On 14 October the Local Orthodox Churches that follow the Julian calendar celebrate the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God
By Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, priest
The very word “Protection” means patronage, intercession and help. It is deliverance and its continuous presence both with us and above in Heaven. A considerate attitude to God and to the remembrance of His deeds in history helps us see the times given to man from a different, sacramental perspective. It is important to remember that, according to the Gospel, the Kingdom of God has drawn near, and it is within us (cf. Lk. 17:21). The time, and especially the time of the Church – that is, the plan of the liturgical cycles, is the “musical instrument” of the Holy Spirit with the help of which God approaches us.
The establishment of each Church feast is associated with certain circumstances in history. As a rule, one or another Local Church would first introduce the celebration within its jurisdiction. Eventually it could spread to other countries and jurisdictions. Thus, the celebration of the Nativity of Christ was originally established in the Church of Rome, and the Meeting of the Lord – in the Church of Jerusalem. Liturgical theology deals with the study of these processes. The origin of the Feast of the Protection has been studied in sufficient detail. Much less attention was paid to studying its theological aspect. Liturgical scholars maintain that this feast owes its origin to the Church of Constantinople. There is nothing unusual in this, since for about half of its history that spans 1000 years the Russian Church was a metropolis of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In 1589, at the request of the Russian Tsar, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchs established a patriarchate in Moscow. Thus, our Church became one of the “titular” patriarchates in Orthodoxy. The word “titular” in this case is a mere statement of the fact that the see of the city of Moscow was not founded by the Apostles and was not approved by the Roman emperors. It appeared much later in history, yet its role in the destiny of the world and the faith cannot be overestimated. The elevation of the Russian Church to the rank of patriarchate should not be perceived by analogy with the modern independence of states from one another. The Eucharistic communion of the Churches – the Greek, Balkan, Russian, Georgian and others – continued. It is evidenced by the preservation of the previous celebrations in their liturgical calendars. It is extremely interesting that in its original meaning the Protection of the Theotokos signifies thanksgiving to God for the Protection of the Virgin Mary, Her intercession, help and patronage, which were revealed throughout the long history of Constantinople. “Thy city,” as the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete, which is read at the beginning of Lent, says addressing the Theotokos. The Roman capital on the Bosporus regarded itself as the city of the Most Holy Virgin.
The consecration of the city took place on 11 May 330. Beyond all doubt, it is not only a secular, but also a Church commemoration.
In the Roman Empire many cities became capitals. For this or that city would become a capital when the emperor stayed in it for quite a long time. However, Constantine undoubtedly wanted more. For he founded not just a city, but New Rome. Unlike the pagan Rome, full of idols on the banks of the Tiber, New Rome on the Bosporus was supposed to be Christian from the beginning.
The recognition of Christianity as the State religion was a genuine revolution. This unique Revolution in Christ had three main stages: the legalization of Christianity; convening an Ecumenical Council; the Baptism of Constantine on his deathbed in accordance with the practice of that time.
The fact is that at the beginning of the reign of Constantine Christians in the Empire were a tiny minority. However, the Emperor made his choice. In 313 Constantine signed the Edict of Milan, which legalised Christianity and it was no longer subject to persecution.
Twelve years later, in 325, the Ecumenical Council took place in the city of Nicaea. It was attended by the most prominent Christian bishops of that time. Constantine took an active part in the formulation of its dogmatic decrees. This event marked the beginning of a new era. According to Tradition, 318 Church Fathers took part in the Council. This number is unlikely to be historical, since it corresponds to Biblical symbolism. Precisely 318 servants of the Forefather Abraham participated in the Biblical battle with the wicked tribes, the aim of which was to rescue his nephew Lot from captivity (cf. Gen. 14:14). Thus, the contemporaries of the “Constantinian events” and their descendants sought to give the events of secular Roman history a Biblical dimension. It should be noted that the later theological understanding of the Feast of the Protection after many centuries followed a similar logic.
Orthodoxy thus received a new dimension. Henceforth, it meant the formulation of the dogmatic theology officially approved in the Empire. This period in the history of the Church, called “Constantinian”, was extremely long and did not end until 1917 when the Russian Empire collapsed. The definition of Orthodoxy as “the official doctrine” has retained its significance to this day.
The Church Fathers of that time believed that Constantine’s crossover to Christianity and then his Baptism in 337 shortly before his death, according to the common practice of his time, was the work of the Holy Spirit. Following the “father of Church history” Eusebius of Caesarea (265–339), in their writings they asserted that the emperor was inspired by God Himself. The universe was becoming Christian, and Christianity – not only in theory, but also in practice – was becoming a universal – that is, catholic [in the sense: “universal”, not “Roman Catholic”]confession of faith for all. The foundation of the City of Constantinople was intended to serve this providential purpose.
