Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God
Since the 13th century, the feast of the Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God has been one of the most loved feasts of the Russian people. In its significance for Russian people it gives way only to the feasts of Annunciation, the Nativity of Christ and the Bright Resurrection of Christ. It is also a Russian national feast day.
Of great attraction is the underlying idea of this feast day itself. The Mother of God Herself keeps constant vigil over the Christian world and protects it.
As to the spreading of the celebration of this feast in Russia, it was doubtlessly influenced by the spiritual and emotional peculiarities of the Russian people, who profoundly recognised the veneration of the Mother of God.
At the end of the 9th century and the beginning of the 10th century there lived in Constantinople a holy man, St. Andrew, the Fool for Christ. At the age of 17 he was brought (as a slave) by a certain Byzantine nobleman, the head of the Imperial Bodyguard. He was of Scythian origin (the region that is now southern Russia). In the house of his master he received the education common at the time, and thanks to his abilities he was shortly appointed a secretary to the nobleman.
Soon, however under the influence of his reading about the lives of saints, and his spiritual father, Andrew took upon himself the spiritual endeavour of a fool for Christ. The purpose of this endeavour was to demonstrate, under the guise of insanity and inappropriate behaviour, the senselessness of the wisdom of this world. He would roam the streets of the capital dressed in rags, sleep under an open sky, and utter insane words. Idle folk would often beat him, and he would suffer from heat and cold. For this feat of his he was granted the gift of prophesying; he worked miracles and saved many from depraved ways of life. He had a pupil, Epiphanios of aristocratic background who subsequently became Patriarch Polievktos of Constantinople.
The miraculous events, which formed the basis of the feast of the Protection, unfolded over a thousand years ago. A formidable enemy invaded the Byzantine Empire, threatening Constantinople. The Greeks felt incapable of repelling the encroaching enemy by their own means. So they turned to the Mother of God with tearful prayers. Crowds of the faithful headed towards the Blachernae Church where great holy objects were kept: the Panagia’s robe and Her veil (omophorion). This took place towards the end of St. Andrew’s life.
During the All-Night Vigil service, at about 4am, an amazing vision was presented to Blessed Andrew and his disciple Epiphanios. A majestic Lady was advancing in the air from the western door. St. John the Baptist and the Apostle John were supporting Her. Other saints of the heavenly escort, in white garments, preceded and followed the Mother of God singing hymns. When She reached the ambo, Blessed Andrew asked Epiphanios: “Do you see the Lady and the Queen of the World?”
“I see, my spiritual father”, he answered. “I see and I tremble”. And as they were watching, She knelt down and remained long in prayer with tears streaming down Her All-pure Face. Having finished Her prayers, She approached the Altar Table and prayed yet again for the people who were present. Then She removed Her veil which shone like lightning, and which she wore on Her head, and holding it over Her arms She extended it over all the people standing in the church. Sts. Andrew and Epiphanios stood looking at this luminous veil, at this glory of the Lord. When the Holy Theotokos departed, the veil too became invisible, leaving the Grace upon those present in the Church.
This wonderful vision inspired the Greeks so much that on the following morning they were able to repulse the enemies and put them to flight. Thus in many other instances, when called upon by the faithful in fervent prayer, the Mother of God has always manifested Her miraculous help and intercession against visible and invisible enemies.
All-important events in the history of the Russian people have always been so closely associated with the pious veneration of the Most Holy Mother of God and Her saving Protection. Thus Russian rightfully called herself the “House of the Mother of God”.
So, this manifestation of the Most Holy Mother of God in Blachernae Church, with Her omophorion, as a symbol of her protection and shield, extended over the faithful, constitutes the basis of our feast of Protection.
The Greek Church did not establish a specific rite to celebrate this vision of the Holy Theotokos. Apparently Greeks did not see any particular necessity for that since the veneration of the Mother of God was very widespread in Byzantium. In the 10th century in Constantinople alone there were over 90 churches dedicated to the Most Holy Theotokos, not counting monasteries and private churches, erected later.
When the life of St. Andrew, Fool for Christ, was translated into the Slavonic language and spread in Russia, its readers particularly noted the wonderful appearance of the Mother of God, and thus the feast of Protection was established in Russia to commemorate this miracle.
Some people think that this celebration was initiated by the famous Russian Prince Andrew Bogoliubsky, who was subsequently canonized. In support of this assumption we may point out the fact that in the past he was commemorated on the day following the feast of Protection, as the initiator of this feast.
About 1165 Prince Andrew Bogoliubsky erected a stone church on the river Nerli dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God. But as shown by a strict investigation of the history of the feast of the Protection, it could have been established even earlier, at the beginning of the 12th century Kiev Rus.
It may also be assumed that the feast of the Protection was established by another Russian prince, whom a chronicler called, “a wonderful prince….merciful beyond measure”, i.e. Vladimir Monomakh (1113-1125). The Great Prince Andrew Bogoliubsky, however, the great venerator of the Mother of God, who built a series of churches in Her honour, has greatly contributed to the celebration of the Protection feast and its spread throughout Russia, particularly in its northern part. Later this feast became the All-Russian national feast day, single-mindedly observed throughout the country. Even the heterodox, as for example Tatars, Bashkirs, Kalmyks and others, respected this feast day and following the example of Russians, would abstain from work on that day.
And today, when we experience tragic times, let us turn to the Most Holy Mother of God; let us implore Her with all our hearts to protect us, to shorten the days of suffering of the entire Christian world, and shelter us under Her precious omophorion.
Source: Fr. Theodor Raevsky (+ Archbishop Savva), Sermon, Word of the Church. No. 10-11, 1958.