Translators note: This homily by St. Dimitry of Rostov makes varied use of the Church Slavonic concept of “Pokrov”. The feast of the Protection of the Mother of God is likewise also called the feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God. Perhaps this is because the feast holds a greater place of honor in the Slavic typicon than in the Greek; it celebrates the victory of the Byzantines over the Slavic invaders accomplished through the miraculous intercession of the Theotokos, who was seen in the air by Sts. Andrew and Epiphanios. The Slavonic word “Pokrov” has several meanings: It is the protection, covering, hiding place, and protecting veil of the Most Holy Mother of God. It is her omophorion, which covers, protects, and hides us from all peril.
All-Night Vigil for Sunday, on the first day of the month of October, in the fourth hour of the night, in the presence of many people, St. Andrew the fool for Christ lifted up his eyes and saw the Heavenly Queen, the Protectress of the whole world, the Most Holy Virgin Theotokos, standing in the air and praying, shining with the light of the sun and covering the people with her honorable omophorion. Seeing this, St. Andrew said to his disciple Blessed Ephiphanios:
“Do you see, brother, the Queen and Mistress of all, praying for the whole world?
“I see, holy father, and I tremble.”
As once St. John the Theologian saw a great sign in the heavens, a woman clothed with the sun, so also did St. Andrew in the Blachernae church, like the heavens, see the Unwedded Bride, clothed in the sun’s porphyry. The sign beheld by St. John the Theologian was a prefigurement of our Most Merciful Protectress, for the same sign appeared at the time when the destruction of the whole creation was revealed to the mystic: And there were … lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail. And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun (Rev. 11:19; 12:1). Why did this sign prefiguring the Most Holy Virgin not appear earlier than the lightnings, thunderings, voices, earthquakes and hail, when all the elements were still calm, but rather during the most terrifying troubles in heaven and on earth? It was in order to show that our most blessed Protectress hastens to us to help us in the most difficult times, when destruction is come upon us, and she guards us from the deceptive sheen of briefly sparkling worldly vanity, from the voices of the pride of life and vainglory, from the thunderings of sudden enemy attacks, from the storm of the passions, and from the hail falling from above that threatens to punish us for our sins. For when all of these perils are bearing down on us, at that moment, like a great sign the speedy Helper of the Christian race appears, guarding and protecting us with her invisible intercession. The Lord has given such a sign to those who fear Him that they may flee before the bow (Ps. 59:6); for in this world we are placed as if targets for the shooting. The arrows fly at us from all sides: some from the weapons of visible enemies who quickly bend their bows and boast at us in their pride; others are shot from the bows of invisible enemies, so that we would sorrowfully admit that we cannot endure the demonic arrows; others are from our flesh, which wars against the spirit; others are from the bow of God’s righteous wrath and threats of punishment, of which St. David spoke: Unless ye be converted, His glittering sword shall He furbish; He hath bent His bow, and hath made it ready. And on it He hath made ready the instruments of death, His arrows for them that rage hotly hath He perfected (Ps. 7:13–14). That we would not be fatally wounded by all these arrows and might escape danger, a sign has been given to us—the protection of the Most Pure and Most Blessed Virgin. Covered as with a shield by her protecting veil, we remain unharmed by the arrows. For our Protectress has a thousand shields to guard us, as the Holy Spirit said to her: Thy neck, is as the tower of David, which is built with bulwarks: a thousand bucklers hang upon it, all the armour of valiant men (Songs 4:4).
Once David created his beautiful and high tower between Sion, on a high mountain, and Jerusalem below, called the daughter of Sion. And that tower stood between them like a neck between the body and the head, for its height surpasses Jerusalem and extends up to Sion. On that tower were hung shields and all weapons needed for battle and the defense of Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit compares the Most Pure Virgin to this tower of David; for she, also a daughter of David, is a mediatress between Christ, the Head of the Church, and the faithful, who comprise the body of the Church. She surpasses the Church, because she is truly higher than all its members, but she extends up to Christ as the one who gave Him flesh. She is the mediatress on this day, when she stood in the air between heaven and earth, between God and people, between the Initiator of all ascetic labors—Christ, and the Church militant, like the tower of David between Sion and Jerusalem, hung with mighty shields. These shields signify her all-powerful prayers for us to God, heard by those who were worthy during the vision of her honorable protection. She prayed with compunction as a Mother to her Son and Creator, pronouncing the following words filled with divine mercy and love:
“O Heavenly King! Receive everyone who praises Thee and calls upon They Most Holy Name in every place, and sanctify every place where my name is remembered; glorify those who glorify Thee and honor me, Thy Mother, with love; accept from them all prayers and pious vows, and deliver them from every evil and affliction.”
