“Reading” a Marian Eucharistic Icon

Scripturally, Theologically, and Liturgically

This icon has a double appellation. The first is that of place, Our Lady of Connecticut, because its basic symbols are derived from the state’s shield and motto. Its second designation is that of grace, Virgin Mother of the Holy Vine, from which her spirituality originates.

The following introductory statement by Aaron Joseph, my assistant during the genesis of the icon, spells out the essential blessings of this “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:46).

“The icon of Our Lady of Connecticut — Virgin Mother of the Holy Vine — is not merely a grace given to those who live in the state of Connecticut, for we have in this icon a grace that is rich, deep and universal, and by reflecting on the events as they took place, one cannot miss the hand of God in its creation.” It can be said to be rich scripturally, deep theologically, and universal liturgically. The devotions highlighted in this icon offer insights into Our Lady’s place in our salvation, as can be seen when we reflect on the scriptures and the liturgies honoring her.

“Reading” this Unique Icon

Because frequently icons are full of symbols encoding an inspired message that is foundational to a school of spirituality, icons have been considered “written” and not painted, requiring it to be “read” to appreciate its spiritual wealth. Such could be said of the icon of Our Lady of Connecticut — Virgin Mother of the Holy Vine.

This icon is based on that known traditionally as Our Lady of Protection. It recalls her deliverance of Constantinople from a plague or a foreign invasion in the mid-ninth century. She appeared in a crowded church to two saints with her veil spread over the people. It is reported that they heard her pray to her Son: “O heavenly King, accept all those who pray to you and call upon my name for help. Do not let them go away from my icon unheard.” It became one of the most popular devotions in the Eastern Church.

That image was transformed into that of Our Lady of Connecticut — Virgin Mother of the Holy Vine — due to its special adaptation.

The Icon’s Origin

The story of this icon begins at the time of the 1993 World Youth Day at Denver, Colorado, during which an icon of Our Lady of the New Advent was presented to Pope John Paul II. The iconographer, Fr. William McNichols, skillfully integrated symbols of Colorado into the traditional icon of Our Lady of the Sign of Isaiah. The robes of Our Lady are in the Advent colors of purple and rose, while the Christ Child, instead of holding a scroll, holds the state flower, the columbine. The background has hints of the Rocky Mountains.

At that time, I was assistant at St. Martha’s Church in Enfield, Connecticut. Upon seeing that icon, the thought came to me, “If Colorado can have a local icon, why not Connecticut?” With the Colorado icon as a reference, I got to work researching proper Connecticut state symbols and, importantly, an icon to adapt.

I presented my ideas to a young Connecticut iconographer, Marek Czarnecki, who now is nationally recognized. A professional cabinet maker was asked to make a triptych. It was elaborate and was donated by his employer. A woman, in gratitude for some spiritual counseling, was very happy to sponsor the icon, especially because it was of Our Lady.

Although commissioned with an August due date, all were delayed. Then, providentially, the icon, the triptych, and payment all came in the same week in October for the Feast of the Holy Rosary.

Icons usually encode a message inspiring meditation. The Connecticut state shield includes three grape vines representing the three original townships of the colony and a banner with the state motto “Qui Transtulit, Sustinet” — He who transplanted still sustains.

As for the icon choice, the banner reminded me of the traditional image of Our Lady of Protection, recalling the apparition of her holding a veil over Constantinople. It was easy to place the state motto onto the draped veil. On one side of her is a small angel holding a baptismal shell while on the other side an angel holds the Eucharist. She is portrayed in the traditional blue robe with a red mantle. The blue folds resemble gothic arches to represent her as Mother of the Church.

She stands majestically in a green field with three grape arbors. Running across is a streamlet representing the Connecticut River, the longest river in New England. At the bottom two corners are laurel plants, the state flower.

The Scriptural Dimension

A scriptural interpretation was easy to find. The grapes immediately bring to mind what Our Lord said at the Last Supper, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” as recorded in John 15:5. As for the motto, St. Paul, in Colossians 1:13, states, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” Our deliverance and transference occur at baptism. Then God the Father sustains us in that kingdom by the Eucharist.

