On October 1, the Orthodox Church commemorates the protecting influence of the Theotokos. “Skepi” (lit., ‘covering, protection’) is the Greek word for the occasion; in Slavonic, the common title is “Pokrov” (lit., ‘veil’), referring to the Virgin Mary lifting up her veil over the faithful as a sign of her protection, which is depicted in the icon for the day.
The historical origin of this feast’s importance ties together two events that took place in the city of Constantinople, events separated by some 50 years depending on the chronicles consulted. One account states that in the early 10th century during an all-night vigil in the Church of Blachernae dedicated to the Virgin Mary, sometime around 4 o’clock in the morning, Andrew the Fool-for-Christ saw the Theotokos appear in the Church over the faithful lifting her veil in protection. This appearance of the Virgin Mary, with St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist and other saints alongside her, was also witnessed by Andrew’s fellow ascetic Epiphanius.
Another account – the Russian chronicle – mentions that a vigil took place in response to an attack on the city by the Slavs in the 860’s. Not only did the Virgin Mary appear in protection of the faithful, but her veil which was kept in the Blachernae Church since the 5th century was taken and dipped in the sea around Constantinople repelling the attack. The presence of Andrew the Fool-for-Christ is significant because he himself was a Slav who had been captured and taken to the city as a slave. Ironically, this feast has a place of greater importance among the Slavic Orthodox than the Greeks, those attempting to conquer having been conquered with the help of the Mother of God.
The Orthodox Church remembers this day because these events involving the Theotokos’s protection are not isolated. They are a continuous reality in the life of the faithful in every place and every time. For instance in more recent history, the Theotokos appeared personally to St. Seraphim of Sarov (d. 1833) 12 times healing and strengthening him who became a light of truth for thousands seeking for God; her final appearance to St. Seraphim one year and nine months prior to his repose was witnessed by a nun at the Diveyevo Convent. A devastating flood was averted when St. Herman of Alaska (d. 1837) placed the icon of the Theotokos on the shore at Spruce Island. In 2009, the Theotokos was witnessed by hundreds walking about on the roof of a Coptic Church in Cairo, Egypt. An icon of the Theotokos kept in St. George Church in Taylor, Pennsylvania, has been continuously streaming fragrant myrrh for several years healing hundreds of every kind of illness including demon possession.
“Today the faithful celebrate the feast with joy, illumined by your coming, O Mother of God. Beholding your pure image, we fervently cry to you: ‘Encompass us beneath the precious veil of your protection; deliver us from every form of evil by entreating Christ, your Son and our God, that He may save our souls.’” (Troparion [hymn of the day])
First, the help of the saints is real and to be sought. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “[W]e trust that [God] will still deliver us, you (i.e., the church…with all the saints; v.1) also helping together in prayer for us, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the gift granted to us through many” (2 Cor. 1:10-11). Therefore we seek the help of the saints in our journey of salvation, soliciting the prayers of the faithful on earth and in heaven. “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living, the heavenly Jerusalem…” (Eph. 2:19; Heb. 12:22).
Second, the help given to the faithful by the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary Theotokos, is foremost among the saints. Mary sang: “My soul magnifies the Lord…for behold, henceforth, all generations will call me blessed” (Lk. 1:46, 48; Ps. 44:18). As Jesus indicated from the Cross addressing His mother and the disciple whom He loved – “Woman, behold your son!”; “Behold your mother!” (Jn. 19:25-27) – the Virgin Mary Theotokos is the mother of every disciple loved by Christ. Thus we say that Mary is the mother of us all, and “the prayer of the Mother has great power to win the favor of the Master” (Sixth Hour). The evidence of the protection given God’s children through the Theotokos is confirmed over and over again in the actual experience of the Church throughout the ages.
Far from being the commemoration of just one event in the history of the Church, the Protection of the Theotokos is a manifestation of the care and love God has for His people of every time and place in communion with the saints who have passed from this temporal and spatial realm into the eternal Kingdom of God. “[W]e are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1). That God allows us on earth to behold and receive His grace through the Mother of God reveals in ever increasing certainty the deliverance from sin and death we have in Jesus Christ her Son and our God. Christ continues to hear her motherly prayers for us and the world, and thus we know He hears our prayers straining to be where she is beside Him with the saints in glory.