The Protection of the Mother of God

Theological research has always been a mandate of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship as well as In Communion, and this year we have launched a new research project on the saints of the Church. It has become customary to feature saints on the cover of our journal for several years now, and to use the saints as the launching point for each publication. We have now begun a formal and systematic study of the hagiographies of the Church, with the hope of producing a book-length publication on the subject: A Mercy of Peace.

Every day of the year, the Church celebrates dozens of holy people whose lives illumine the Church. These saintly luminaries reveal the mind of the Church in a special way. The teachings and activities of the saints do not carry the same authority as the liturgical, canonical, or conciliar texts of the Church, but instead shed light on the Gospel and the teachings of Christ in a way that canons, formulas, and liturgical texts cannot. Saints are humans, just like us, who took the message of Christ to heart, and who lived out that message in radical ways. The witness of the saints is diverse. Hagiographies do not provide us with doctrine, methods of prayer, or rules for behavior. Instead, they provide us with stories. In them we read narratives and tales of heroic individuals attempting, and
sometimes failing, to proclaim that the Kingdom of God reigns, while at the same time laboring in a world that seems alien to the values of poverty, meekness, mercy, peace, and justice that define Christ’s Kingdom. Without the witness of these saints, the tradition of our Church would merely be a record of methods of prayer,
rules for Church governance, and a few dogmatic statements of belief. It is the saints which make our tradition a living one.

Every Orthodox community has a special devotion to certain saints, and the OPF is no different. Looking through our past publications, you will see St. Maria of Paris, St. Dmitry Klepinin, St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, and St. Alexander Schmorell appear again and again. Among the saints, there is one in particular to which the OPF has the highest devotion, and that is Mary, the Mother of God herself. The OPF is formally dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God, and in many places the name of our organization is written “The Orthodox Peace Fellowship of the Protection of the Mother of God.” An icon of the Protection of the Mother of God was even specially painted for the OPF, and has since come to adorn everything that the OPF does.

The Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God is celebrated on October 1, or on October 28, depending on the jurisdiction. This feast commemorates a series of events, the first of which occurred in the summer of 626, where Constantinople was saved from an enemy invasion, not by force of arms, but through the non-military, supernatural intervention of the Mother of God. It is recorded that while Emperor Heraclius and the entire army were away, the city of Constantinople wasattacked simultaneously by the Scythians and the Persians. Left defenseless, thepeople began to pray fervently. Patriarch Sergius began to lead processions through the city. In response to the threat of invasion and death, the people gathered, they marched, they prayed, and they kept vigil. The center of this activity was at the Great Church of the Theotokos, which was near the city gates. As the account goes, their actions paid off. A hurricane soon swept through the region, scattering the enemy ships and routing the sieging armies. In icons commemorating
this, “The Mother of God is seen standing on a small cloud, hovering in the air above the faithful. She has both arms outstretched in a gesture of supplication, expressing her prayer of intercession. Two angels hold by either end a great veil which billows in the form of a vault over the Mother of God.” (The Meaning of Icons by Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, printed in our Fall 2007 issue of In
Communion) Other icons simply depict Mary holding out her veil as a sign of protection. The Russian word Pokrov (Покров), and the Greek Skepi (Σκέπη) both mean “veil” or “shroud,” as well as “protection” or intercession.”

Following this event in 626, it became custom to devote prayers to Mary for protection, as the story had a tremendous impact on the public consciousness of the Byzantine people. It is reported that several other times following this event (in 677, 717-718, and in 860) Mary appeared and intervened, preventing invasions and routing armies through supernatural means. These events imprinted themselves on the Byzantine conscience, making it even more commonplace for Orthodox to resort to prayer, rather than arms, in times of danger. Mary was given the title “Defender General” by the Church, and it was to her that the Byzantines would first look for defense. This “feminine defense paradigm” came to exert a powerful influence over medieval Orthodox culture, as Dr. Marian Simion recounts:

“[T]he feminine defense paradigm had been a dominant motif in Orthodox Christianity, which deconstructed the masculinity of war and consistently skewed the meaning of violence away from an exclusive physical expression. This paradigm prevented the adoption of a Just War theory, due to structural and phenomenological implications. First, the feminine defense paradigm affected the institutional self-perception of the Orthodox Church; secondly, it redefined human connectedness; and thirdly, it deeply influenced the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christians in terms of feminine protection, as expressed in the devotion to Virgin Mary.”

