Protection of the Theotokos

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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.

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 content of the liturgical texts is taken from both Scripture and the Apocrypha. The latter refers to the earthly life of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

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.

Icon of the Protection of the Theotokos

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.

It turns out that the Emperor Heraclius, with whose name the Feast of the Exaltation is directly related, is also directly connected with the event of the Intercession of the Cross in bringing it back from captivity. After all, in the period when Heraclius led his armies in the Roman-Persian wars, the Capital Constantinople was saved from the invasion of the Avars and Slavs by the power of the Intercession of the Theotokos. Moreover, if to proceed from the religious essence of events, the Emperor also went to a campaign for the Cross of the Christ. In turn, the Avars and Slavs wanted therefore to take advantage of his absence. 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.

Finally, the Intercession 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 considered that the Feast of the Intercession was established in Russia by the holy Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky (+1174). He especially venerated Saint Andrew of Constantinople, that is why an episode from the life of this saint served for him as an occasion for the introduction of the liturgical feast of the Protection. Among other things Andrei is linked with the name of transferring or, more precisely, moving of the capital centre of Rus’ from Kiev to Vladimir. Besides, when killed by the boyars because of jealousy, i.e. “innocently murdered”, Andrei Bogolyubsky became a “passion bearer” for the Church. He was killed, but suffered not for the Christian faith, and therefore he could not be considered a martyr. A similar thing had already happened in the case of Princes Boris and Gleb (+1015). In order to overcome this “obstacle” in the distinction of the holiness of martyrs and passion-bearers, the Russian Church, for the first time in history introduced a separate rank of holiness. Much later, on the threshold of the third millennium, Tsar Nicholas II (+1918) and his family were recognised by the Church as martyrs – the Tsar who was innocently and brutally murdered. Thus the “absence of visible suffering for the faith” as an obstacle to his glorification was removed.

It is accepted that the Intercession is originally a Russian feast. Like the canonisation of the holiness of the “Passion-Bearers”, 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.

Researchers tell us that in the first centuries of its existence the Russian Church tradition was not able to express itself in the language of theology or philosophy. Up until the very nineteenth century, until the emergence of Russian religious philosophy, our Church was unable to give the world a single truly and universally significant thinker, philosopher or theologian. Nevertheless, an amazing counterbalance to this silence and inability, inability, and inadequacy, was the Russian Orthodox icon. “Speculation in colours” as this phenomenon has been designated by scholars. And here, in the realm of the juxtaposition of the feast, theory and icon, we encounter a new and surprising contextualisation of … the Intercession.

The fact is that the Greek tradition does not know its own images of the feast of the Intercession. The Russian tradition, on the contrary, gave birth to various types of appropriate icons. The Intercession found its continuation in the Church architecture: it is enough to remember Saint Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square, the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl and other masterpieces of the medieval past dedicated to the Intercession of the Mother of God.

This speculation in colours reflects one very deep intuition which reveals the Orthodox understanding of the dogma of the Mother of God. According to Western Christian tradition, the Virgin Mary is the Mother of the Church. In the icons of Pentecost, that is the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, she is shown seated in the centre, in the middle, and thus at the head of the disciples of Christ. The Apostles are arranged as if around Her, thereby testifying that the Virgin in Western theological thought is both the image, the prototype and the representation of the Church. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the Virgin Mary is something else.

Icon of Saint Andrei Bogolyubsky

Perhaps the most famous of the texts dedicated to her, the Angel’s Greeting at the Annunciation, says to her: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you”. In turn, the frequently repeated words in the divine service call her “Most honorable Cherubim and most glorious Seraphim without comparison”. At the same time, and this intuition is very important to grasp, Our Lady is the image of every believer. An image which, in the case of Mary herself, by the power of grace has become an infinite openness of the human person, spirit, soul and body, towards God.

There is something profoundly anthropological in this celebration, straight and directly related to humanity and to each person individually. In fact, there is an infinite degree of potentiation of human nature revealed in Our Lady. The image of God, as the givenness and likeness of God, as the capacity for infinite perfection, which in Christ Jesus makes man “a partaker of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1,4). The maximally “potentialised” image of the human soul and body in the Lord and God. As it is sung in church hymns, spoken of in biblical texts and proclaimed in the dogma of faith in the Lord Jesus, “incarnate of the Holy Spirit and of Mary the Virgin”. In this sense, the Intercession is a celebration in honor of every person in Christ.

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 twelve greatest 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 Holy Cross 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 help, and is in fact a trans-semantic translation of the ancient apostolic cry, “Blessed Virgin Mary, help us!”.

It turns out that if the Feast of the Intercession were to become one of the twelve greatest feasts, this would mean a kind of bias towards late Catholic theology which, in its polemic with Protestantism, was characterised by a parallelism between the work of the Lord Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this case, the Mother of God, in the positive sense of the word, becomes a kind of “counterbalance” to Christ. The Cross and the Veil become analogous signs of the same saving power of God. But this is not the case. The Exaltation remains the Exaltation, and the Intercession remains the Intercession. By making the Intercession “only” a “great”, the Russian theological tradition has thus created, on the level of celebration, veneration, “speculation in colours”, a representation of the two households or –better – a hierarchy within one and the same household of the Lord and God. This is also what the text of the Creed says, “I believe in the Lord Jesus, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate”. This immediately follows the confession of “the Lord, incarnate of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary”.

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. The reverse logic, the vectorial movement of the words of confession from Our Lady to Pontius Pilate, is extremely important and interesting. This aspect of adoration before the shrine, left as a precious relic of the Blessed Virgin, turns the Feast of the Intercession into a kind of Exaltation in Honor of the Blessed Virgin. The Cross becomes the Christological covering of the whole universe and of every person. “Cover us from all evil with your holy omophorion”, says the Akathist. “We magnify Thee, Most Holy Virgin, for Thou art seen by Saint Andrew on the air, praying for us”, is sung in the Exaltation of the Intercession. 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.

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