Her holy name “Maria,” below the angels, recalls the Annunciation in Luke 1:25 when the Archangel Gabriel was sent to a virgin whose name was Mary. Her wholehearted acceptance of God’s will at that moment began the marvelous renewal of creation through the Incarnation. This indicates our indebtedness to her and the basis for our devotion to her. Her perpetual virginity is commemorated by the traditional three stars on her forehead and on both shoulders. As Queen, she wears the royal slippers of a Byzantine empress.

This also brings to mind the biblical Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, which was to replicate, in a certain sense, the initial relationship with God experienced in the Garden of Eden at the original creation but lost through disobedience. Grass is needed for milk and flowers to produce honey. Water is a scriptural symbol of the Holy Spirit. That it runs across the entire terrain indicates his holy presence throughout the new creation.

The three arbors represent the three states of life in the Church: clergy, religious, and laity. These arbors are under Mary’s extended mantle. She thus protects all in the Church.

She is the image of the Church, as the arch-like folds symbolize, who gives us supernatural life through the sacraments, especially baptism and Eucharist. The white cloth now symbolizes the robe of supernatural grace received at baptism by which we become children of God the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. We receive these through the Church symbolized by Mary.

Taken together, this image represents creation renewed by the Paschal Mystery of Christ, who is portrayed above Mary, as the New Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45). Our Lady stands crushing a serpent’s head, symbolizing her victory over Satan, the instigator of evil in the Garden of Eden. She, therefore, is the new Eve, the Mother of the Living (Genesis 3:20), already believed as such in the second century. This is the fulfillment of the Proto-Gospel, declared in Genesis 3:15, by which the universal curse would be removed by a savior.

Scriptural Spirituality of Mary, Virgin Mother of the Holy Vine

The grapes immediately bring to mind what Our Lord said at the Last Supper as recorded in John 15: “I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch that does not bear fruit and everyone that does, he prunes so that it bears more fruit . . . By this is my Father glorified that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” Since this is within the Last Supper discourse, the theme of the vine and branches is Eucharistic.

Our Lady’s relationship to the Holy Vine is included in Msgr. Anthony La Femina’s exceptional study Eucharist and Covenant in John’s Last Supper Account (New Hope Publications). The Eucharistic sacrifice establishes the New Covenant. “By this Covenant is formed ‘the true vine’ . . . This vine grows by the light of the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit through Mary.”

Mary, who treasured and pondered these things in her heart (Luke 2:19) is the perfect Disciple of the Lord and therefore, as Mother of each member of the Church, the mystical Body of her Son, is prepared by the fullness of her grace, to assist us in our call to fruitful Eucharistic holiness. As Pope Benedict XVI alerted us, “Mary gives us the eyes and heart to contemplate her Son in the Eucharist.” And so it is with this Connecticut icon with its sacramental signs, centered on baptism and the Eucharist, presented through the scriptural analogy of the vine and the branches.

Theological Bases for this Devotion

The following references to St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Ven. Pius XII give a theological perspective to this title of Mary. “Above all, I emphasize the need for a Eucharistic spirituality modeled on Mary, Woman of the Eucharist.” That quote, from the Year of the Eucharist letter by St. John Paul II, Mane Nobiscum Domine, alludes to the last section of his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, “The School of Mary, Woman of the Eucharist.” Its importance is indicated by his adamant position on the significance of Mary in relationship to the Eucharist. He additionally pointed out that “Mary is the most perfect teacher of that love which enables us to be united in the deepest way with Christ in his Eucharistic presence.”

Pope Benedict XVI, on May 14, 2005, said simply, “A sure way of remaining united to Christ, as branches to a vine, is to have recourse to the intercession of Mary.”

The Venerable Pope Pius XII referred directly to Our Lady as Mother of the Vine in his address to the Canadian National Marian Congress at Ottawa in 1947. At the Annunciation, the Blessed Virgin Mary, he noted, “became the Mother of God in the physical order but in the supernatural order of grace she became Mother of all, who through the Holy Spirit would be made one under the headship of the Son. The Mother of the Head would be Mother of the members. The Mother of the Vine would be the Mother of the branches . . . The filial love of Mary prompts us to dwell for a space in prayerful meditation . . . But time does not permit us.”

