Many years ago an event took place which had a great effect upon the people of Russia just as the Bolshevik Revolution was beginning. On the very day that Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, March 2, 1917, the icon of The Reigning Mother of God, (which I will refer to as She Who Reigns), appeared. A month earlier, a peasant woman named Evdokia Andrianova had a dream in which she heard a voice telling her to go find a black icon in a particular church. She ignored the dream, but it returned two more times, instructing her to go to a church in Kolomskoye, a distance from her home, to find the icon. She finally decided to obey and traveled to the church only to have the priest tell her that there was no such icon. She persisted, so they searched the church until they found a cellar filled with neglected items, including an icon blackened with years of grime. When they cleaned it off they found that they had uncovered the icon from her dreams: it showed Mary the Theotokos (Mother of God) sitting upon a throne, holding Jesus on her lap with God the Father above her head, and the shekinah cloud, (a representation of the Holy Spirit) between them. The news of finding this icon made its way to Moscow, arriving on March 2, in time to give the people hope during what was the most desperate of times for them.
Word of the icon spread throughout Russia. There were stories of miraculous healing and answered prayers, all of which were attributed to the intercession of Mary. The people felt that Mary would reign over them in protection, especially from the godlessness of communism. The icon became a symbol of the victory of God over all the forces of evil through the intercession of Mary who was given the role as their protector and guardian. It gave hope to the poor and those victimized by the communist regime. The icon was not an end in itself, however; as in all Mary does, it led them to her son, Jesus. And the icon remains a sign that God is with His people no matter what is going on in their lives. Mary, seen as She Who Reigns, is not to be worshiped. Instead she points us to the victory of Jesus over sin and death. She reminds us that we can find strength for the daily grind of life because He is ever with us.
The story of the long hidden icon, She Who Reigns, emphasizes the reality that although life is filled with obstacles and difficulties, we are not left alone. We are each given gifts to use, sometimes in ways that may seem inconsequential to us. We may think that we make very little impact in the world because we are insignificant, but in truth every action we take and every effort we make to bring kindness into the world makes a difference. Evdokia was a peasant woman who probably felt she was of no importance in society. But she obeyed the unusual call she had received in the dream, persisting even when she was initially told the icon did not exist. Nor she did not stop when the icon was revealed. Rather, she and the priest worked diligently to bring the icon forth so that the people could see it, pray with it, and be inspired by it. There was great risk in doing this since the communists had taken over and religion had become forbidden. For example, the authorities confiscated the prayer service (akathist) which was written in gratitude for the icon and the subsequent intercession of Mary. Therefore as they persisted in the difficult work of spreading the word about this icon, it was with the constant risk of being arrested. These two relatively insignificant people in society managed to make known that this symbol of protection was accessible to the people, reminding them that God is always accessible. They were able to reach other poor, seemingly unimportant people, who in venerating the icon and letting it speak to their hearts, made an act of faith that God would be with them through the trials of their lives. They stood fast in their faith, and against the evils of communism, by simply venerating an icon that became a symbol of hope, and therefore was their strength.
As it was for Evdokia who did not stop her efforts once she found the icon, we should be aware that our efforts to grow during Lent through our acts of penitence, almsgiving, service, and prayer do make an impact on the world around us. We may think we are insignificant or that our acts are too small and too personal. But in reality that is not true at all. Every little act of kindness and every little act of sacrifice which we perform, especially those which are hidden, have the power to change the world around us. The effects of our small prayers are great because they are done with love. Just as one small icon could give hope to a vast people, one small act of love can engender hope in someone who is struggling with a great burden. Additionally, our actions also give hope to all of us that the world is not beyond repair. God can do all things. Often it takes one simple act of love to set off an avalanche of mercy and compassion. One action leads to another, and soon change can take place. Even when we have to persevere through some difficulties, we have to hold fast to our hope believing that no matter what happens we are never alone. We have God with us and we have the community around us. We have been given gifts to share for the good of the world. Let us never be tricked into believing that our small sacrifices and the work of our prayer are ineffectual. That is simply not true.
If our Lenten practices are to have any significance to us then, it will be in how we respond to the events of our lives and how we share the faith which has been given to us as a gift. Sometimes, as with the icon of She Who Reigns, we have to find that which has been misplaced in our relationship with God, allow Him to help us clean the grime off, and then respect the gift that we have been given by honoring the One who gave it to us. We need to trust that His love will protect our hearts as we struggle through obstacles. We need to worship Him, filled with gratitude that we have such a God with us for the entirety of our lives. No matter how desperate the situation of our world seems, with its violence, terrorism, injustices and ills, we are not alone. God is with us, among us, between us, and within us. We are called to be living icons of God’s care and love for others. We need to hold fast to this and also let the light of faith that burns within us be the light which helps those in darkness to find their way home to God. Let us set an avalanche of mercy and compassion in motion by trusting God to work through our little acts of love.
To that end, therefore, let us trust that God is with us as we make our Lenten sacrifices, renew our efforts at prayer, and move outward to the suffering of others with mercy and compassion. Let us be messengers of the gospel, bringing peace into our relationships, and persevering in the challenges before us no matter how arduous. Let us give and receive love, bolstering each other with hope. Let us be like the icon of Mary: a living sign that God is present in the world through our little acts of attentiveness and kindness to one another. And let us set the avalanche of mercy and compassion in motion interceding for the world, asking forgiveness for our sins, forgiving the ills done against us and those that are in our world, and offering help to those in need.
May we persevere in our Lenten practices, trusting that they are effective for ourselves and for our world! May we do little acts of kindness and love so that we may touch off an avalanche or mercy and compassion! May we trust ourselves to be messengers of the gospel, recognizing that no one is insignificant in God’s eyes! May we be living icons of hope in the power of God! May we be attentive to the world around us so that our prayer may be specific and our hearts might be opened especially to those who are difficult to love! May we be filled with a sense of the presence of God in each moment! And may we trust even the smallest call to bring the light of God’s presence and love to those whom we meet, recognizing that we have the power to set love and healing in motion! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
For more information on The Reigning Icon here are two websites that might be helpful:
The top icon is She Who Reigns by Fr. William Hart McNichols. This icon has a very special place in my heart for many reasons, but especially because of the deep majesty and beauty of it. This icon was written in 2014 and so it is a reproduction of the original. If you compare it with the original, a version of which is the second icon in this post, you will see that Fr. Bill portrayed God the Father differently. He was inspired by Michelangelo's Creation from the fresco found in the Sistine Chapel. That change was made for me, and I am deeply moved by it every time I see the icon. I believe the writing of this icon was very timely and is one with which we should pray. You can find She Who Reigns and also purchase a copy by going to Fr. Bill's website at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/342-she-who-reigns
The photos are mine. The first is of a lone flowering plant on the desert floor in the Badlands of South Dakota. To me it shows how one small, insignificant plant can change the monotony of the landscape with a splash of color, just as one act of love can enact change. The second photo is of a hummingbird, one of the smallest of birds, whose beauty is arresting even though in the large scheme of things the bird can be overlooked due to its size.
Heart Speaks to Heart