Protection of the Theotokos

Augustin Sokolovski, Priest, Doctor of Theology

According to the Church Statutes, the Feast of Feasts, the main celebration of the liturgical year is Easter. It is the most important holiday. It is above all. Then the twelve feasts follow, as if by a step below. Hence, they are called Twelve Great Feasts. Each of them is directly linked to the History of Salvation or sacred history. The Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated on 27th of September, stands out in this series of celebrations. It stands out clearly from all other celebrations, both in the circumstances of its appearance and in its content. 

The Exaltation is at the same time a historical holiday, or holiday in history or – better – a holiday of history. For it is dedicated to the finding of the Cross under Emperor Constantine (+337), and then under Heraclius (+641). The Exaltation is also an ideological or theological feast. For it brings with it the idea of the union and the synergy of Christianity and the Empire. And finally, the Exaltation is a celebration in honor of the Cross of Christ as a holy, revered and worshipped object.  

Like the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Feast of the Protection of the Theotokos 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.

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. In this aspect, the celebration of the Intercession takes on an ideological and theological significance.

The Protection of the Theotokos finds its semantic localisation in the material, or so to speak, in the material aspect of the celebration. For the Protection of the Virgin is also a shrine: her garment, her robe, her blessing. A concrete material object, which in the light of God’s saving work has acquired a special symbolic meaning, but which remains in its literal, man-made, tangible dimension. In this sense it is important to mention the cloak, or Robe of the Blessed Virgin preserved in the Cathedral of Chartres, or the Girdle of the Virgin preserved on Athos. The shrines associated with the life of the Virgin are of special importance, especially because, according to tradition, the faith of the Church and theology after her death or, as it is called in the liturgy, the Dormition, the Virgin did not rest in the tomb, but was bodily taken up by God to Heaven.

It is accepted that the Intercession is originally a Russian feast. It was introduced at the dawn of the history of the Russian Church and only later began to be celebrated in other, first of all, Balkan Orthodox Churches. The genius of the Russian tradition, when applied to the feast of the Protecting Veil of Mary, lies above all in the capacity to see through the prism of the historical events of the saving of the City and also the political, or even military, dimension of the veneration of the Mother of God in Constantinople, a profound ideological and theological content. In fact, once, twice – and for the eyewitnesses of those events and for historians – repeatedly saving the City has not obscured for the Russian mind the genuine, semantically important and theologically relevant component of the participation of the Virgin in the destinies of history. Her participation in the housebuilding and economy of God in the World.

The Exaltation and the Intercession are thus direct analogues, or better not contradictory antipodes. It is of the utmost importance that the Intercession did not “become” one of the twelwe most important feasts.  For in the veneration of the Lord Jesus and the Theotokos there must be an irresistible and necessary, unmistakable hierarchy. The glorification of the Lord Jesus and the adoration of the Honest Christ in the Exaltation, who is absolutely inseparable from Him who was crucified thereon, is based on the unmistakable witness of faith in Him as Redeemer, Savior, Lord and God. God – as an infinite self-addressed, entered history.

The veneration of Our Lady is different. Repeatedly repeating the invocation, “Our Lady, save us” during the service, the Church does not forget its theological conventionality. For, according to Scripture, there is only one God who is able to save and to destroy (cf.James 4,12). Accordingly, the invocation to the Blessed Virgin for salvation means a request for non-salvation, and is in fact a trans-semantic translation of the ancient apostolic cry, “Blessed Virgin Mary, help us!”. The Intercession is as a celebration of the saving gift of grace. The Intercession is as salvation in spite of it. Contrary to historical circumstances, contrary to circumstances of incapacity. 

“A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (Rev.12,1). There is a version that the crescent moon, was originally a symbol of Our Lady and Constantinople. Many of us here are reminded of the Old Russian sign of the cross and the crescent on many churches and cathedrals. Thus the Cross and the Intercession find their surprising correspondence in signs, symbols and theology. 

“Cover us from all evil with your holy omophorion”, says the Akathist of the Feast. “We magnify Thee, Most Holy Virgin, for Thou art seen by Saint Andrew on the air, praying for us”, is sung in the Liturgy of the Protection. The Cross of Christ as an irresistible protection, the Intercession of the Theotokos as a sign of the soon unfolding and completion of the history of salvation from the Lord and God.