An Icon Of Vulnerability

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By Hannah Graham

Among the many venerable icons kept revered in church walls and homes, one that has always stood out to me is that of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.  I have a copy that has hung above my kitchen sink for over a year, given to me by my mother at college graduation. Many times it has been a subtle and needed reminder that holiness does not mean hiding fear or doubt; instead, it means remaining vulnerable with the Lord even in our distress. 

If you haven’t encountered it, the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is a 15th century Byzantine icon reportedly painted by Saint Luke.  It features Our Lady holding the child Jesus in the center of the painting, with two small angels pictured in the right and left corners of the image (Sts. Michael and Gabriel, respectively).  What is striking about this icon, though, is the emotions the artist portrayed through the embrace of Jesus and Mary. In the image, the two angels are holding the weapons of the passion; Michael carries a lance and sponge while Gabriel holds a cross and nails.  The pivotal moment of the image is found in Jesus’ body language. Jesus’ body is turning toward Mary for comfort as she holds him against her heart, yet his attention remains on the cross and is shown kicking off a shoe in response.  

The insight of this icon lies in the portrayal of Jesus’ raw emotion: he sees the cross he must face and immediately becomes fearful.  He is kicking, presumably throwing a fit as an infant, and looking for a sense of comfort from his mother. It is, ultimately, a profoundly human response to suffering.  Jesus, being both human and divine, experiences the emotions we do; fearing, and even wanting to turn away from, suffering when he is called to take it on. In his humanity, Jesus openly wrestles with serious anxiety, doubts, and temptations.  

The image is a powerful reminder to remain vulnerable with both ourselves and the Lord when we grapple to face the crosses we’ve been given.  It means we turn away from shame when we grapple with suffering, allow ourselves to be honest with the Lord, and receive the grace to take on our cross.  Ultimately, it means being okay with our weakness.

Famed researcher Brene Brown has a renowned Ted Talk on the need for vulnerability in order for people to connect with others.  She says, “Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won't be worthy of connection?. . .This idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”  This is just as true in our relationship with God as our relationships with other people. Often, we become fearful the Lord won’t see us as worthy of himself if we do not initially receive our cross with grace and courage. We falsely believe we should accept our sufferings without any emotional response, plea, or questions asked. 

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Yet, the truth remains that Jesus agonized over the cross.  Prior to the passion, Jesus sweat blood from extreme stress and fear, knowing the suffering Calvary was going to demand of him.  He would experience acute physical pain, the betrayal and abandonment of friends, and, in the end, death. So, in great vulnerability Jesus turned to the Father and revealed his fears, praying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

In this moment, Jesus shows true vulnerability that allows for authentic connection.  While he believes that the Father’s will is the perfect path, he is also willing to trust the Father with the sorrows that plagues his heart.  In his divinity and humanity, Jesus simultaneously asks to have this cup removed while also desiring to follow the will of the Father. There are times in our life when the crosses in our relationships, vocation, or daily living feel too heavy to take on.  We can find this occurring even when what we want most is the Father’s will. In those moments, though, it is crucial that we remain dependent upon him for connection and, ultimately, strength and solace. 

As she notes in her Ted Talk, Brene Brown found in her research that the people who were courageous enough to be vulnerable all had one thing in common: they believed they were worthy of love and belonging.  She says that because of their willingness to be vulnerable and their belief in their own dignity they became more genuine: “As a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do that for connection (emphasis added).”  To maintain true connection with the Lord we should not be ashamed to share who we are with him, fragility and all.  In our fallen condition we tend to fear being seen when, in reality, God is the only one who always recognizes our innate dignity and provides us with a true sense of belonging.  He desires to send us grace, angels, and strength to carry our crosses precisely because he believes we are worthy of him despite any shortcomings. When we trust in the Lord’s love for us, even in our weakest moments, we are remaining open to a more intimate and authentic relationship with him.

In this icon, the child Jesus reminds us of the need to be vulnerable when we suffer- to kick our shoes off, cry out to the Lord, and depend upon his grace.  In remaining honest about the crosses we wrestle with, we allow for humility to overcome shame. This kind of openness allowed Jesus to give over his daunting fears to the Father who strengthened him in return.  When we approach the Lord with this same humility and vulnerability we are able to find genuine connection with him, allowing him to provide the consolation and strength we need when we find ourselves under the weight of a cross.