This is a written version of a homily I delievered for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is the third and written version of the homily. The first two I preached from a mind map. I've added more precise details in this written version. I'm posting this homily because Atoy and some scholastics who were at JR for the 8 December Mass and others have asked for copies of it. It's a bit long.
Homily on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception
8 December 2006
Chapel of St. Thomas More, Rockwell, Makati City
Ateneo de Manila Jesuit Residence, Domestic Chapel, Quezon City
R. Javellana, S.J.
An Image Restored
In 2006, the Jesuits worldwide celebrated the jubilee of the first companions, Sts. Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier and Blessed Peter Faber. Every province of the Society celebrated the jubilee in its own way. Typically Italian, the Province of Italy embarked on a restoration of a much beloved image of the Virgin, an image before whom St. Ignatius prayed and entrusted the fledgling Society. This is the Madonna della Strada (Our Lady of the Way) kept in the Gesu. This followed the restoration of an antique crucifix also in the same church. The cleaned and restored della Strada was reinstalled in its chapel in a public liturgy in October, presided by Cardinal Ruini, vicar of Benedict XVI for Rome.
In Ignatius’ time, the image used to be in the funerary chapel of the Astalli family. Ignatius with characteristic Jesuit savvy was able to acquire the property and the land surrounding it for the church and the professed house of the Gesu. The building of the church was many years in future. Although Ignatius was present at the cornerstone laying ceremony in which is personal friend Michaelangelo (first tasked with designing the church) was present, the church was not completed until the term of the third general of the Society, St. Francis Borgia.
To build the church, the small chapel had to be demolished. The artists and architects gingerly removed the image of the Madonna, and kept if for a while at San Marco until a chapel built for it was completed.
This side chapel is located to the left of the Gesu’s main altar as one is facing it. Over the years the chapel was embellished with precious marbles and metal casting, and with paintings by the Jesuit Valeriano and a lay artist G. Pozzi.
The della Strada chapel is one of the serene spots in Rome. Even if it is beside a busy street and near a major thoroughfare, Corso Victor Emmanuel, the stillness inside is palpable. High above the chapel’s altar is the image, squarish, not large at all, a mere 68 x 75 cm.
Inspection of the della Strada as we have come to know it shows the reason why cleaning and restoration were urgent. The face of Mary and the Christ-Child had darkened with age, and the paint around it had become uneven, indicating that air pockets had developed under the paint and that it was pulling away from its support.
The restoration of the image was underway by 2006 and took a long time to complete. The restoration came up with a number of technical and iconographic surprises.
First, the original della Strada was not an oil painting as had been assumed but a fresco attached to two layers of canvas, painted slate gray. Fresco is a water-based technique involving painting on a fresh layer of lime plaster. In other words, in fresco painting the work is done directly on the wall. How the artists in the 16th century were able to get a thin layer of fresco and attach it to canvas with minimum damage attest to the Italian skill in art.
Second, over time at least two layers of painting retouches, using oil, were done on the image. These touches obscured important details. Besides, devotees imposed a chased silver crown and necklaces studded with jewelry on the image. And on the Madonna a pair of dangling earrings.
Third, when the later layers were removed, the iconographic surprise! Mary and Jesus were not enveloped in a deep blue veil, almost bordering in black nor was Jesus’ tunic red but greenish and his cape red. And Mary does not wear a blue veil but gold. The book that Jesus holds is sealed with a golden clasp (much deteriorated unfortunately).
Fourth, restoration uncovered the hands of Mary and a foot of the Christ-child. Jesus is seated in the manner of the Pantocrator. Mary’s left holds the Child, and the right points outward in a gesture of invitation. She and the Christ-child now look more intently at the devotee, now that the dark brown layer of oil varnish has been removed.
I want to use this image of pealing layers to reflect on the faith-reality of the feast we celebrate today, Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
If there is any objection to Catholic devotion to Mary, which is often heard from non-Catholics, it is that Catholics adore Mary as a goddess. We certainly hear this from tele evangelists and occasionally as a question from students in our schools. Yes, there is much that can be mistaken as Mariolatry, the golden crown and scepter, the orbs, the jewelry and the velvet dresses embroidered in gold and silver thread. Then, there are the litany of titles, some praising her highly and extravagantly that she appears almost co-equal with Jesus Christ, the unique Savior.
Artists no doubt have been party to this “divinization” of Mary. Consider Giotto’s cycle of paintings depicting scenes from Mary’s life. Here we find the “Presentation of Mary.” If Jesus had to be presented in the temple so should Mary. But Mary’s presentation is not Biblically founded because the strictures of the Jewish Torah applied to males only. So when medieval storytellers wove the tales and artists painted the scene it was not about a rite of purification for the mother and ransoming for the male but a story akin to the fate of young marriageable girls whom the nobility kept in nunneries until a suitable husband was found. But the trope was called “Presentation of Mary,” maintaining the parallelism between Jesus and Mary.
We can multiply examples where Catholic piety and devotion have painted Mary as just “too divine” for comfort. Just too different from us that she seems to belong no longer to the realm of earth but of heaven. And no title of Mary appears to set her apart, more apart, than “Immaculate Conception.” None of us have shared this grace to be free from all sin from the moment of conception, only she who was to be Theotokos, the God-bearer.
