Why, in our feast today, do we commemorate the victory of the armies of Constantinople against the Russians who sailed down the Bosphorus and attacked the Imperial City? At the time of the invasion, in 860, Russia was not Christianized, that came in 988. Therefore, if Russia had conquered Constantinople, who would have brought the Christian faith to the Russian land, who would have sent out Cyril and Methodius, who would have sent [St.] Metropolitan Michael I to Russia to evangelize for four years (whom we commemorated yesterday), who would have passed on the Byzantine inheritance or planted the seeds of monasticism beginning in Kiev? Russia lost, and twenty-eight years later became a Christian nation. Therefore, today’s feast commemorates the Russian defeat, which would ultimately be a victory for them in the heavenly realm.
The success of Constantinople in turning back the invading army is not only a victory in the earthly sense but also in the spiritual sense. The events described in today’s feast include the vision that St. Andrew had of the Mother of God and her unmistakable intercession and protection of the inhabitants of the city.
What is evident in these events is that not by everyone, and not at all times is the closeness of the saints evident. Many do not perceive their nearness to us, their assistance, their concern for humanity, the purpose of which is to strengthen and assist us through various means, not the least being through prayer and by interceding with God for us. Nor is this always apparent as we read the lives of the saints as much as it is today on this feast. For today, victory was due to the intercessions of the Mother of God, who was supplicated by the faithful, the Emperor, and the Patriarch; witnessed by St. Andrew, and attested to by the civilians of the capital city who saw the invaders fleeing.
A History of the Church of Blachernae
The Church of the Theotokos of Blachernae, located in Constantinople,[i] was the church in which the Holy Virgin made her presence known to St. Andrew, the fool-for-Christ, and his disciple St. Epiphanius.[ii] This church was built in the fifth century (453) and was second in prominence only to the Hagia Sophia.[iii] It had a holy bath (´Ayion Loúsma), and founts of holy water, as well as a noteworthy reliquary which housed the much-revered Icon of the Virgin of Blachernae,[iv] the Virgin’s belt,[v] her robe, and her veil (omophor).[vi] The letter of King Abgar V of Edessa to Jesus, as well as the Image-Not-Made-By-Hands, were also kept here.[vii] When the Imperial Palace of Blachernae was built a short distance away, this confirmed the significance of the church for the city for the earthly emperor desired to be near the presence of the heavenly king. Later, in 843, at the end of the Iconoclast Controversy, the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” was first celebrated here on the first Sunday of Lent.
The holy relics of the Mother of God[viii] were often brought out to protect the city from invading armies. The icon of the Theotokos of Blachernae was brought out in a procession along the Theodosian Wall at the invasion of the Avars and Persians in 626, during the Arab siege of the eighth century (717-718), and the invasion by the Russians[ix], in 860. During this last invasion, which had devastated Constantinople, Emperor Michael III and Patriarch Photius processed with the veil of the Theotokos along the Theodosian Wall to the Bosphorus and dipped it in the waters, imploring the Mother of God to defend this “Queen of Cities.”[x]
It was during this Russian invasion that St. Andrew, the fool-for-Christ[xi] had a vision of the Mother of God. At the fourth hour of the night, he witnessed her come into the Blachernae Church surrounded by angels and saints. She knelt in the church in prayer and then arose and went into the altar. Afterward, she came out of the altar, took off her veil, and covered all those assembled who were there praying. Not only was her protection perceived at this time by the faithful who were praying, but even more so when the Russian invaders fled shortly thereafter.
The Purpose of Today’s feast
In the Great Feasts of our Church which are dedicated to the Mother of God, we are taught about her life as it relates to Jesus Christ – her birth, the presentation into the temple, the Annunciation, her place in the Nativity of Christ, and her Dormition. However, today, our feast focuses on the continual aid which the Mother of God offers to all those who ask. She did not benefit mankind only by being the willing “handmaiden of the Lord” to become the mother of the incarnate God, but by continuing to assist humanity through her appeals to her Son on behalf of those who come to her for help. That is what is demonstrated for us today in this service.
The Nearness of the Mother of God to Christians
The Mother of God is closer to Christians than any other saint and in a very unique way.
She holds a significant place in Old Testament prophecy because it is from her human flesh that Christ took His flesh, this flesh which confirms that He is fully man, a human being (yet without sin).
