The commemoration of the Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos "Unexpected Joy" reminds us of the unspeakable mercy and untold kindness of the Mother of God. Her beneficence and desire for our salvation are beyond description. Her condescension to the plight of her lost children amazes men and angels alike.
In his literary work "Dew-wet Fleece" (1683), saint Dmitry of Rostov presents a narrative about a certain sinner who had immersed in iniquity but still venerated most piously the Holy Theotokos.
Each day, the sinner prayed before the icon of the Blessed Virgin, repeating to her the Archangel’s greeting: “Rejoice, O Virgin full of grace!” yet afterwards going out sinning. Once, he turned to the holy image and fearfully saw the Holy Virgin standing live with Her Divine Son with wounds on His body. The sinner fell to his knees and cried out: “O Mistress! Who did this?” the Theotokos answered softly, “You and other sinners. Over and over again you crucify My Son by your sins.”
With trembling, the sinner begged for forgiveness. The Lord was silent. Anguished, the human soul waited for His righteous judgement, and heard at last, against all expectations, “His sins are now forgiven for your sake, my Mother.” The Most Pure Virgin entreated Her son to save the repentant sinner, and He saved him. The sinner pressed his lips against His wounds, and put an end to his iniquities, remembering Who he causes the wounds by his unrighteous acts.
In the 18th century, this narration inspired an anonymous iconographer to represent it in an icon that was later called “Unexpected joy.” It is a combination of impossible things - a pious sinner, his unexpected joy, and a sad and painfully familiar episode of everyday life. Where is the joy? And whose is it?
Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7: 13). So much so that the Lord and all the departed rejoice beyond measure at any soul that salvages itself from the torrent of sin drawing it into an abyss. It is the joy of welcoming a creature of God reborn for eternity in the tears of repentance. For the Lord said, “Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repents, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” ( (Luke 15: 7). It is also the joy for the sinner. He accomplished the hard labour of repentance, shed tears, found renewal and discovered God’s love.
Unspeakable is our guilt before the just God, but He does not tell us to redeem it, But only to repent. Repentance is within our reach, and the reward of the Almighty is supreme. The Holy Reverend Ambrose of Optina remarks, “Sins are like walnuts. Breaking the shell is easy, but it is much harder to cake out the core.” It is no small feat for us to go from bad to good, And so the sinner in this eighteenth-century icon gives us an example of bravery in challenging our distorted human nature. With the love of God and the Holy Theotokos at heart, he achieved a glorious victory over his old self. Rejoicing at his spectacular transformation, may we also live to experience the unexpected joy of the victory of God’s love over our sinful selves.
Images of the Holy Theotokos “Unexpected Joy” are found in many Russian Orthodox churches. Believers pray before them, asking God to give them endurance, help, hope, an end to their despair, and stronger faith.
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