It is worth noting that the consecration of New Rome initially had no Church significance. The local bishop was an ordinary bishop subordinate to his metropolitan. As late as 451 the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon gave the bishop of the new capital the status of the senior bishop in the Eastern Church. In fact, it was a paradoxical analogue of the future status of the Bishop of Rome in the West. But then this decision, the so-called Rule 28, for centuries did not receive the approval of the Universal Church.
Apart from the Church Fathers of that time who approved and praised the act of Constantine, there was a lonely voice that contradicted them. Truly, it was an incredible, too early example of the so-called “lateral thinking”! In terms of its degree of difference from the consensus of others, this voice was probably akin to postmodern thinking. Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430) in his work The City of God wrote that Constantine undoubtedly did a lot of good. However, he founded a city, which was named after him. And in this, if we refer to the Holy Scriptures, he… became like Forefathers, who lived long before Christ. According to the first chapters of the Bible, they became the founders of cities that they named after themselves (cf. Gen. 4:17).
Perhaps this prophetic insight of Augustine partly helps us comprehend the inconsistency and tragedy associated with the history of this great city. Constantinople was of great importance in the development of Orthodoxy as the Universal Faith, and, at the same time, contributed to the gradual division of this single confession into the communion of five Patriarchates, and then their mutual alienation.
In 1930, the new Turkish authorities renamed Constantinople to Istanbul. But despite this, New Rome founded by Constantine on the Bosporus simply could not cease to exist. For “manuscripts don’t burn”, and the City of Constantinople is a precious page of history, written by the service and communion in the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ of the multitudes of saints who shone forth in the Great City. The most surprising thing is that Constantinople undoubtedly continues to live in the “manuscripts” of Russian Orthodox worship. The celebration of the Protection is the most important confirmation of this.
Though the Protection is not the only Constantinople’s feast in Russian tradition, it is the most important among other “metropolitan” feasts of our Church calendar. Besides, unlike the place of its origin, where this feast has always been of minor importance, it was in the Russian Church that it was destined to become truly significant.
The word “Liturgy”, which is well-known to us from Church usage, means “public work” or simply “worship”. The common service to God in prayer is a unique characteristic of the Old Testament Biblical and Christian heritage. It is based on the conviction that God is a Person and a living Being Who hears, loves, and waits for the person He created to turn to Him. It is in the Bible that the rule of prayer is written, on which the spiritual life of Christians should be built: “If thou… rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee…, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Mt. 5:23, 24).
Man depends on God, on His mercy and forgiveness. But in the New Testament Jesus makes forgiveness dependent on whether the person has forgiven his neighbour, and, most importantly (and perhaps it is the most difficult thing), whether he is forgiven by him. It appears that God makes Himself dependent on the decisions of man. And such a message is peculiar only to Christianity. In the light of this, the liturgical feasts as the place of the common prayer of the faithful become very significant.
An unforgettable special common Liturgy for the entire Russian Church was celebrated in the second half of the last century precisely on the Feast of the Protection. The fact is that in Russia’s vast expanses there were then only two theological academies. Thus, all the future Orthodox clergy studied in one of them, knew one another from the time of training and remembered those common traditions that once determined their strict seminary environment for many years. The main church of the Moscow Theological Academy, and therefore the principal feast of its teachers and students, was dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God.
In fact, during the time of persecution of the faithful, when the Church was extremely marginalized within Soviet society, the Holy Protection was the only day in the year when the doors of the Academy in the area of the Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra would open. The Patriarch would come to visit the students. The Russian Church had very few bishops, and most of them would come to the feast to pray within the walls of what they called their home. It was the common worship of the Church, the Liturgy as it is, in thanksgiving to God for the gift of theological education, which then, in the era of persecution, was a truly unique gift. This now forgotten aspect of the Russian Holy Protection should not fall into oblivion!
Unlike the most important feasts of the Orthodox Church, which, in accordance with Biblical practice, last several days, the Protection is celebrated for only one day. This celebration, which was so exceptional in the recent past, annually became for all who served the Russian Church after graduating from the Moscow Academy a simultaneous farewell to this day and to one another till next year. At the same time, there is such a strong theological component in the symbolism of this festival: you can always return to the idea of the help of the Theotokos throughout the history of God’s people. In this regard, the tradition of the weekly singing of the Akathist to the Protection of the Theotokos on Wednesday is maintained at the Moscow Theological Academy to this day.
