Rainer Maria Rilke)
The leaves are falling, falling as from far off,
as though far gardens withered in the skies;
they are falling with denying gestures.
And in the nights the heavy earth is falling
from all the stars down into loneliness.
We are all falling. This hand falls.
And look at others; it is in them all.
And yet there is One who holds this falling
endlessly gently in his hands.