Contemporary Marian theology is pealing off this layers of “divinization” that Catholic enthusiasm has imposed on Mary in a search to discover who she really is and what she could mean to our Christian life. This pealing off has become a bridge between Catholic and mainstream Protestants who are discovering a new interest, even devotion, to the Virgin. A theme that has come up in Protestant theology and a trope that appeals is the image of Mary as the first disciple.
It is in the light of Mary as first disciple—first because she said her fiat to the divine will early in the story of salvation, first because she is exemplar—that I suggest we understand the meaning of the feast we celebrate today. Mary was immaculately conceived not through any merits of her own but as pure gift from God in preparation for her unique role as the mother of the Christ. This immaculate conception is undeserved gift at the heart of her vocation just as our talents, intelligence, health and other faculties are undeserved gifts given to us at the heart of our vocations. Just as we are to guard and develop our talents, lest we hear the Gospel condemnation addressed to the worthless servant, so Mary had to make capital of the divine grace she received. Her preservation from the stain of sin molded her as a worthy vessel of the divine.
Mary was to be God-bearer, who would not compromise or adulterate what she bore but offer it to the world and humankind in all starkness and beauty. She was to use a medieval metaphor as clear as crystal to show God's reality. She was the one who would bear the passionate, long-suffering, mysterious love of God for all. This love which embraces us while we were still far off, while we are sinner. This love which loves first, which love without boundaries. And this love molded her vocation.
Did she the young girl at Nazareth, still in teens (as tradition has it) anticipate all the pains that she too had to endure because she was to be the vessel, the mother of Jesus? Did she anticipate the taunts, the whispers and the meaningful glances from her neighbors and kinsfolk when she was found pregnant? The movie currently showing, The Nativity, captures vividly the stories and stares in Nazareth that surrounded this scandalous pregnancy. Did she anticipate the pain of separation as Jesus left home, or the greatest of all pain when Jesus left her for the Father, through the painful door of the passion and crucifixion?
She who is Inmaculada is also Dolorosa. Or to use the alternate name in Spanish, La Angustia—the Anguished One, pining, weeping in this “valley of tears” until the revelation of the Risen Christ who whispers to her the name “Mary ” as Wipo of Burgundy  suggests in the Easter Sequence, Victimæ Paschali?
Did the immaculate one anticipate all these when she said, “yes” to the message of the angel Gabriel, as Luke’s gospel tells us today? Probably not. But what she did was to embrace in total faith, lively hope and burning love, the angelic invitation.
Repetitio: della Strada
Cleaning and restoring the image of the della Strada have made art historians conclude that the image is older than the 15th century provenance formerly attributed to it. Examining its stylistic elements, the image is now believed to be about a hundred years older than previously thought. It has been assigned the date, between the second half of the 13th century and the first half of the 14th. This means that the della Strada is not an image of the Renaissance but of the late Byzantine in its Western stream.
If Byzantine, then the rules of interpretation of this tradition should be applied to the Madonna della Strada. I suggest this is how we should read the image.
That Jesus wears a green tunic and a red cape means that he is being portrayed as a martyr. Egon Sendler in Icon: Image of the Invisible (pp. 158-159) explains that green is the color of nature; it expresses the life of vegetation. (It is the color of the tree of life or the cross.) “It is youth and vitality,” quoting Pseudo-Dionysus (14). It is the color of hope. It is the usual color of the tunic of martyrs. Red signifies the “the life that the Savior brings to men by the shedding of his blood” (Sendler, 156). It is the color of martyrdom. Hence, Jesus’ vesture speaks of the future saving death, which is already written as the vocation of Jesus even as a child.
Mary wears gold. Gold is the quintessential Byzantine color because it is the closest to light. It signifies heaven and the resurrection. Gold and white are the two colors often associated with the risen Christ.
Weaving together then this symbolism of color and the gestures of the Madonna and Child, we come to a more profound understanding of the name “Madonna della Strada.” Mary is not Our Lady of the Way because the chapel where the image was originally located was along a side street in Rome. If that were the case, then many other images of the Virgin would have qualified as Our Lady of the Way for there are dozens of Roman churches along waysides. She is the Lady of the Way because she bears in her arms the Christ of the Passion. That same Christ holds the closed book, symbolic either of the Book of Life, the roster of all those saved through Jesus, or of the Gospel that leads to life.
But the context—the throne, the vessel—that holds the Christ is clothed in gold of the resurrection, in the purest and most immaculate light of heaven.
She is Our Lady of the Way because she invites us to come to Jesus THE WAY. No wonder, Ignatius cherished this image. It was a visual interpretation of the triple colloquy that appears again and again in the Spiritual Exercises. First, we go to Mary who leads us to Jesus, the Way to the Father. It was for Ignatius an icon of what he was all about and what he believed the Christian vocation is all about—to fall under the Standard of Christ with Mary interceding for us.
Mary can rightfully lead us to Jesus because she herself has walked The Way first.
She, the first disciple, whose vocation was to nourish, protect and cherish The Way, as only a mother can. A mother with the most Immaculate heart of all.