Isn’t this prayer a shield that defends the Church militant? Truly they are invincible shields, with the help of which we can extinguish all fiery darts.
St. Ambrose [of Milan] said that the tower of David was built with a double aim: to defend the city, and to adorn it. David, says St. Ambrose, built a tower for the defense and adornment of the city. It was a defense because from the tower the enemy could be seen from afar off and be driven away from the city, and an adornment because it surpassed in height all the tall buildings of Jerusalem. Therefore it is not in vain that the tower is compared to our Protectress, who is for us a steadfast tower before the face of our enemies—truly she defends us and adorns us. She defends us when she drives far away from us visible and invisible enemies, when she frees captives from their bonds, when she delivers those tormented by unclean spirits, when she comforts the sorrowing and is the intercessor for the offended and calm haven for those driven by storms; when she feeds the hungry and visits the sick. She adorns us when she covers the shameful nakedness of our lives before God with her supreme merits, like precious garments, and abundant grace, like an inexhaustible treasure that fills our poverty and makes us acceptable in God’s eyes. She adorns us when she covers us who have no wedding garment with her garments, and makes the shameful nakedness of our souls as if unseen to the All-Seeing Eye—our nakedness that was prefigured in ancient times by the unseen earth without form and void, covered by waters (Gen. 1:2). The earth without form and void was a prefiguration of the sinful soul that has lost its spiritual beauty, is deprived of good works and alien to God’s grace. The waters that covered the formless earth prefigured the merciful Theotokos, who inexhaustible like the sea, and like rivers of abundant waters pours out upon all and covers all. When the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, it also moved upon the face of the earth hidden under the waters and unadorned, as if not seeing its formlessness. This mystically presaged that the if the soul, also covered by the merciful protection of the Virgin Theotokos, will not be adorned with virtues, it will nevertheless not be deprived of the grace of the Holy Spirit, for the protection of the Most Holy Theotokos covers its formlessness like the waters covered the formless earth, and equally adorns it with the magnificence of her grace, attracting to it the Holy Spirit. The Most Pure Virgin adorns us when sinners become righteous, and the unclean become clean, as blessed Anastasios the Sinaite says: “She makes sorcerers into apostles, publicans into evangelists, and fornicators into those more worthy of respect than virgins. Thus, St. Mary of Egypt, once a harlot, has now become more honored that many virgins; she who was once darkened and impure now shines like the sun in Christ’s Kingdom—at the intercessions of the Most Pure Virgin Mary, who remains the protections and adornment of all who have recourse to her. She adorns the whole spiritual Jerusalem, or Church of Christ, which hymns even to the present day: “Thou art the wondrous adornment of all the faithful, the fulfillment of the prophecy, the glory of the apostles and the acclamation of the martyrs, the praise of virginity, and most wondrous protection of the whole world (service to the Protection of the Mother of God, third sticheron on “Lord I have cried”).
On the tower of David together with the shields were the arrows belonging to the defenders of the nation; and the Most Pure Virgin, this animate tower, also has strong arrows—that is, the prayers of the saints who pray with her. For she did not appear alone standing in the air in the church, but with the angelic hosts and a multitude of saints who reverently surrounded her in white garments. All the saints’ prayers for us are the arrows of the strong, powerful to drive away the hordes of our enemy the devil. The Most Pure Lady Theotokos knows that our life on earth is a war—the enemy wars against us with all his forces; he has raised his hordes against us and surrounded us with his legions according to the words of the Psalmist: For many dogs have encircled me, the congregation of evil doers hath surrounded me (Ps. 21:17); They have opened their mouth against me, as might a lion ravenous and roaring (Ps. 21:14). That is why the Heavenly Queen, who wants to help us, has raised all the heavenly powers against our enemy, called forth the prophets and apostles, gathered the martyrs and virgins, united the monastic saints and righteous ones, and appeared with them to give us help, to encompass us with a mighty army, and grant us victory over our enemies: By her are victories won, by her are enemies laid low (Akathist, Ikos 2). She came with the angelic hosts, for she was foreseen by Jacob as a ladder (Gen. 28:12-15), which was surrounded by a multitude of angels. Recalling here Jacob’s ladder, one might wonder: Why didn’t the angels remain on it without moving, but instead continually ascended and descended upon it? Whoever has understood that this ladder was the prefiguration of the Virgin Mary, according to the words of the Church hymn: Rejoice, thou bridge that leads to heaven, and ladder raised on high that Jacob saw (service of the Annunciation, sticheron 1 on “Lord I have cried), will understand why the angels were not motionless on the ladder. For in her prayers the unsleeping Theotokos commands the angels to be with her in ceaselessly helping people—ascending to God, taking up people’s prayers, and descending, bringing help and benefactions down from God. The same ladder even now brings down with herself a multitude of angels from the heavens, bringing us protection from on high and defense. She came with the angels in order to command them—to preserve us on all our ways; she brought with herself a host of all the saints, so that in praying together with them she might also with them bring our sinful prayers to her Son and our God. Amidst all the saints who appeared in the church with the Most Pure Virgin were two especially chosen ones: St. John the Baptist, who was the greatest arisen among those born of women, (cf. Matt. 11:11), and St. John the Theologian whom Jesus loved, for he leaned on His breast at supper (Jn. 21:20). Our Prayerful Intercessor raised them both as having great boldness before God, so that they together would more quickly incline God to mercy, for the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much (Js. 5:16). And the Most Pure Virgin stands between two virgins like a shrine between two Cherubim, like the throne of the Lord of Sabaoth between the Seraphim, and like Moses with his outstretched arms between Aaron and Hur. Then the hellish Amalek fell along with the entire dark kingdom and his forces (Ex. 17:11–14).
