In the sacristy there is a small icon which I see as I vest for Mass. It was obtained on one of our parish pilgrimages to the Holy Land some years ago. It is lovely, but at first glance it does not particularly catch one's attention.
It is called "Our Lady of the Unexpected Joy," and is a mid-19th century hand-painted copy of an older Russian Orthodox icon. It depicts the moment of repentance and forgiveness in the life of a man. He is a man whom we do not know, but the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child know him. His sinfulness was not extraordinary, but it was something he had not taken seriously, as is the case with so many people, who are quick to excuse themselves, but not so quick to seek true and divine forgiveness.
I find this little icon to be profound on many levels: the sinful man, the loving Mother, the forgiving Saviour -- an unknown life changed, a man prepared for eternity with God -- all done so quietly, and put before us by an unknown artist.
This is the story:
There was a man who, despite living a sinful life, nonetheless had a pious love and devotion to the Mother of God. Without fail, he prayed daily before her image, saying those words once spoken by the Archangel Gabriel, “Rejoice, thou who art full of grace!”
It happened that as he was about to go off to engage in some sinful activity, he turned to pray before the icon of the Mother of God. Immediately he began to tremble, as he saw the image of the Mother of God appear to move. The wounds on the hands, feet and side of the Divine Infant opened, and from them blood began to flow. Falling down before the image, the man cried out, “O Lady, who has done this?”
The Mother of God answered, “You and other sinners once again are crucifying my Son. You call me merciful, but then why do you insult me with your lawless acts?” “O my Mistress,” answered the sinner, “may my sins not overcome your inexpressible goodness! You are the only hope of all sinners. Entreat your Son and our God on my behalf.”
Our Lady twice repeated her prayer to the Infant Christ, but He remained adamant, until finally He responded to the persistent entreaties of the Mother of God: “I will fulfill your request. May your wish be granted. Because of you, this person’s sins are remitted. Let him, in token of forgiveness, kiss My wounds.”
And so, the forgiven sinner, before whom the inexhaustible mercy of the Mother of God was manifest in such a wonderful manner, raised himself up from the ground, and with inexpressible and unexpected joy kissed the wounds of his Saviour. From that moment, he lived a clean and pious life.
On this icon is depicted the man, on his knees, praying before the image of the Mother of God. Below the image are written the opening words of the story, “There was a certain transgressor..."
This can be the story of each of us. We are called to repentance; Mary intercedes; Christ forgives, and we are changed.