Square Zero

A Gift of the West

Posted by Eric (October 18, 2006 at 10:02 am)

St Joseph Mary and Jesus

“And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”—Luke 2:40

Moving in Eastern Christian circles one hears much criticism of Roman Catholicism, almost to a point of disdaining all things Western, but this Saturday I saw a couple of statues at a Roman Catholic church that reminded me of one of the gifts of the West.

The statues were those of Mary and Joseph standing, in accord with tradition, at the left and right of the sanctuary at Sacred Heart Church in Lombard, Illinois, where I attended Mass before speaking to the parish pro-life group. I was seated on the left side of the church and the statue of Mary caught my eye—she holds a broom as the boy Jesus stands at her feet reaching up for her.

Here is a touching little domestic scene of the Holy Family—and it struck me that this is the sort of thing one would never expect to see in an icon. Not that there aren’t elements of domestic tenderness in icons—one thinks of the sandle dangling from the foot of infant Jesus in the icon Panagia “Formidable Protection” (or Our Lady of Perpetual Help)—but they are rendered in a subtlely symbolic way, nothing so mundane as a broom. It is hard to imagine a broom in the iconic hands of the Theotokos.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help, written by Andrew MolczykOne beheld a similar realism in the statue of Joseph, which I examined after the liturgy. He holds a hammer in his right hand, while with his right he props up a long, straight piece of lumber, as if pondering something before setting to work on it.

Not that these statues were anything like naturalistic. They were stylized, the figures of both Mary and Joseph poised with a serenity, their countenances gazing, so it seems, beyond the domestic sphere with that impassivity characteristic of the iconic face, which is beheld in the next life, beyond the tempest of emotions. This suggestion of other-worldliness is ratified by the fact that Mary and Joseph wear garments of gold.

Yet they did depict the simple humanity of the life of the Holy Family, where a broom, whatever symbolic meaning it may come to hold, is first a broom for sweeping up the family home; where hammer and plank are the implements of daily and demanding labor; where a little boy reaches for his mother to pick him up.

We can all relate to that life, though for us it is suffused with the sorrow and shame of sin; indeed, for that very reason such depictions of the ordinary life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are so consoling—and so worthwhile.

The Roman Catholic tradition has tapped into a real need of the human heart with this emphasis on the realism of the incarnation, and it is one of the gifts of the West for which this Byzantine Catholic is grateful.

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12 Responses to “A Gift of the West”

  1. Renee says:

    This is a great point, Eric. In the rush of “new love” with the East, I have often been ignoring the richness offered me by the West. This weekend I attended a Latin Rite Mass, and was reminded of all the quiet hours I had spent in peaceful contemplation of Our Lord’s Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. If we truly believe the East is the “other lung of the Church”, then we must be willing to acknowlede the benefit of the Western lung.

    Thanks for posting those photos. I am particularly drawn to them both.

    Comment posted October 19th, 2006 at 10:45 am
  2. Matt says:


    Quite interesting! I find the posture of Jesus quite interesting too. He looks like He needs, or at least greatly wants, Mary’s attention. How odd to think of our Savior needing anything! But there it is. The tenderness is a very different perspective.



    Comment posted October 19th, 2006 at 7:59 pm
  3. Eric says:

    Matt—I too am intrigued by the posture of Jesus. Is he reaching to be picked up? Is he trying to hug her? Or does he just want her to stop sweeping and play with him—anticipating his words to Martha in Luke 10?

    By the way, thanks for stopping by. I’ve added you to the blogroll.

    Comment posted October 21st, 2006 at 7:47 am
  4. Mimi says:

    There’s something very comforting to me in the statue of the Theotokos – something that reminds me of something that my (RCC backgrounded) grandmother would have loved and had. I can’t put it into words.

    The only quibble I have about them (being Orthodox) is the youth of St. Joseph.

    But, I enjoyed your post and agree with much of it.

    Comment posted October 23rd, 2006 at 6:58 pm
  5. Eric says:

    Mimi — I hear what you’re saying about St. Joseph’s youth, but actually if you could look more closely — as I did having the same instinct as you about his age — you would see that Joseph isn’t nearly so youthful as Mary. He is not as old as we’re accustomed to see in icons, but he is much older than Mary, who looks very young in this statue. (Perhaps I should link the images above to high resolution versions so others can see these features better.)

    Comment posted October 24th, 2006 at 1:28 am
  6. Mimi says:

    You can insert the mental picture of me squinting at the photo for several minutes now 😉 I’ll take your word for it.

    Comment posted October 24th, 2006 at 5:02 pm
  7. Pete says:


    Have you seen this picture?

    Tip-toeing to Mary


    By the way, Sacred Heart/Lombard has been my Parish for 37 years now. Both Fr. Milota and Fr. Hoehn are excellent priests. We don’t ever want either of them to ever leave our Parish.

    Comment posted October 26th, 2006 at 9:40 pm
  8. james says:

    eric – are you going to add me to your blogroll too??!

    Comment posted October 27th, 2006 at 4:16 pm
  9. Eric says:

    James—I’ve added you to the blogroll. See the description when you mouseover your link (you’ll have to go to my homepage to see it; that’s the only place the blogroll displays).

    Comment posted October 27th, 2006 at 4:42 pm
  10. james says:

    Well thanks for that Eric. But long-haired English guitarist, indeed. How very profound I sound.

    Glad to see I’m holding up the British end, so to speak. Though the pony-tail has now been chopped. Just a short curly mop now. Guitar still firmly in place, however. Along with rainbow strap and flared jeans.

    Comment posted October 29th, 2006 at 4:31 pm
  11. Very Rev. Fr. Gregori says:

    I am glad to see that the Roman Church can still do some things that will tug gently at one’s soul.

    Here in my neck of the woods (Rochester, NY area), all of the Catholic churches have undergone drastic make overs such as getting rid of the Tabernacles, no kneelers and many are even placing the altars in the middle of the church. Many have replaced the traditional pews for movie theater style seats. This is one of reasons why I became Orthodox. I don’t mean to offend my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, but ever since Vatican II the Church of Rome has lost so much of its feeling of spirituality and to be very honest, if you were to go from a Luthern service, Methodist service and then to the Roman Catholic Novus Ordo Mass, one would be hard pressed to find any difference.

    Comment posted November 18th, 2006 at 1:10 pm
  12. 4HisChurch says:

    Hello, Fr. Gregori. You are right–many, many Latin Rite churches have stripped the altars to the point where they are indistinguishable from Protestant churches. That is slowly changing, though.

    Our parish is currently raising money for a proper altar in which to house the Blessed Sacrament. We do, thank God, have a tabernacle in the middle, and not in a closet-type space. But the movement is definitely there church-wide to begin to rectify this grave error.

    Comment posted March 9th, 2007 at 9:42 am