Monday, October 1, 2012

The Protection of the Most Holy Virgin, the Mother of the Lord

Romanian depiction of the Feast
Nurenberg Orthodox Cathedral, Germany

Among the eastern Feasts dedicated to the Holy Mother of God there is possible to make a distinction between the ones involving the activity of the Holy Virgin during her earthly life and her further activity among the Christian believers. In the first category we may number the event of her birth, the Presentation at the Temple, the Annunciation and the Nativity of Our Lord and, of course, the Dormition of the Holy Virgin. In the second category they may be numbered a number of miraculous apparitions of her, many miraculous healings, even a resurrection from the dead, miracles who are remembered in some hymns dedicated to her, as the Akathist Hymn and the Paraklis to the Mother of God.

The most impressive Orthodox feast in the honor of Virgin Mary from this second category is undoubtedly the Protection of the Theotokos, celebrated on the October 1st, and additionally on October 28 in the Greek Churches. Better known as the “Pokrov” in the Slavic countries, “Acoperamantul Maicii Domnului” in Romania or “Skepi” in Greece and Orient, the Feast is about a miraculous apparition of the Holy Mother of God in the byzantine church of Blachernae, but also in connection with a holy relic known as the Veil of our Lady. Furthermore, the Greek word of Skepi means both “protection” and “veil”.

The history of a miraculous apparition

The feast of the Protection is celebrated in connection with the extraordinary life of a fool-for-Christ, namely St. Andrew from Constantinople, celebrated in the very next day (October 2) after this feast. As his biographer, the priest Epihanius from the Agia Sophia Cathedral, noted, St. Andrew had a Slavic ancestry and was a slave at the court of a nobleman in Constantinople. In one night he received a divine commandment to act like a fool in oder to accomplish a special mission. St. Andrew used from this moment to live on the streets or under the roofs of the churches, together with the beggars, homeless and prostitutes, making at the first sight only silly things, but in reality having to bring back to the faith many sinners.
After some time living like a fool, Andrew becomes friend with Epiphanius, to whom he confesses his real identity, the meaning of his actions and also his visions, teaching him the real Christian way of living.
The Greek Synaxarion for the Holiday of the Protection of Our Lady states that St. Andrew together with Epiphanius participated to an all-night Vigil on October 1st, that being between Saturday and Sunday, at the Church of Blachernae, an important place of pilgrimage in Constantinople, built arounf 450 by Emperess Pulcheria. The special prayer had as reason the endangered freedom of the city from the barbarian attack. There is no clear about the identity of them. That happened “in the days of the Emperor Leo the Wise” (that being Leo IV, 886-912). At about 4 o’clock in the night, Andrew raised his eyes to the sky and saw, together with his apprentice, that the Holy Virgin was staying there in the air, surrounded by light and praying, and her face was drowned with tears. In the vision, which was not only visible to Andrew and Epiphanius, but also to the others in the church, the Holy Virgin was surrounded by the angels, together with her St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist. Her prayer is approximately cited by the Akathist Hymn of the Protection of Theotokos. In the Synaxarion the prayer is: “Heavenly Father, receive all who glorify Thee and call Your Name in all the places. Sanctify all the places where my name is remembered and glorify the ones who are glorifying you and the ones who honor me, Your mother. Receive all their prayers and promises and deliver them from all the evils and needs!” After the completion of her prayer, she walked to the altar and continued to pray.  Shortly the danger was averted and the city was spared once more. After a while she took her veil (“omophorion”, or “mandylion”) off and spread it all over the people in the church, as a sign of protection. Then Saint Andrew turned to his disciple, Epiphanius, who was standing near him, and asked, “Do you see, brother, the Holy Theotokos, praying for all the world?” and Epiphanius answered, “Yes, Holy Father, I see it and am amazed!”

The enlarged story of the celebration

The celebrating of the Protection of the Theotokos in this day has as its reason more than this isolated event. There may be said that it is connected moreover with several miraculous savings of the city of Constantinople, endangered by some different foreign invasions. For the first time the capital of the Byzantine Empire was sieged by the Persians and Scythians in 626, during the reign of Heraclius. After a procession with the icons and with a relic of the Virgin Mary (probably the veil, because her robe, and part of her belt that had been transferred from Palestine by the order of Leo I in 473), a sudden storm dispersed the fleet of the enemy in the Golden Horn, near the Church in Blachernae and Constantinople was saved. In the honor of the event, patriarch Sergius (or, after some others, the deacon George Pisida) composed the famous Akathist Hymn.
The Arabs sieged the City in 717-718 but they lost the battle in a similar manner, and later the Rus’ people, the ancestors of the Russians, leaded by Askold and Dir in 860, after the Primary Chronicle. The Patriarch Photius and Emperor Michael leaded then an all-night vigil in the Church of Our Lady of the Blachernae. The chronicler says that “the weather was still, and the sea was calm, but a storm of wind came up, and when great waves straightway rose, confusing the boats of the godless Rus, it threw them upon the shore and broke them up, so that few escaped such destruction and returned to their native land”.  According to Nestor, the feast of the Protection celebrates the destruction of this fleet sometime in the 9th century, which cannot be correct, since St. Andrew lived at the beginning of the 10th century.
Anyway, according the Russian tradition there is clearly believed that the barbaric people who surrounded Constantinople in the times of St. Andrew were even the kievan Rus’. The historical facts state that in 907 the Byzantine capital was attacked by the troops of Oleg of Novgorod, who wanted special trading rights of his people with the empire. Leo fought back and the city was spared, but they attacked once more in 911, and then the treaty was signed. October the 1st was Saturday in 907, so that the information could be certified.
Finally the protection of the Theotokos to Constantinople is connected to a potential Bulgarian invasion in 926, when the Tsar Simeon was convinced not to attack the city, after showing to him the Holy Veil.
There is interesting to note that the Holiday of the Protection started to be celebrated in the 12th century among the Russians, people who attacked at that time the Constantinople. The celebration spread out in the whole Eastern Christianity, but until today its importance remains special in the Slavic speaking Orthodox countries.

