Homily given on the occasion of the Blessing of the Icon of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Terenure College
The homily was given at Solemn Evening Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent by Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm., on 7 December, 2001. The icon was blessed by Desmond Cardinal Connell, Archbishop of Dublin.
The Carmelite Order throughout the world has celebrated 2001 as a Marian Year, in which the whole Carmelite Family focused on its Mother, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This year the Holy Father wrote two letters to us in which he reminded us that he wished to place Mary at the beginning of the new millennium. He also spoke of the three special titles under which Carmelites venerate her. She is our Mother caring for our spiritual life in Christ. She is our Patron whom we serve and who in turn looks after our interests. She is our Sister, who is always around, a gentle presence in our lives.
Carmelites celebrated the Marian Year with different events in various parts of the world. Here in Terenure we commissioned this beautiful icon that His Eminence will shortly bless. It is the work of Sr. Paula, the leading icon painter in Ireland, who is a nun at the Cistercian Abbey at Glencairn. The icon is based on the venerable picture of Mary, La Bruna in Naples, the most famous image of Mary in Italy after the Salus Populi Romani icon in St Mary Major’s in Rome.
An icon is not any image. There are ancient Church canons and traditions about their painting to which Sr. Paula faithfully adhered, especially in the great amount of prayer that the icon painter must devote to the sacred task. When an icon is meant for public veneration the materials are blessed, and it is finally anointed with the holy oil of chrism by a bishop.
An icon is an image that speaks to us. In fact the most important thing is not so much that we look at the icon, but that we allow Jesus and Mary to look at us through this sacred sacramental image. A quick glance does not allow us to enter its mystery. We must quietly contemplate an icon before it can speak to us.
As we look at this icon, we surely feel that we have come upon Jesus and Mary in a moment of intimacy. We may feel almost like intruders standing on tiptoe in silence, seeing Jesus and Mary expressing their tender love and affection for each other: Mary contemplates her Son who playfully holds her chin and clutches trustingly her mophorion or mantle. But we are not really outsiders: the icon invites us in; Jesus and Mary want to draw us into the mystery of their love.
One of the readings for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which the Church has already begun to celebrate, contains the opening verses of the Letter to the Ephesians (1:3-6.11-12). This text that we have just heard proclaimed outlines in a great sweep the eternal plan into which God continually draws us. Its key ideas are blessing and praise, glory and love. These too are the marks of a great icon. Moreover, the Eastern way of venerating an icon is to bow deeply and make the sign of the Cross. This way of reverencing the icon brings to mind the central mysteries of our faith: the Trinity and the Redemption. This icon can surely teach us more about the mystery of the Incarnation than books or sermons.
We can all experience life as hard; we all feel the challenge of Christianity at times to be very demanding: loving God and our neighbour, keeping the commandments of God and of the Church, and carrying the Cross after Jesus—these are not easy. The Church offers us refreshment at various times in the liturgical year, when we are invited to look up from our cares and rejoice, letting our hearts expand. In the harsh secularism of our society, we can lose any sense of beauty and wonder. The Immaculate Conception is such a moment of calm and wonder. We look to what God has done for Mary and we are reminded of what God would wish to do for all of us.
Beauty cannot be grasped, manipulated or owned. It is always a gift. We can only gaze and enjoy. Icons show us a way into the divine beauty that can sustain and refresh us. This lovely icon of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Terenure College is an invitation to the experience that Francis Thompson expressed in his great poem:
O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Incomprehensible, we clutch thee.
[“In no strange land”]