Update: October 2/14, 2016 — Congratulations to the Orthodox parish of the Protection of the Theotokos, in Polomolok, South Cotobato!
Last year in Cluj, Romania, I received an icon of the Protection of the Theotokos as a gift from Abbot Vissarion of the Monastery of the Protection, to pass on to the parish in Polomolok. I am grateful to see photos of this icon at the celebration of their patronal feast today! Truly the Orthodox Church is one.
The Protection of the Mother of God is one of the most beloved feast days on the Orthodox calendar among the Slavic peoples, commemorated on October 1/12. The feast is celebrated on October 28 in the Greek tradition. It is also known as the feast of the Virgin Mary’s Veil.
The Russian word Pokrov (Покров), like the Greek Skepi (Σκέπη), has a dual meaning: it refers to a cloak or covering garment, but it also means protection or intercession. For this reason, the name of the feast is variously translated as the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos, the Protection of the Theotokos, or the Intercession of the Theotokos.
The feast day celebrates the appearance of the Mother of God at Blachernae in the tenth century. The Blachernae palace church, nearby the city gates, was where several relics of the Theotokos were kept, including her robe, veil, and part of her belt, which had been transferred from Palestine during the fifth century.
In 911 AD, St. Andrew the Fool for Christ, with his disciple St. Epiphanius and many others, saw the Mother of God, St. John the Baptist, and several other saints and angels during a vigil in the Church of Blachernae. They saw her approach the center of the church; she knelt down and remained in prayer for a long time. Her face was drowned in tears. Then she took off her veil and spread it over the people as a sign of protection. At this time, the city was threatened by a barbarian invasion. After the appearance of the Mother of God, the danger was averted and the city was spared from bloodshed and suffering.
The Russian Primary Chronicle notes that the intercession of the Theotokos was needed for the protection of the people of Constantinople when a large fleet of the pagan Rus, led by Askole and Dir, was threatening Constantinople. The invading fleet was defeated and the event was recorded. About seventy years later, Grand Prince Vladimir and the people of Rus’ embraced Christianity and entered the Church. Within a few centuries churches began being named in honor of the Protection of the Theotokos.
In recent years in Greece, the Feast of the Protection has become associated with thanksgiving for the deliverance of the Greek nation from the Italian invasion of 1940. These events are commemorated in Greece in a national holiday on October 28, known as “Ohi Day” or “No Day,” referring to the response of the Greek leader Metaxas to Mussolini’s ultimatum.
In recognition of this, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece elected in 1960 to transfer the Feast from October 1 to October 28. The Ecumenical Patriarchate also provides for this usage in its parishes in Greece and in the Greek diaspora, and it is generally observed now throughout the Greek-speaking world.
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, 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.
Troparion (Tone 4)
Today the faithful celebrate the feast with joy
illumined by thy coming, O Mother of God.
Beholding thy pure image we fervently cry to thee:
“Encompass us beneath the precious veil of thy protection;
deliver us from every form of evil by entreating Christ,
thy Son and our God, that He save our souls.”
Kontakion (Tone 3)
Today the Virgin stands in the midst of the Church
and with choirs of saints she invisibly prays to God for us.
Angels and bishops worship,
apostles and prophets rejoice together,
since for our sake she prays to the pre-eternal God.