The Relic of the Protecting Veil

The Protecting Veil seems to be an “omophorion”, similar to a neckcloth. Its form is also certified by its depiction in the icons. The Orthodox bishops wear an “omophorion” as the symbol of the fullness of hierarchic power.
The Veil of Theotokos, together with her belt and other sacred relics were brought from Palestine by the order of Emperor Leo I the Thracian (457-474) and remained since 473 in the Church of Blachernae, being popular by several miracles occurred in connection with it. A part of the Protecting Veil or maybe the whole of it was given by the Byzantine Empress Irene as a gift to the Western Emperor Charles the Great, as part of a wedding negotiation. Charles donated it to the Chartres Cathedral, where it remained until today, though some small pieces of it were spread all over the West. As an example, such of a piece is kept today in the church of St. Josaphat from Detroit, USA.The Veil continued to play a role in Byzantine history, even if rather in the ritual cult than in a physical veneration.
The relic "to be sold" on internet

Relic of the Veil in Detroit

Another venerated relic: the Belt of Theotokos

The Belt of Theotokos in Vatopedi
In the East, the veneration of Theotokos is connected also with the “Belt of Theotokos”, today kept into a small box in the monastery of Vatopedi (Mt. Athos) is made from camel hair. According to the tradition, the middle of it was sewing with gold thread by the emperess Zoe of Constantinople, who received healing from the holy belt.
The belt of Theotokos from Vatopedi
Going back, the tradition states that this belt was given in a miraculous way to St. Thomas the Apostle, who came too late to the funeral of the Holy Mother, as a sign of her ascension to heavens. First the belt remained in the Jerusalem. The Emperor Arcadius  (395-408) is the one who has taken it to Constantinople, first at the Church of the Holy Apostles, and later to Blachernae (during the reign of Emperess Pulcheria, 450-453), and it has remained here together with other relics (as told before), until the age of Justinian, when it was moved to the Hafia Sophia. As told before, Emperess Zoe, being cured by bearing this belt, have sewed it with a gold thread, and put it again in the reliquary. This event is marked in the Orthodox calendar, with the Feast of putting the Belt in the reliquary (on August 31st). Finally it was taken from here by the Bulgarians of Ionita Caloian, after a battle lost by Alexios Angelos III (1195-1203) and finally it arrived at the monastery of  Vatopedi, being given by Lazar, the tsar of the Serbs in 1389. After that, the holy Belt was taken in longer processions during some great epidemic diseases, such as the pest in Wallachia (1813) and in the Ottoman Empire (1871), or in the modern times, in different countries, just in order to be venerated.
Western depiction in Fulda, Germany

The icon of the Holy Protection

The icon of the feast depicts the Holy Virgin standing above the faithful with her arms outstretched in prayer and draped with a veil, being surrounded by the angels and also by the twelve apostles, bishops, holy women, monks and martyrs, standing under the veil. She holds in her outstreched arms the holy veil, which symbolizes the protection of her intercession.
Under this scene, which reminds about the heavenly Church, there is the earthly church, probably Blachernae, where there is depicted a young man clothed as deacon, who bear in his left hand a scroll with the text of the Kontakion of the Nativity, which text honors the Mother of God (“Today, the Virgin gives birth to the One who is beyond the Being…”). This is St. Roman the Melodist, a hymnographer also celebrated on October 1st. Even he is not directly connected to this feast, his story tells about the fact that he receive the charisma of writing melodies in the honor of the saints, after the Holy Mother told him in a dream to eat a scroll that she was giving to him. Doing that, he started to be inspired to write. Together with him, on the right there are Andrew and Epiphanius, and in the left there are also depicted the Emperor Leon the Wise with his emperess Zoe (who has miraculously cured from a disease – probably epilepsy - by bearing the Belt of the Theotokos) and the Patriarch of Constantinople at that time, which is probably Euthymius I (enthroned in march 907). 
Russian icon of the Feast
The Pokrov icon may well be related to the Western Virgin of Mercy image, in which the Virgin spreads wide her cloak to cover and protect a group of kneeling supplicants. This is first known from Italy at about 1280. One of these scenes is depicted in the Dome of St. Bonifacius in Fulda, Germany.

Troparion (hymn of the Feast)

“Today the faithful celebrate the feast with joy illumined by your coming, O Mother of God. Beholding your pure image we fervently cry to you: Encompass us beneath the precious veil of your protection; deliver us from every form of evil by entreating Christ, your Son and our God that He may save our souls”

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