Protection of the Theotokos

Augustin Sokolovski, Priest, Doctor of Theology

The adornment of the month of October, the culmination of the whole autumn, a symbol of the changing times and an echo of ancient Church and Russian history is the Feast of the Intercession of the Theotokos. This day is celebrated annually by the Church on the 14th of October, marking the end of the first half of Autumn.

The hierarchy of Feasts in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, beginning with Easter, continuing with the twelve feasts, continues with the next step consisting of five celebrations. The Feast of the Circumcision, which coincides with the beginning of the new civil year on 1 (14 January), is a celebration of the appearing of the Lord Jesus as both the son of the biblical people of Israel and the Messiah on whom the promises of God have been fulfilled. The Nativity of John the Baptist commemorates the birth of the one whom Christ Himself in the Gospel calls “the greatest among those born of women” and whom the Church considers the greatest of all prophets. The beheading of John the Baptist is a mournful remembrance of his martyrdom. The commemoration of the Apostles Peter and Paul, whom tradition calls “the first among the apostles”, commemorates those on whose work and word the Church was built. This emphasized “equivalence” or the equality of the two Apostles in the work of building up the Church which is particularly characteristic of Orthodoxy.

It is obvious that the Intercession stands out here, and we will examine the reasons for this in the following paragraphs. It falls out of the structure of the four feasts. First of all, historically it comes much later. The occasion of its appearance, as it is generally accepted, is caused by two events. The first took place under Emperor Heraclius; the second, about three centuries later, and relates to the vita of the great saint, St. Andrew the Fool for Christ (+936). Both events took place in Constantinople. Through the prayers of the Virgin the City was saved. It is noteworthy that it was at this very moment, dedicated to deliverance, that the great Akathist to the Most Holy Mother of God was composed. Through prayers before the Blessed Virgin, the City was delivered from danger.

The second historical component of the feast of the Intercession is linked to the name of St. Andrew. St. Andrew is one of the most venerated saints of the Church of Constantinople. According to the hagiography, during the time of the barbarian invasion when the city’s inhabitants prayed to God for deliverance, the saint saw heaven opened and the Theotokos in the temple. The Blessed Virgin prayed for deliverance of the City and stretched her cloak, i.e. cloak, mantle, omophorion, over it.

So, based on two historical episodes, the event of the Intercession is a historical celebration. However, and this is a surprising parallel between the Exaltation and the Intercession, the content of the feast is not limited to history. After all, in addition to biblical and sacred history, the Virgin Mary has a very special role in providence and salvation. The Divine dispensation, that is the Work of God aimed at completing the History of the universe, finds in Her, or through Her, new and – in this very newness – paradoxical ways of its realisation.

As it clearly happens in the events that served as a justification for the celebration of the Intercession, the Virgin “intervenes” in the course not only of sacred, holy, but also profane, secular, in this case “urban”, imperial history. She protects, intercedes, preserves the city with Her cover. As it says in the great penitential canon of St. Andrew of Crete: “Preserve Thy city, O Mother of God. By Thee faithfully reigning, by Thee it is established. By Thee, overcoming all temptation, triumphing over enemies, and passing through obedience”. In this aspect, the celebration of the Intercession takes on an ideological and theological significance.