When we’re little, we are curious, adventurous, and probably a little mischievous. That wonder that pushes us to try things we don’t yet know are dangerous also makes us feel fearless. We ignore the cries of “No!” and “Don’t do that!” in favor of our own concept of what is good for us. Yet the moment the hot stove burns or the doggie we taunt shows his teeth, we are no longer “super-kids.” We seek protection from danger; and when we grow up we learn the hard way that we must be protected from our own foolishness and obstinacy. When we are frightened, often the nearest adult will do, but there is nothing like being scooped up into the safety of our mother’s arms. In her arms and close to her heart, we are safe and there is no danger that has a chance against us.
On October 1, the Eastern Christian Churches (both Catholic and Orthodox) remember an historical event in which God’s children were threatened with danger, and their loving Mother was there to protect and shelter them. The feast is called The Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos (Theotokos means “God-bearer”) and it commemorates an appearance by our Holy Mother in a church in Constantinople in the year 911. As the seat of Christianity in the East, the city was often targeted for attacks by anti-Christian forces. Such was the case in October, 911, when a pagan force threatened to sack the city. As Constantinople was under siege, the people gathered in the Church of the Mother of God for an all-night vigil. Throughout the night the people prayed, begging God through the intercession of Mary to send help. Early in the morning on October 1 a beautiful young woman entered the church and knelt in the center to pray. She was radiant, and did not look like anyone they knew or had ever seen in their church. She wept as she prayed to God, and called on Him to save Her people. Slowly the people in the church recognized the woman and were amazed at the appearance of the Holy Mother in their midst. Before their eyes the woman was raised above them and spread out her mantle to cover the church. With this sign the people knew that they could now rest in the shelter of their Mother. The enemy was defeated and the city spared.
The miracle on that day so many centuries ago, in a place so far away should be present to each of us right now. In our world of violence and terrorism the threat of war is real, and it is necessary now more than ever to pray for protection and peace. But it’s also important to consider the miracle of this feast a little closer to home: as close as each of our hearts, minds and emotions. How often are we under threat of siege from illness, emotional distress, or any of the many stresses and strains of our lives? Each of us has our problems and our fears, and when we experience threats to our well-being (real or exaggerated), we seek protection; we cry out for it. So often we revert back to our “super-kid” days and strike out on our own, try to do everything for ourselves, or forget that there is “danger” around us. It is easy for us to forget that Mary is a real woman; a real mother. She’s intimately involved in our lives, and cares deeply for each one of as her precious child! Even if we can’t physically see her – as the people of Constantinople did – she is ever-present with us in our happiness and our sadness. When we weep she cries with us, and when we rejoice she cheers us on.
Mary is known by so many grand (and well-deserved) titles: Queen of Heaven, Spouse of the Holy Spirit, Tabernacle of the Lord, and many, many more. For us, though, the greatest title and the one that best describes Mary’s relationship with us is Mother. Regardless of our relationship with our own mothers (good, bad or indifferent; whether she is still with us or has passed on), Mary is the one to whom we can turn any time, in any place and for any reason. She is our refuge and protectress, and she offers us shelter from whatever storm or siege threatens our peace. Among the lessons that the feast of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos teaches us is that Mary’s desire is not only to help us in our need and to protect us (and she surely wants to do that!), but to have a real relationship with us. The mother’s heart in Mary is for her children, and she wants us not to see her as one who is remote and removed from our lives, but to love her as our Mother.
One of my favorite icons of Mary is Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Tradition says that St. Luke wrote the icon, which depicts a moment in which Mary’s Son sought her protection. The story the icon tells is of the small Child Jesus being shown a vision of the implements of His eventual self-sacrifice. As any child would – as many of us did when we saw something scary – He ran to the protection of His mother. Leaping into her arms, He nearly lost his sandal, so eager was He to be protected. Mary takes Him into her arms and holds His tiny hand as a sign of comfort and security. She’s got Him in her arms, and she won’t let go! In the image Mary does not look at her frightened Son, but at us; at you and at me. She looks at us as if to say, “Don’t worry. I have you, too. And so does my Son.” Like any good mother, Mary’s focus is never on herself. Instead, she asks us to always keep our eyes on Jesus, to trust in Him, to love Him. She offers herself as our shield and our shelter, but always in and through Him.
Whenever I get scared or I’m in trouble, or I just feel like I need to know someone is there for me, I ask Mary to hold my hand, just like she holds Jesus’ hand. Knowing that she has my hand in hers makes me feel safe and deeply loved. Today, speak to Mary as a Mother. Talk to her as you would to a confidante and friend. Ask Mary – the one who extends her mantle over us in protection and offers her hand in safety and comfort – to pray for you. Ask her to help you to let go of whatever fear or doubt or laziness prevents you from turning to her and believing that she is there for you. Today ask Mary to take your hand and be your Mother, and allow yourself to be her own precious child.
Most Holy Theotokos, pray to God for us!
Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.