THE HOLY FACE - Dominican Nuns Ireland

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The Saviour painted not by Human Hands
(Moscow 1st half of the 13th century)
This Icon, belonging to the Jaroslavl school, was discovered in 1966 in the village of Novoe near Jaroslavl.

A regular type of icon, it is among the most ancient and venerated. It is the Holy Face impressed on Veronica’s cloth as the draping of the cloth that surround’s Christ’s head indicates. While there is no explicit mention of Jesus meeting with Veronica in the Gospels, tradition down the centuries has lovingly pondered this moment of the Stations of the Cross.

We see here the features of Christ’s humanity, the large eyes, so deep and merciful, of which John of the Cross was to write so movingly:

You looked with love upon me,
And deep within your eyes imprinted grace
Your mercy sets me free,Held in loves embrace,
To look with love adoring on your Face.

We return our Saviour’s look with a sense of wonder:

“who wouldst thou find to love ignoble thee
save me, save only me”
F. Thompson

The gaze of those eyes is so mysterious and deep that any word which tries to describe them is inadequate. Jesus looks directly at us, confronting us with His penetrating gaze. They are large open eyes accentuated by dark brows and deep shadow. They are not severe and judgmental, but one feels they see all. Jesus longs for us to allow Him to look deeply into our hearts, and to realise just how much he loves us, even in our poverty and emptiness. This face to face experience leads us to the heart of the great mystery of the Incarnation which none of the terrible torture he endured could destroy. We see His tender Humanity saying to us: “ fear not little flock”. Those eyes that he turns to His Father see also the great pain of humankind in our 21st century – the wars, the injustice, the huge natural disasters etc. But they see also the goodness and beauty of so many little people who put their “last penny” into the treasury.

Can we, as we look at Jesus, understand, even a little, the yearning in the heart of God?

“Come back to me, abide in my love.”
“As the Father loved me, so I have loved YOU”

Oh the wonder of God loving me! Do I really believe this?

“See the wounds on my face for you.
Know that I am constant in my love for you.”

This icon of our Saviour painted not by human hands still holds another mystery for us : the mystery of Transfiguration, when we see ourselves, our emptiness, our poverty, we could be discouraged. But Jesus can fill our emptiness, etc. … It’s not how much we really have to “give” but how empty we are, so that He can shape us into his own likeness, can write His own image, “icon”, in our hearts.

To realise that we have God Almighty stooping so low as to love you and me, making us feel that He really needs us. This is the deepest kind of icon painted not by human hands, but by our Father in Heaven. And if, while Jesus is writing His icon in our hearts, we feel the pain of His brush, Mother Teresa has a word to strengthen us in one of her most beautiful sayings:

“Sorrow, suffering is but a kiss of Jesus,
a sign that you have come so close to Jesus
that He can stoop down and kiss you.
I hope we are close enough for him to do it”

And so there is no need for us to be envious of Veronica and her towel. Jesus is imprinting his own image on our hearts too – every moment – if only we can surrender to His brush.

Another profound theological meaning of this icon is that it teaches us that there is nothing that is simply made by the work of human hands, that every visible reality is always a miracle and for it, to be revealed in its mystery, it has to be believed in and consequently seen through the eyes of the spirit.

The icon is always a manifestation, the revelation of the divine humanity and the incarnate divinity of Christ: the background colours, the characteristic red of the Jaroslavl School, the blue and gold are the symbol of majesty, humanity, and divinity. The large eyes are the truth in which the believer looks at himself in order to discover his own icon. The very small mouth indicates the circle of silence, the abyss that surrounds the Father, from where issues a voice that reveals the divine presence – “You, who are inaccessible and so wonderfully close” as the Byzantine liturgy puts it in song.

Bl. Henry Suso once prayed:

“Adorable Face, mirror of every perfection, on which the angels rejoice to gaze eternally and live, a dew of blood now bathes you! How often have I not contemplated this loving face all bruised and disfigured! Why could I not draw near with Veronica to contemplate it yet more fully? Would that I could hold in my heart the sorrow of every heart to mourn you; to gather into my own eyes the tears of all who weep over you; and to let my lips give forth the pent up lamentation of all humankind, that you might know how closely knit to yours is my soul in your hour of suffering.”

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Monastery of St Catherine of Siena
The Twenties,
Co, Louth,
A92 KR84

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