-Marion Simion, Religion and Public Policy: Human Rights, Conflict, and Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 200

Dr. Simion further elaborates on these points, noting that the motif of Mary’s protection shifted the Church away from viewing Christianity through a masculine lens of retribution, and instead viewed Christianity as paradigmatically about care and protection. This reinforced attitudes towards caring for the poor, the vulnerable, the sick, the stranger, and the prisoner. This likely also contributed to the fact that the Church in the East never developed retributive theories of the atonement, or views of God that emphasized retribution and violence. As Dr. Simion further summarizes, “The effect of such imagery and mnemotic analogies over the Orthodox society was that they contributed to a sense of social cohesion, which in  essence had collectively celebrated meekness and life, rather than valor and sacrificial death–thus discouraging any rush to violence. Furthermore, such illustrations simply maintained that violence leads to alienation, destruction and death, and that it ultimately destroys and humiliates God’s own creation.”

Even in the military texts of the late Byzantine Empire, peace was always viewed as normative. Often times, these popular sentiments caused Emperors, such as Leo VI, to encounter difficulty in raising support for the armed forces. This is in part due to the pervasive belief in Mary as the Protector General and the dominance of the feminine defense paradigm. In fact, the Byzantine Empire was viewed as “effeminate” by the Franks because of their aversion to war. As Dr. Simion concludes, “Thus, within the spirituality of warfare, the feminine motif had been profound and complex enough to have influenced the attitudes towards war more directly. It is clear that such influences generated attitudes which often prevented wars of aggression, while wars of defense had increasingly involved non-violent means. Moreover, with Virgin Mary’s patronage over the imperial City and civil society, the Orthodox Church advocates human interaction (including with enemies), based on sharing, reconciliation, maternal instincts,
nurturing, restoration and recreation of relationships, social connectedness, forgiveness, meekness, etc.”

The feast of the Protection of the Mother of God was formally added to the calendar after another instance of protection in the 10th century. During another siege, Sts. Andrew and Epiphanius were holding vigil in the Church of the Theotokos, when suddenly they saw a familiar woman enter the church and begin walking up the aisle. “On reaching the center of the church, the Mother of God
knelt down and remained long in prayer, her face bathed in tears. When she had prayed yet again before the altar, she took off the shining veil which enveloped her and, holding it above her head, extended it over all the people present in the church.” (In Communion Fall 2007) After this, the siege ended with neither bloodshed nor violence.

The most recent story associated with this feast day occurred during WWII, which explains why the feast is celebrated on October 28 in the Greek tradition. That was the day that Mussolini had given Prime Minister Metaxas for surrendering to the Italian forces, lest they be invaded. It is recorded that Metaxas simply sent a telegram in response which read, “Oxi,” which means “no.”

That morning, Greeks of all political persuasions filled the streets, gathering and marching, shouting “Oxi!” October 28 is still celebrated in Greece as “Oxi Day,” commemorating the Greek resistance to the Axis forces. The Church participated in this resistance nonviolently, protecting many Jews, and refusing to  cooperate with evil. In 1952, the Church of Greece formally moved the feast of the Protection to the 28th, connecting the ancient feminine defense paradigm to the activities of peace and resistance which Orthodox Christians still undertake today.

In our own way, we at In Communion also hope to stand in this tradition, kneeling down next to the weeping Mother of God in this suffering world, clinging to her soft and nurturing veil, our own faces bathed in tears, praying with her for a world under siege by violence. Let us pray for peace in the words of the Akathist:

“O Champion  General, I your City now inscribe to youTriumphant anthems as the  tokens of my gratitude,Being rescued from the terrors, O Mother of God.Inasmuch as you have power unassailable, From all kinds of  perils free me so that unto youI may cry aloud: Rejoice, O unwedded Bride.” IC

Ouspensky, Leonid, and Vladimir Lossky. “The Protection of the Mother of God.” In Communion, no. 47 (October 27, 2007).

Demetrios. “Encyclical of Archbishop Demetrios for OXI Day 2015.” October 23, 2015. http://www.goarch.org/news/encyclicaloxiday2015.

Simion, Marian. “Just War Theory and Orthodox Christianity.” THE ANNALS OF THE ACADEMY OF ROMANIAN SCIENTISTS, Vol. 3, no. 1 (2011): 23-45.