The subject is attractive to him, but he regrets the shortage of time to do so on that occasion. He thereby made it a magisterial teaching and authenticated this title as a mystery to be delved into profoundly as the basis for a special spirituality. Therefore, it can be the foundation of a distinct Marian Eucharistic spirituality developed through “prayerful meditation” and study.

This doctrine is portrayed in a vision granted to Blessed Dina Belanger, a Religious of Jesus and Mary in Quebec, Canada, on June 4, 1928. In her autobiography, she recorded:

Our Lord, God made man, showed me His adorable Heart in the sacred Host . . . Both His Heart and the Host were perfectly united, so united with one another that I could not explain how I could distinguish between the two. From the Host, there emanated an immense number of rays of light. From His Heart there came forth a tremendous number of flames, issuing as if in dense floods.

The Most Blessed Virgin was there, so close to Our Lord that she seemed to be absorbed by him, and yet I saw her as distinct from Him . . . All the light from the Host and the flames from the Heart of Jesus passed through the Immaculate Heart of the Most Blessed Virgin . . . In addition, the Most Holy Virgin was drawing souls towards her so as to lead them to the Eucharistic Heart. Finally, I saw a countless multitude of angels around the Eucharistic Heart, a multitude also reaching as far as the eye could see. In their heavenly language, they repeated: “Glory to the immortal King of ages!”

The rays from the Host can represent the graces of enlightenment of the mind for proper understanding of this sacrament, while the flames can represent the graces of ardent union of the Heart of Jesus with ours. In this way we are instructed that the Eucharist is the Bread of Life, Light and Love.

Since Jesus spoke of the vine and branches at the Last Supper, the title is Eucharistic. The application of it to Our Lady by both Popes makes it a Marian title as well. Therefore, it can be the foundation of a distinct Marian Eucharistic spirituality developed through “prayerful meditation” and study, as the Venerable Pope Pius XII stated. This identifies her as the Mediatrix of Eucharistic Holiness.

The Liturgical Dimension of this Devotion

St. John Paul II brings to our attention that “the Church’s liturgy teaches” (St. Joseph Gems p. 57), forming our worship at the center of which is the Mass. The liturgical year commemorates the mysteries comprising Christ’s life, death and glorification through which the wisdom, power, healing, peace and mercy of the Paschal Mystery become available to us.

Because of Our Lady’s unique and total union with Christ in these mysteries, the Church celebrates the mystery of Mary liturgically especially in its Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In volume 1, the Sacramentary, there are 46 Masses divided according to the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter, which emphasize her participation in the salvific life of her Son. Finally, there is Ordinary Time, which has its Masses grouped into sections by themes. The first section derives its titles from Scripture or Our Lady’s relationship to the Church. Those in the second section express her cooperation in the development of the spiritual life of the faithful. The third collection emphasizes her compassionate intercession for those who invoke her merciful assistance.

The second volume presents the appropriate Scripture readings for each Mass.

The spirituality of the Virgin Mother of the Holy Vine can be drawn from the following two sources. First, there is the Mass of Holy Mary, Fountain of Light and Life from the Easter season. The second refers to her relationship to the Church, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Image and Mother of the Church.

From the beginning the Mass from the Easter season introduces Paschal themes. Overcoming the darkness of sin by the atoning passion, the Church addresses Mary as Mother of Light. That is in accord with the motto which speaks of our transferal from darkness to Christ’s kingdom of light in Colossians 1:13. She thus became “the model of the Church, our mother, bringing to new birth in the chaste waters of baptism a people of faith.”

The Opening Prayer continues stating that the “children of this earth” are given “a new birth as children of heaven,” symbolized by the white robe of grace in Mary’s hands. The Church is now to form these sons and daughters through the “life-giving Gospel” and the “grace-filled sacraments . . . into the likeness of Christ.”

