In the writings of St. Dimitri of Rostov there is an instructive narrative about a certain sinner who unexpectedly experienced the joy of repentance before an icon of the Mother of God. This event became so beloved of the Russian people that an icon was drawn depicting it, which came to be known as “The Unexpected Joy.” The icon shows a sinner standing on his knees, praying before an icon of the Theotokos and cleansing his soul through penitence.
This sinner had the habit of praying each day to the Blessed Virgin, often repeating the Archangel’s greeting: “Rejoice, O Virgin full of grace!”, yet afterwards going out and sinning. Once, before routinely going out to sin, he turned to the holy image and fearfully saw the Holy Virgin standing live with Her Divine Son in Her arms. The Infant had wounds on His hands and feet, and blood was flowing from a wound in His side, just as it had been on the cross. The sinner fell to his knees and cried out: “O Mistress! Who did this?”
“You and other sinners. Over and over again you crucify My Son by your sins, just as the Jews had done,” – the Theotokos answered softly.
“Have mercy upon me,” – tearfully cried out the sinner.
“You call Me the Mother of mercy, yet you offend Me and bring Me sorrow by your deeds.”
“No, Mistress,” – the sinner cried out in fear. – 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.”
Seeing a soul being purified by repentance, the most blessed Mother began to entreat Her Son: “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.”
Over and over the Mother of God entreated Her Son, reminding Him how She had nurtured Him at Her breast, how She had suffered at His cross. But the Lord would not bend down to mercy. Then the Mother of God arose, put Her Son down, and was ready to fall at His feet. “What do you wish to do, Mother?!” – cried out the Son. “I shall remain, – She replied, – lying at Your feet together with this sinner until You forgive him his sins.” Then the Son said: “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 sinner arose, with trembling and joy kissed the most holy wounds of the Infant, and came to himself. When the vision ended, he felt within his heart both awe and joy. His soul exulted, streams of tears ran down his face. He kissed the icon, filled with gratitude for having found repentance and forgiveness, and prayed that he be granted the gift to always see his sins and repent of them. His life changed completely and remained God-pleasing to the end of his days.
The icon, which so vividly embodied people’s hopes for the merciful intercession and help of the Mary, the Mother of God, was always venerated highly in Russia, and even today is venerated widely throughout the Church.