What is more, when we partake of the body and blood of Christ, we partake of a body that came from the All-holy Virgin. As St. Symeon the New Theologian explains, “The same undefiled flesh which [the Word of God] accepted from the pure loins of Mary, the all-pure Theotokos, and with which He was given birth in the body, He gives to us as food.”[xii] “…We partake of the same flesh in the Eucharist that was taken from Mary the Virgin and indissolubly wedded to the Creator.”[xiii] This is the bread of life which gives us life and by which we will live forever and through which we live in Christ and Christ lives in us (cf. John 6.50-56).
What other saint is characterized by so many types and foreshadows from the Old Testament: as Jacob’s ladder that leads from earth to heaven (Gen. 28.12), as the unburnt bush which was seen by Moses (Ex. 3.2), as Aaron’s rod that budded (Num. 7.18). It is only she who is the Queen, as the Prophet David writes in the Psalter, the desire of the King, and all of her glory is within, all of her virtues (Ps. 45.7-15). It was she who was chosen and loved by God and loved as a mother by her Son, the Incarnate God.[xiv]
In her life and after her life, the tender-hearted and compassionate Mother of God implores her Son on our behalf, beseeching and urging Him for those things which benefit our souls.
We hymn the portal of heaven, the ark, the most holy mountain, the deliverance of Eve, the great treasure of the whole world, for within her, salvation was wrought for the world, and remission of ancient offenses. Wherefore, we cry out to thee: Entreat thy Son and God, that He grant remission of transgressions unto those who piously worship thine all-holy birth giving. (“Sessional Hymn,” Matins)
That We Should Not Desire Signs or Visions
In today’s feast, we note that the presence of the Mother of God is revealed to St. Andrew and St. Epiphanius; however, they did not ask for this to happen, which is instructive for us because we are always advised not to pay attention to any vision, warmth, light, or any such manifestation for fear of being deluded. To ask for such things may seem innocent, but by asking one attempts to get around the present situation which God has given us believing that it would resolve our doubts.
God is near. We should fear signs lest we become fooled and think we are more than we actually are. This is why we listen to those with experience, why we confess such thoughts, why we do not trust our own experiences because the demons bring these thoughts to our mind in order to deceive us, says St. Peter Damascene.[xv] “Not only do truly righteous men desire no signs,” writes St. Isaac, “but they turn away from those which are granted to them; not only do they wish these not to be wrought before the eyes of men, but they do not even wish them to be wrought secretly within themselves.”[xvi] However, St. Isaac continues, “Although the Lord is always near the saints helping them, He does not manifestly show His power by some work and visible sign without need, lest the help we receive should be made ineffectual and turned to our injury… In all things, however, He leaves them to exhibit a struggle and to labor in prayer in accord with their strength.”[xvii]
St. Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, delivered two homilies at the time of the Russian invasion. In the second one, which was delivered once the invaders fled, he recalls that fateful day, noting:
Do you remember the turmoil, the tears, the wails to which the whole city descended then in utter despair? Do you recollect that murky and terrible night when the orb of all our lives was setting with the orb of the sun, and the light of our life was sinking into the deep darkness of death? (He continues) Then each man became the unbiased judge of his own sins, not railing at the “slander” of his accusers to escape the accusation… but each man, placing the wrath of God before his eyes, admitted his own transgression, and on account of what he had foolishly done against the commandments, considered himself within the pale of danger; and, being torn away from pleasures by the experience of misfortune, he was converted and reformed to a temperate life, and to confessing to the Lord with sighs, confessing with tears, with prayers and appeals. For a common misfortune and the expectation of death are able – indeed able – to make men aware of their sins and bring them to their sense, and improve them by their actions.[xviii]
And what was the result of such misfortunes? The citizens gathered in the church to pray, to ask the Mother of God to protect them. They followed the Emperor and the Patriarch to dip her robe into the Bosphorus, and through such means, sought to defend the city. It is in this fashion that our faith is tried as we face a barrage of temptations, enduring the heaviness of the grief and sorrow impressed upon us, in order that our faith, which the Apostle Peter describes as being “much more precious than gold that perisheth” (cf. 1 Peter 1.6-7). Only by correctly navigating such obstacles with the help of God do we mature in spiritual stature. In this way, our enemies are more correctly said to be our friends, because they benefit us spiritually.
