Worldwide, the Protection of the Mother of God is one of the most beloved feast days on the Orthodox calendar, commemorated on October 1 (14). It is also known as the Feast of the Virgin Mary’s Cerement. The word translated “cerement”—the Slavonic pokrov or the Greek skepi—has a complex meaning. First of all, it refers to a cloak or shroud, but it also means protection or intercession. For this reason, the name of the feast is variously translated as the Veil of Our Lady, the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos, the Protection of the Theotokos, or the Intercession of the Theotokos.
The feast day celebrates the appearance of the Mother of God at Blachernae in the tenth century. St. Andrew of Constantinople with his disciple St. Epiphanius and a group of people saw the Mother of God, St. John the Baptist, and several other saints and angels during a vigil in the Church of Blachernae, near the city gates. The Blachernae Palace church was where several of the Virgin’s relics were kept—her robe, her veil, and part of her belt, which had been transferred from Palestine during the fifth century.
The Theotokos approached the center of the church, knelt down and remained in prayer for a long time. Her face was drowned in tears. Then she took off her veil (cerement) and spread it over the people as a sign of protection. During that time, the people in the city were threatened by a barbarian invasion. After the appearance of the Mother of God, the danger was averted and the city was spared from bloodshed and suffering.
The first celebration of the Theotokos’ veil/protection dates back to the twelfth century. Today the feast is celebrated throughout the Orthodox Church. The feast day commemorating her miraculous appearance is celebrated with a vigil and many of the same hymns as occur on great feasts of the Theotokos.
One time, St. Arsenios of Cappadocia, having finished serving liturgy in a cave chapel about 100 feet up the face of a sheer cliff, leaned restfully against a railing while his deacon cleaned the altar area. The railing suddenly broke and St. Arsenios plummeted to the earth far below. A farmer in a nearby field saw him fall and rushed to the place where his body had landed. When he arrived, St. Arsenios was lying on his back weeping, but cried out, “Don’t touch me! Please, don’t touch me. I’m fine.” When the farmer inquired how he had survived the fall, St. Arsenios told him, “Just before I struck the ground, I was caught in the hands of the Theotokos, and she set me gently on the ground.”
No Orthodox Christian is without this same protecting Mother. None are left without the warm and secure enclosure of a mother’s emblanketing arms. For the veil of the Theotokos encompasses, comforts, and protects us all. As the epitome of motherhood, she anticipates our every need and catches us up in her arms when we call upon her for aid.
P.S. When St. Arsenios climbed back up the high ladder to the cave chapel, his deacon was still cleaning the altar area and had not even noticed his fall!