Today is the feastday of the Protection of the Theotokos. In parts of the Slavic world, it is celebrated almost as if it were one of the twelve great feasts. It commemorates an event that happened in the 9th century, in a year when October 1 fell on a Sunday, as it does this year.
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 the city was threatened by a barbarian invasion.
During the service, St. Andrew the Fool for Christ and his disciple, St. Epiphanius, saw the Theotokos appear in the church. 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.
Icons of the Protection of the Theotokos
By the 12th century, icons were made to commemorate the protection of the Theotokos. The simplest version of the icon, which you can see at the top of this page, is the one that we have in my parish. 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 her with the protection of her veil.
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.