And thus, we celebrate the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos Virgin, remembering her most glorious appearance in the Blachernae church, seen by Sts. Andrew and Epiphanios. We celebrate, giving thanks to our Protectress for her great mercy shown to the Christian race, and we earnestly pray to her that she would now and always prayerfully protect us who seek her protection. We pray, because without her protection it would be impossible for us, who continually anger God, to live. Sinning over and over again, we are likewise subjected to many punishments according to the words of the Psalmist: Many are the scourges of the sinner (Ps. 31:10). We would have perished long ago for our iniquities if the merciful Sovereign Lady had not interceded for us: “If we had not had Thee ever interceding for us, who would have delivered us from so many dangers, who would have kept us free until now?” The prophet Isaiah advises the Jews to hide themselves for a little while, until the Lord’s wrath has passed them by. But where can we hide from the wrath of the Lord? In our sufferings we have found no cover to shield us but the only Sovereign Lady of the world, who speaks of herself with the lips of the Holy Spirit that she covered the earth as a cloud (Sirach 24:3). Truly we hide ourselves under the covering of the one who, like a cloud, covered the earth. But why, O Most Honorable Virgin Theotokos, do you liken yourself to such unworthy things as clouds? Haven’t you the sun, the moon, and the stars to which you may liken yourself? Especially since the wise one spoke of you with amazement: Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun… (Songs 6:9)? What beauty does a cloud have that you do not disdain to be likened to it? This mystery is clear: When clouds densely gather over the earth and cover it, then all the animals are safe from the hunters, for no one can catch them. Therefore also the Most Pure Virgin calls herself a cloud—she hides us from the hunters. We sinners, according to the reasoning of St. John Chrysostom, are in our inhumanness dumb animals and beasts—we please our stomachs like bears, please our flesh like hinnies, are vindictive like camels, predatory like wolves, flare up in anger like snakes, sting like scorpions, are cunning like foxes, and carry the poison of evil in ourselves like asps. Such beasts as we are tracked by various hunters—the righteous wrath of God catches up with us, punishing us for our ungodly initiatives, for the Lord is the God of vengeances; the God of vengeances hath spoken openly (Ps. 93:1). We are also hunted by our invisible enemy: He is become to me as a bear lying in wait: as a lion in secret places (Lam. 3:10). We are also threatened by our visible enemy. The enemy said: I will pursue and overtake, I will divide the spoils, my soul shall have its fill: I will draw my sword, my hand shall slay them (Ex. 15:9). But we have boldness; we have a rational cloud who covers us—the Most Pure Virgin Mary. We hope in her and to her we run; beneath her protection not a hair of our heads shall perish, if only we would call out to her with compunction: “Cover us with Thy protecting veil, O Most Pure Virgin our Protectress: in an evil day protect us (Ps. 26:5). But all the days of our lives are perilous, as once the patriarch Jacob said: Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been (Gen. 47:9). Especially perilous are those days of ours in which we see evil, and we ourselves do much evil, treasuring up unto ourselves wrath against the day of wrath (Rom. 2:5). All of these perilous days of ours have need of Thy merciful protection, O Most Holy Virgin! Do thou protect us throughout all our days, and especially in that terrible day when our souls will be separated from our bodies. Come to us with thine aid and hide us from the aerial spirits of wickedness under the heavens; and in the day of the Terrible and Dread Judgment, conceal us in the secret recesses of Thy Protecting Veil! Amen.