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Feast Day 27 June 2016

 A reflection by Fr Larry Kaufmann CSsR

To read an icon is also to interpret it. It is exactly the same dynamic at work in reading Scripture. Read, reflect, interpret, ponder, pray and act. And, as with the Bible, we can only absorb one passage at a time, sometimes only one verse at a time.

Here I am going to reflect on just one “verse” of the icon, just one symbol, yet very powerful, very meaningful, and perhaps taken for granted: the halo! The halo around Jesus, and the halo around Mary: the rings of light, in pure gold, with an intricate kind of lacework, declaring holiness and spiritual aura on earth, their perfection and glorification in Heaven.

To talk of this, our ordinary human prose is inadequate. Martha Graham, a famous New York dance artist, known for her ‘poetry-in-motion’ and her human movement sculpture, on being asked what her dance meant, replied: “Darlings, if I could have put it in words, I wouldn’t have danced it!”

Yes, words tend to get in the way. As I reflect on this icon, perhaps the best medium to use is the language of poetry. I have chosen a few verses from Dante’s Paradiso (“The Love that moves the sun and other stars”) to form a kind of dialogue – an interplay – between image and word; between icon and logos. Of course, this is not going to be a literature class! It’s just that the words of the poet Dante, who wrote so beautifully about Mary, may enable us to dialogue with the icon, and specifically what the halos represent so importantly.

The halos on the icon are rings of pure gold. Perhaps Dante’s words in his Paradiso describe them well: “…centre to circle or circle to centre.” These simple words contain the profound truth that the halos are extensions of the aura of holiness emanating from Jesus and Mary, from “centre to circle.” At the same time, “circle to centre” perhaps represents the halo of the power of the Holy Spirit surrounding them and moving towards the centre –

  • the Spirit that came upon Mary at the annunciation, and
  • that descended upon Jesus at his baptism.

But Dante goes deeper. Much deeper. He says:

That brightness follows from their inward fire, that fire from vision.

The incomprehensible, the unfathomable, the ineffable mystery and majesty of God! The inward fire, the brightness of it, the living flame of love at the soul’s deepest centre. The brightness of Jesus – Son of God and Saviour, the reflected brilliance of his human mother. But as Dante says, as brightness follows from inward fire, so fire follows from vision: to gaze upon the majesty of God is to be aflame.

And then something marvellous happens: The radiance of Jesus and Mary arches out, like the arc of a solar storm, and draws us into the circle of light. Dante writes:

Look! Round those circles, matched in clarity, a lustre, more than what was there, was born, as though a new horizon, brightening.

Is this conceivable? Is this possible? That we are the “more than what was there”, that we are the lustre, born by baptism, matched in clarity, as God’s work of redemption brings about a new horizon, brightening. This is more than we can hope for or imagine: the breadth and the length, the height and the depth, the mystery beyond all knowledge, filling us with the utter fullness of God.

It is all grace. It is all pure gift. Dante addresses Mary directly:

In you is mercy, in you large-heartedness,In you compassion, and in you is found whatever good exists in any creature.

In you is mercy!  As we pray: Turn then most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy towards us. Help us, as we look into your eyes, to see ourselves as beloved of God. Make us large-hearted in compassion. Merciful, like the Father. Knowing that anything good that exists in us is found in you, and indeed must take its cue from you.

Yes, we can see again. We do have a new vision. We can say with Dante:

And so my eyes, regaining their right strength, lifted once more.

Isn’t that beautiful? My eyes lifted once more. No longer cast down. No longer wallowing in the pool of self-pity, no longer blocked by the barrier of sin. Able to see the fire of love with new vision.

Dante again:   New things begin to rise and form a ring – a halo – beyond the circumscription of these two.

We have been drawn into the divine life. We are the new things that have begun to rise. As we pray in the Eucharistic Preface of Mercy: “Being rich in mercy, you never cease to spur us on to a more abundant life.”

A final word from Dante. Note how it echoes the Magnificat of Mary:

With all my heart and with tongue aflame with gratitude and love,

I made to God a sacrifice of praise befitting this new grace.

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