Christ is Risen! Христос воскресе! Hristos a înviat! Χριστός ἀνέστη!
As we celebrated the Divine Liturgy in Cheltenham today, our thoughts were very much with Mother Melangell, as she celebrated the altar-feast of her skete, named for the icon of the Mother of God, “Unexpected Joy”.
The story of this icon appears in The Fleece Bedewed, by St Dimitri of Rostov: a work which describes various miracles of the Mother of God.
The icon “Unexpected Joy” actually consists of an icon within an icon, with words of dialogue and narration often woven into its design.
We see a young man, who despite a life of crime never lost his devotion to the Mother of God, and prayed before the icon of Our Lady and the Infant Saviour every day, repeating the Archangel’s greeting: “Rejoice, O Virgin full of grace!”.
However, his prayer never stopped him then going out and stealing until the Mother of God interceded in this situation, for when he turned to the icon, he saw the Mother of God and Christchild in the flesh, and the Infant Saviour had bleeding wounds on His hands and feet, and blood flowed from a wound in His side. The horrified man fell to his knees and instinctively questioned the Mother of God: “O Mistress! Who did this?”
The life-changing answer for the man was in the challenge of the Virgin’s quiet words: “You and other sinners. Over and over again you crucify My Son by your sins.”
The horrified man cried out, “Have mercy upon me,” but the Mother of God rebuked him saying, “You call Me the Mother of mercy, yet you offend Me and bring Me sorrow by your deeds.”
In this, is a challenge for us all. We call the Saviour our Lord, yet we disobey and offend Him; we call our Lady Mother, yet we bring hurt and insult that we would not even think of throwing at our mother according to the flesh.
The man, who had tried to mix devotion to the Mother of God with a life of disobedience and crime appealed to her, as a source of help, hope and rescue:
“No, Mistress. May my malice not overcome your indescribable kindness and mercy! You alone are the hope and safe haven of all sinners! Have mercy upon me, O benevolent Mother! Entreat your Son and my Creator on my behalf.”
The horror of the words he had heard had already awakened his soul and brought him to profound repentance, and seeing this purification and change the Mother of God entreated her Son, our Saviour:
“My benevolent Son! For the sake of My love have mercy upon this sinner.” But the Son replied to Her: “Do not be angry, My Mother, if I do not obey You. I, too, entreated My Father to have this cup of suffering pass Me by.”
Though the Mother of God continued to pray for this man, who brought her Son grief and great sorrow, the Saviour seemed immovable until Our Lady placed the Infant on His own feet and prepared to fall at His feet to beg for the repentant thief.
It was then that the Saviour spoke and stopped her:
“What do you wish to do, Mother?!”
And the Mother of God, our perpetual-intercessor replied, “I shall remain, lying at Your feet together with this sinner until You forgive him his sins.”
The Saviour replied, “The law requires a son to venerate his mother, while justice demands that the giver of the law be himself obedient to the law. I am your Son; you are My Mother; I am obliged to do you homage by fulfilling your request. Let it be as you wish! His sins are now forgiven for your sake! And as a token of forgiveness, let him press his lips to My wounds.”
The man rose up, trembling, still wrapped in the vision and approached the Infant Saviour, and kissed His wounds, and begged that he should always be able to see his own sins and repent of them, and in the gift of this knowledge, his life was transformed, and he lived the rest of his life in knowledge and repentance.
This knowledge is one so greatly needed, as we become conscience-numbed, very often not even understanding that our behaviours are even sins. The world – and even the Christians in the world – loses all sense of sin and error. People come to confession, saying that they can’t really think of anything that has gone wrong since their last confession, and that all seems to be well.
We need to ask the Mother of God to intercede for us, that we might receive the knowledge of the repentant criminal remembered through this miracle recorded by St Dimitri, and we need to remind ourselves how like this once deluded man we are, asking how we can be spiritually wakened and enlivened, as he was – being mindful of our errors, the need to change and repent.
Let us begin by praying the Canon to the Mother of God by the Monk Euthymios, the Chancellor, that we might be brought to realisation and repentance, and to amendment, and newness of life, in which we understand our culpability and our responsibility for the Saviour’s sacred wounds.