Protection of the Holy Virgin
On October 1st, the Church triumphantly and joyously celebrates the Protection of the Holy Virgin. This holiday is beloved by the Russian Orthodox people and other churches of Slavic tradition. It was established in the 12th century by the Russian Church, although the historical basis for it was the defeat of their Russian forebears as they attacked the capital of Byzantium, Constantinople, which was saved through the intercession of the Theotokos. (The feast is celebrated on October 28 in the Greek tradition.)
The Russian Church celebrates an event which occurred in ancient times and in a foreign land - the faraway Greek city of Constantinople, more than 1000 years ago. The event took place in the Vlakherna church, in the presence of a multitude of people, although it was seen only by two - the blessed fool-for-Christ Andrew and his disciple Epiphanius. Both of them saw the Queen of heaven and earth appear in the church, praying for the world and all the people, and blessing the faithful with her most-holy covering.
About the icon
Two different events that took place four hundred years apart are combined in this one icon. Both events took place in the former Church of Blachernae in Constantinople.
The icon of the feast, Protection of the Mother of God, shows the Theotokos standing above the faithful with her arms outstretched in prayer and draped with a veil. On both sides of her are angels. On the lower right of most icons of this feast, are saints Andrew and his disciple Epiphanius who saw this vision of the Mother of God, with the twelve apostles, bishops, holy women, monks and martyrs, spreading her veil in protection over the congregation. St. Epiphanius is wearing a tunic under his cloak and gestures in astonishment at the miraculous appearance, while St. Andrew, Fool-for-Christ, is dressed only in a cloak.
Below the Theotokos, in the center of the icon, stands a young man with a halo, he is clothed in a deacon's sticharion. In his left hand, he is holding an open scroll with the text of the Kontakion for Nativity in honor of the Mother of God. This is St. Romanus the Melodist, the famous hymnographer whose feast is also celebrated on the same day, October 1. He is with his choir attended by the Emperor Leo the Wise together with the Empress and the Patriarch of Constantinople. (see: Saint Romanus the Melodist)
In most Slavic languages the word "cerement" has a dual meaning of "veil" and "protection." The Russian word Pokrov, like the Greek Skepi, has a complex meaning. First of all, it refers to a cloak or shroud, but it also means protection or intercession. For this reason, the name of the feast is variously translated as the Veil of Our Lady, the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos, the Protection of the Theotokos, or the Intercession of the Theotokos.
More about the feast
Who was this blessed Andrew, the chosen one, to whom the Mother of God revealed Her appearance?
In the great city of Constantinople St. Andrew seemed to be poor and base-born. However, under the cover of oddity he concealed from everyone his shining spirit and his grace filled wisdom. St. Andrew was a Slav by birth and as a child was sold into slavery.
Beloved by his master, he received an excellent education and showed particular aptitude for reading and writing; as a result he was given the honorable position of scribe. However, his innate wisdom impelled him to shun earthly honors and immerse himself in spiritual contemplation. Following his inner impulse, he left the world under the guise of madness, concealing his great spiritual gifts under beggar’s rags, and took upon himself the spiritual feat of foolishness-for-Christ, along with the labors of fasting, poverty, homelessness and constant prayer. It was this fool-for-Christ whom the Mother of God chose to witness Her coming to the Vlakherna church. She chose neither the patriarch, nor a bishop, nor a clergyman or monastic; She chose neither the king or his nobles, nor any of the wise and learned men for whom Byzantium was famous; nor did She choose any of the city’s prominent citizens. Instead, the Holy Theotokos chose the fool-for-Christ Andrew, and granted him the grace of witnessing, together with his pious disciple Epiphanios, the great and awesome vision.
This happened at the end of blessed Andrew’s life. While attending an all-night vigil at Vlakherna, in the early hours of the morning he saw the Mother of God enter the church through the royal doors, surrounded by a host of angels and a multitude of saints, supported by Saint John the Baptist and the holy apostle John the Theologian.
As the Theotokos approached the ambo, Saint Andrew asked Epiphanios: “Do you see the Mistress and Queen of the world?” To which the latter tremblingly replied: “I see, father, and I am awed.”
After praying for a while, the Most-pure took off Her head covering, which glittered like lightning, and spread it over the people.
In celebrating this feast, the Church commemorates the great and joyous revelation of the divine protection which is spread over the world, the Mother of God’s great love for mankind. For not only in the Vlakherna church did the Theotokos tearfully pray a thousand years ago, but She prays for us always until the end of time. And Her venerable covering was spread not only over the faithful who were present in church at that time, but over the entire world, over all of mankind, and over all of us, sinners, shines the saving Protection of the Mother of God.
The Mother of God is a mediator between earth and heaven, an Intercessor for the world before the throne of God’s glory. The world has not been abandoned in its sorrow, man is not alone in his grief: for us, and together with us, grieves the Holy Virgin. Yes, we know that we are great sinners, but we also know that we have not been forgotten by the Mother of God, to Whom each human soul is precious. Can there be any greater comfort? Throughout the ages the joy of the Holy Virgin’s Protection shines in the hearts of the faithful, the joy of Her prayer for the world. The Theotokos’ prayer, with which the Holy Spirit Himself prays, is all-powerful.
May the joy and the glory of the Mother of God’s Protection shine over us, within our hearts and over our land! Amen.