Moreover, the Mother of God arrived invisibly with the angelic armies, the Forerunner and the Theologian, the prophets and the apostles, and were witnessed praying to Christ for Christians, that He have mercy upon the city.[xix] The Lord did not abandon the citizens nor does He leave us comfortless amidst tribulations but knowing that the “sufferings of Christ abound in us” so also will Christ’s consolation abound[xx] in order that we would learn to love Him more, as the Apostle Paul writes: “but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Rom. 5.3-5). A love that remains whether our neighbor reviles us or speaks kindly, whether our body trials us or sleeps soundly; whether we feast or are poor, whether we are at peace or at war; the love of God remains.
Sometimes, how we struggle with our hardships blind us to so many things around us, impeding our heart and mind and thereby compounding the difficulty of our situation. But we are given this Feast today so that when we are alone and abandoned, we will know that we are not. When Hell has broken loose, may we turn quickly in prayer and repentance and know that all the hosts of heaven and the saints led by the Mother of God, desires us to overcome and not grow despondent. Christ has overcome the world.
“Do you see, brother, the Queen and lady of all praying for the whole world?” St. Andrew asks. “I see, Father, and am struck with amazement,” says St. Epiphanius.
May we be given eyes to see and hearts to believe.
Through the prayers of the Mother of God,
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Amen.
[ii] There were three churches in Constantinople dedicated to the Mother of God. The others are: i) the Church of the Mother of God Chalkoprateia, located just West of the Hagia Sophia, and ii) the Church of the Mother of God Hodegetria, located just East of the Hagia Sophia. (see the interactive map of the churches and palaces in the “City of Constantine” at https://cityofconstantine.com/
[iii] The present Hagia Sophia church, built in 537, is the third and final church having that name in Constantinople. The first church was destroyed beyond repair due to rioting after Empress Eudoxia exiled St. John Chrysostom in 404. The second church was burned to the ground during the “Nika Riots” in 532.
[iv] The icon Blachernitissa, was made of wax combined with the ashes of Christian martyrs who had been killed in the 6th century. It is unusual among Orthodox icons in that it is not flat, but is formed in bas relief. (cf. HERE)
[v] The belt of the Theotokos now resides at Vatopedi Monastery on the Holy Mountain of Athos. A piece of it is also at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY.
[vi] These were brought from Palestine in 473 by Emperor Leo I. The story of its coming to reside in the church at Blachernae can be read in Shoemaker, Stephen J. trans. The Life of the Virgin Mary: Maximus the Confessor. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 144-148.
[vii] They were brought in 944.
[viii] The relics only include items which she wore, not any part of her body because she was translated to heaven.
[ix] They were generally called the Rus’ Khanate.
[x] The miracle of the defeat of the first two invasion is commemorated on the Saturday of the Akathist in the fifth week of Lent. An icon depicting the Patriarch dipping the robe of the Theotokos into the Bosphorus can be seen HERE. St. Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, speaks about the invasion of the Russians in two homilies, one was delivered during the invasion and another delivered after the armies had fled, cf. Mango, Cyril, trans., The Homilies of Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople. (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, no date given), Homily IV & V.
[xi] Commemorated on October 2.
[xii] Golitizin, Alexander (trans.). St. Symeon the New Theologian, On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 1:57.
[xiii] Ibid., 3:112.
[xiv] Cf. The Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos, Vespers: “O ye people, with splendour let us chant a hymn to the Maiden Bride, the Mother of Christ God, the King of all: The Queen stood at Thy right hand, O Master, clothed in robes of gold and all-adorned with divine beauty. For having adorned her, His chosen one, more than all women of the world, in His great mercy He was well-pleased to be born of her; and He hath given her, the only blessed one, to His people as a helper, to edify and to protect His servants from all misfortunes.” Aposticha, Tone V
[xv] “Twenty-Four Discourses” in Philokalia. G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware trans. and ed. (Faber and Faber: London, 1995) 3:236.
[xvi] The Ascetical Homilies, 432.
[xvii] The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1984), 431.
[xviii] The Homilies of Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, 101.
[xix] Verses at Lord, I have cried.
[xx] cf. 2 Cor. 1.3-5