The Prayer over the Gifts asks God the Father to receive this offering from every people and nation into unity, so that “the Church may become one body, living by the one Spirit.”

The Communion antiphon describes Mary’s virginal womb as the sanctuary of the mysteries of God. The Prayer after Communion requests that those who were nourished by the sacrament of the body of Christ be filled with the Spirit of Christ who enlightens the way of the Church and who sanctified the entire life of the Virgin Mother. Again, freed from the demonic curse, the Christian is free to live with Christ through Mary.

Adding that the Church daily nourishes its children with the Eucharist, the bread of heaven, the Preface summarizes these themes focusing on the fact that God the Father “decreed that the mysteries accomplished in the Blessed Virgin Mary should be accomplished in sign through the sacraments of the Church.”

The Readings

The First Reading is taken from the Acts of the Apostles where, on Pentecost, St. Peter preaches on the necessity of baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit and communal union in worship.

The Gospel (A) is on Christ the Light of the World — John 12:44-50. The Gospel (B) is from John 1:14 where Jesus teaches Nicodemus about the necessity of being born from above. Nicodemus comes in the darkness of night to be enlightened by Christ.

The second source, Mary, Image and Mother of the Church, focuses on her relationship to the Church in future resplendent glory. As the commentary states, “In the words of the Second Vatican Council, in her the Church holds up and admires the most excellent effect of the redemption and joyfully contemplates, as in a flawless image, that which the Church itself desires wholly to be.” This glory is symbolized in the icon by the radiance surrounding her.

The Entrance Antiphon quotes this desire. In the Opening Prayer the Church petitions God the Father for grace to have our eyes fixed on Mary in order to follow closely in the footsteps of Christ until we joyfully reach the fullness of glory.

The Prayer over the Offerings petitions that the Church be purified by these offerings and fashioned more perfectly in the image of Christ “which it admires and praises in his glorious mother.”

The Communion antiphon continues the liturgical praise of Mary by declaring her to be the brightness of eternal light and the image of God’s goodness. The Prayer After Communion has the Church seek the grace to “eagerly follow the way of the Gospel until it comes to that joyful vision of peace which the Virgin Mary . . . already enjoys in her unending glory.”

The Preface opens its praise of God the Father by stating, “You have given the Blessed Virgin Mary to your Church as the perfect image of its role as mother and of its future glory.” The commentary lists these perfections as (1) the disciple who is perfect in the following of Christ; (2) a virgin unsurpassed in purity of faith; (3) a bride joined to Christ in an unbreakable bond of love and united with him in his sufferings; (4) a mother by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, filled with love for all her children; (5) a queen adorned with the jewels of grace . . . sharing forever in the glory of her Lord.”

The complementary Readings are: First Reading from Revelations 21.1 – “I saw Jerusalem as beautiful as a bride all dressed for her husband.” Revelations 19:6 presents eternity as the wedding feast of the Lamb. The Gospel is taken from Luke 1:26, “He will rule over the house of Jacob forever.”

Conclusion: Enlightening Our Minds and Nurturing Our Hearts

The principle “lex orandi lex credendi” means simply that we pray as we believe. And so, schools of spirituality can develop from theologically rich devotions, as these Marian Masses indicate and as the icon of Our Lady of Connecticut illustrates.

This is succinctly summarized in the Foreword of the Sacramentary of the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which states:

This collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a witness to the many ways and reasons that Christians have honored Mary. These Masses are a meditation on the history of salvation in Christ and the very nature of the Christian life. Through the use of this resource of Scripture, prayer and praise we may join Mary in proclaiming the greatness of the Lord and ever rejoicing in God our Savior.

Fr. Stanley Smolenski, SPMA About Fr. Stanley Smolenski, SPMA

A priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford, in the service of the Diocese of Charleston, for Eucharistic Evangelization, Fr. Stanley Smolenski, SPMA, is a Baptistine Canonical Hermit, and diocesan director of the Shrine of Our Lady of South Carolina, Our Lady and Mother of Joyful Hope.