If you want to attend services for the Feast of the Protection of the Theotokos, you may need to call ahead to find out when it’s kept. In the Slavic tradition, where it is celebrated almost as if it were one of the twelve great feasts, it’s appointed for October 1. Old Calendar parishes therefore keep the feast on October 14 (which corresponds to October 1). And Greeks celebrate it on October 28.
Whenever it is celebrated, it commemorates an event that happened in the 10th century, in a year when October 1 fell on a Sunday. Unless you’re Greek, when it also commemorates events from the beginning of World War II. But more on that later.
The story of the feast
The story starts in Palestine. The veil, belt, and robe that had belonged to the Theotokos had been reverently passed down from generation to generation. But in the fifth century, someone decided that those garments should be moved from Palestine to Constantinople. They were housed in a church in Blachernae, a neighborhood in Constantinople.
Several centuries later, on Sunday, October 1, the church in Blachernae was filled to overflowing for the All Night Vigil. There were perhaps more people there than usual, because a barbarian invasion was threatening the city.
During the service, at about 4 in the morning, St. Andrew the Fool for Christ and his disciple, St. Epiphanius, saw the Theotokos enter the church through the dome. St. John the Baptist, St. John the Theologian, and other saints and angels were with her. She knelt in the center of the church, crying as she prayed. St. Andrew asked St. Epiphanius, “Do you see the Theotokos, praying for the world?” And Epiphanius said that he did, and was filled with awe.
When the Theotokos finished praying in the middle of the church, she moved toward the bishop’s throne and prayed some more. And then she removed her veil and spread it over the people to protect them from all danger. Both she and her protecting veil gleamed with a brilliant light.
And as long as the Theotokos remained there praying, the veil continued to flash with the light of glory. Eventually, she left as she had come, and the veil left with her.
After the Vigil was over, the people who had prayed there in the church with the Theotokos learned that the danger had passed. There would be no invasion.
The Protection of the Theotokos in the Greek tradition
Greek people, in Greece and around the world, keep the Feast of the Protection of the Theotokos on October 28, which is also known as Όχι day, or the Day of No. On that day in 1940, at about 3 a.m., the Italian ambassador to Greece presented Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas with an ultimatum: Surrender strategic areas of Greece to the Axis forces, or face war. Metaxas was said to have responded with a single word: No.
By morning, the streets in Greece were full of ordinary people who had taken that word up as their chant. No. Όχι. There would be no surrender.
And so Greece entered World War II. When the Italians invaded, the ferocity of the Greek military resistance took them by surprise. The Greeks stopped the Italian forces in the mountains of Pindus, and slowly pushed them out of Greece entirely. That was the first Allied victory of World War II. Eventually, of course, Greece was overwhelmed and occupied by the Axis powers. But the power of No gave the Greek Resistance strength during the Axis occupation.
That, and the Greeks’ devotion to the Theotokos. So many Greek soldiers reported miracles involving the Theotokos during the fighting that the Greek people took October 1 as the day to honor the Theotokos for protecting Greece from the invasion of 1940. In 1952, the Holy Synod of Greece transferred the feast to October 28.
Icons of the Protection of the Theotokos
By the 12th century, icons were made to commemorate the protection of the Theotokos. You can see the simplest version of the icon at the top of this page. More often, the icon will show the Theotokos holding her veil over a crowd of people. Angels are beside her. Below her, you can see St. Andrew and St. Epiphanius, along with a young deacon holding a scroll with the text of the Kontakion for the Nativity that honors the Theotokos. That deacon is, of course, St. Romanos the Melodist, whose feastday is also kept on October 1.
I love the simple version of the icon. By stripping out everything except the Theotokos and her veil, the icon shows that anyone can go to her, asking her to intercede with her Son and Lord. Her protection isn’t just for the people of Blachernae, all those years ago. Even today, when you ask, she will cover you with the protection of her veil.
In Russian, the word for protection is pokrov. In Greek, it is skepi. Both words, I am told, mean veil or cloak or shroud. And both words also mean protection or intercession. So the Theotokos, when she covered the congregation in Blachernae with her veil, was making a pun. You are covered by my veil. You are covered by my intercessions. You are covered by my protection. It’s all the same.
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.”
St. John the Theologian and the Mother of God: We don’t look at Jesus’ family as often as perhaps we should.
The Story of Mary the Mother of God: A Review: This sweet picture book tells the life of the Theotokos through the stories from the Protoevangelium of James.
Orthodox Saints of World War II: Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens and All Greece, Bishop Chrysostomos of Zakynthos, Princess Andrew (Alice), and other heroic Orthodox Christians fought the hatred that was filling the world during World War II with their love for God and for others.