“The past no longer is, and the future is not yet,” Blessed Augustine once wrote. It is believed that it was this saint and thinker who managed to partly reveal for future generations the essence of the Biblical understanding of time. In contrast, a magical consciousness presupposes a fundamental refusal to recognise the past as the past. It insists on the possibility of returning the past through certain mental or physical manipulations. Prophetically denoting the return of Western humanity to this pre-Christian way of thinking, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) proclaimed the idea of “eternal return”. From a Biblical perspective, the past must be understood as irreversible.
In Russia with its harsh climate, even when summer, like holiness, breaks through the damp and cold everyday routine in order to say goodbye till the next year, the feast of the Protection has acquired a special meaning. Indeed, according to the old Church calendar, which our Church adheres to, it falls on 14 October and thus completes the first half of the autumn. It used to snow for the first time on the feast of the Protection. The snow-white cover emphasized that Heaven through the “windows” of the Church feasts takes part in our lives. In the twenty-first century such localization of memories is becoming less and less clear. After all, days have long ceased to be associated with Biblical events. They pass imperceptibly: alas, they have become just dates. In their attempt to give time a new, additional dimension, the Church feasts are really vital.
Time has been given to us to learn to say goodbye. The Book of Revelation of John the Evangelist reminds us that Christ already stands at the door: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20). These words of the Apocalypse speak of a supper. The theme of the meal is one of the key Biblical subjects. It reminds us about the communion between man and God; and it also reminds us about the last earthly supper, which Christ had with the disciples. Knowing about His forthcoming death, the Lord took bread and wine into His hands. He called the Bread, His Body, and the Wine, His Blood. Thus, He revealed that His Passion was completely voluntary. At the same time, He anticipated His death by giving His entire self to His disciples and the world.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). This key quotation for understanding the essence of the Gospel of John was pronounced in the environment of the Last Supper. Like the whole event of the Supper, these words point to the voluntary nature of the Lord’s Passion. Anticipating His Crucifixion in the mysteries of His Body and Blood, Jesus announced that He would not be crucified on the Cross because of unfortunate circumstances but would give His life for the salvation of the world that God loved (cf. Jn. 3:16).
Christ was crucified in Palestine, which was then part of the Roman Empire. Despite the desire of the Biblical people to regain their independence, it was Roman ideas that determined general everyday life. It is important that the Romans then believed that he who, though innocent, experienced the deepest suffering, comprehended the truth in a special way. Thus, the tidings of Christ were ready to be spread where paganism had previously dominated.
Jesus is the Harvester of Sorrow so that we may rejoice. So paradoxically and unexpectedly did the Roman society of that time ripen for the harvest of the Gospel (cf. Jn. 4:35). Thus, in the amazing succession of miracles, signs, and, importantly, the all-powerful weakness of God, Who, in fulfilment of the words of the Prophet Isaiah, Himself reforged the sword of His Wrath for the mercy of the Eucharist (cf. Is. 22:4), the Holy Spirit made people participants in the hospitality of the Word. At the Last Supper the Lord gave the disciples His Body and Blood. This means that after taking upon Himself all that is ours He Himself gave us all that is His. So, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the Apostles and all those who were close to Him in His earthly life, and, most importantly, in the moments of His suffering, became by the gift of grace close to us. In this new Divine kinship with us the Biblical essence of the celebration of the Holy Protection is revealed.
Even though the Feast of the Protection is of Constantinople origin, according to some, it was originally a Russian festival. Introduced at the dawn of the history of the Russian Church, it began to be celebrated in some other (Balkan, Georgian) Orthodox Churches. In this sense, the amazing gift of the Russian tradition with regard to the Celebration of the Holy Protection lies above all in the ability to see a deep, lofty content through the prism of the historical events of the salvation of the city. The political meaning of the veneration of the Mother of God as the Patroness of the Eastern Roman Empire was replaced by the theological understanding of the intercession of the Virgin Mary for all the people of God. The repeated deliverance of the capital from sieges by enemies began to be understood as the incessant participation of the Theotokos in the destinies of human history.
Over the first centuries of its eventful history, the Russian Church did not produce a single prominent thinker or theologian. However, “theology in colours”, as ancient Russian icon-painting was later called, became a great substitute for philosophy not formulated in words. Similarly, the Feast of the Holy Protection, which for contemporaries of the events in the history of Constantinople and their descendants was a mere miracle of the Theotokos, was revealed in Russian tradition as the personification of Her involvement in the Divine economy.