In the Russian Orthodox Church, 25 February is the feast day of the Iveron Icon of the Mother of God. For ages, it has guarded us against enemies, disasters and sorrows. In acknowledgement of Her protection, we also call Her Icon "Portatissa", or "gatekeeper". Yet people have defiled and desecrated her image multiple times through ignorance, misconception or malice. As a reminder of these dark days, the Mother of God is depicted with a gushing wound on her cheek. Yet standing at the gates of Jerusalem in Heaven, she is praying tirelessly before God for the salvation of the human race.
According to tradition, the icon belongs to the brush of the Evangelist Luke, but its recorded history starts in ninth-century Byzantine. The heresy of iconoclasm, coming from its emperors, had engulfed the Empire. People were ordered to burn and destroy the holy images as if they were idols. Dissenters faced tortures, execution and different penalties.
In those tumultuous years, there lived a pious widow in the city of Nikea. She had kept the image of the Holy Virgin and prayed to Her in a secret room. One night, the Emperor's soldiers broke into her dwelling. They found the icon, and one of them struck it with a sword in a convulsion of rage. Immediately, blood began to flow from the cheek of the virgin. The soldiers did not dare to destroy the icon themselves and ordered the widow to get rid of it. She prayed to the icon for guidance, and tearfully set her on the waves of the Mediterranean Sea. To the widow's amazement and relief, the icon did not sink, but stood upright and drifted away.
After almost a century and a half, the monks of the Iberon Monastery on Mount Athos discovered the icon at the shore. With great piety and awe, they put the icon on the altar of the main church. Yet the next morning, the icon appeared above the gates. The monks carried it back to the altar, but the icon reappeared, again and again, above the gates, until the Most Holy Virgin appeared in a vision to a monk. "I have chosen this place myself so that I could protect the monks and not be protected by you," she said.
In the 17th century, a copy of the Iveron Icon of the Mother of God "Pantaissa" travelled to Moscow, where it was placed in the chapel at the main entrance to the city. It soon became one of the most revered icons of the Holy Virgin in Russia. Travellers to and from Moscow flocked to the icon to venerate it and ask for the Holy Virgin's help and blessings. But in Russia, the icon did not escape defilement. At the dawn of the 20th century, it barely escaped destruction in a bombing, and in Soviet times, the chapel and the gates were torn down, and the icon was lost or destroyed.
But to the relief of the Holy Virgin, people can realise their transgressions and repent them. Eventually, the heresy of iconoclasm was fully defeated. The era of militant atheism in this part of the world has likewise become a thing of the past. In 1995, the chapel at the gates of the Kremlin was rebuilt, and a new copy of the icon of the Mother of God took its place there. The Mother of God continues to pray for us tirelessly, showing with her example the power of the prayer to change us from within, transform our lives and make a positive difference to the world.
The faithful are praying along with her. At the Iveron monastery of Mount Athos, a large lampad hangs near the icon. The lampad never stops swinging, challenging the laws of physics. When the hard times are approaching, the lampad swings harder, and the monks strengthen their fasting and prayers for the world. Millions of believers pray before the Iveron icon, asking the Holy Virgin for healing, protection, delivery from sinful thoughts and help in childbearing.
Here at Saint Elisabeth Monastery, our brothers and sisters are also praying for peace and well-being in the world, our ongoing ministries and the needy who benefit from them. The Iveron Icon of the Mother of God is one of the most beloved among the artisans of our icon painting workshop, and they will be happy to paint one for you.
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