During seminars in the Baclaran shrine about the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, we asked the participants: “Who is the perpetual help?” Immediately they would answer with great conviction, “Mary, of course!” But then we’ll repeat the question. And this time, we’ll rephrase the question: “Mary is the Mother of perpetual help, so who is the perpetual help?” Then they would think for a while and stare at us intriguingly.
We use this question as a take-off point to a deeper study of the icon and the role of Mary. Mary is Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Mary is the mother of the source of perpetual help which is her son Jesus. As in the icon, Mary is she who points to the way—Jesus Christ. True devotion to Mary leads us to following Jesus. Mary in the icon, presents Jesus as the path towards salvation. Indeed, in the icon, Jesus is the true Perpetual Help. Mary’s role is to announce to us our central calling–to follow Jesus.
In today’s gospel of the 24th Sunday in ordinary time, Jesus directly asked his disciples,
“Who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter said in reply,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”
Peter’s confession is the rock foundation of our Christian life. Without confessing Jesus the Christ as God of our lives, everything we say and do, all our rituals and sacraments will amount to nothing. Christianity is not just a set of obligation, religion or a list of commandments but, first and foremost, a relationship with Jesus. As Pope Benedict XVI said:
“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
To have a relationship with Jesus, however, is not just to have a friendly relationship or a sweet spiritual relationship with Jesus. Like Peter, what many Christians dread to know is that relationship with Jesus entails suffering and even denial of oneself.
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.”
Peter did not understand this at first, thinking that believing in Jesus as the Messiah could come without the need for suffering. Jesus has to correct him, albeit bluntly, and teach him God’s standard: Christian life amounts to carrying one’s cross in the footsteps of Jesus.
Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples,
rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
The suffering demanded by our confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” is articulated in the First Reading by the prophet Isaiah. The first reading comes from the third song of the Servant of Yhwh, the “Suffering Servant.”
I have not rebelled, have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard. …
The Lord God is my help; who will prove me wrong?
The suffering servant modeled Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession; explaining to Peter that to be the Christ means
“the Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed,
and rise after three days.”
The second reading from the letter of James explicate further that to have a relationship with Jesus is not just an exclusive and loving relationship with Jesus–me and my sweet Jesus but a loving relationship with others especially the poor and the most abandoned. Relationship with Jesus is not just professing faith in Jesus but also practising it. The practice of the faith is the performance of deeds that benefit those in need. As the letter of James expounds,
What good is it, my brothers and sisters,
if someone says he has faith but does not have works?
Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister has nothing to wear
and has no food for the day,
and one of you says to them,
“Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well, ”
but you do not give them the necessities of the body,
what good is it?
So also faith of itself,
if it does not have works, is dead.
It took a while before Peter fully understood the true meaning of confessing Jesus as the Christ. When Jesus called Peter, Jesus was well aware of the many faults and flaws of Peter. Despite his weaknesses, Peter stayed with Jesus until the end. Indeed, he became a rock of faith. Peter’s being rock comes from the strength he received from God:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,
but my heavenly Father.”
Like Peter, we fear, we vacillate, and we try to escape from the mission of Jesus. But like Peter, if we rely on God’s grace beyond our capacities, we can truly confess Jesus as the Christ, in word and in deed. Like Peter we will truly experience the fullness of life despite the suffering it entails.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), 1.