Today the Church celebrates the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos. The feast is commemorated on October first because of a vision in the tenth century, but the truth that the feast commemorates is not merely historical but is also fundamental to how Orthodox Christians understand the Body of Christ.
There are two fundamental Christian truths that one must accept if one is going to understand the theological importance of this feast. The first fundamental truth is that although Christians die, they are never dead. This is a mystery. All human beings taste death, but since the resurrection of Christ, death is no longer the door into the realm of the dead (i.e. hades, or hell, as it was understood in the Old Testament), it is now the door into life, the door into the presence of God. Christ Himself died and entered hades bursting the doors and bonds of hell and freeing all that were held captive there. Thus there is no longer a realm of the dead, but only the presence of God–experienced as joyous embrace by some and as burning torment by others.
The second necessary Christian truth that we must accept if we are to understand why this feast is so important is the interdependence of all Christians. St. Paul put it this way: the Church is a body, and each of us are a part that body, each supplying something, and each completely dependent on the others. A hand cannot exist apart from an arm and the rest of the body that supports it. But while this body metaphor is helpful, it is somewhat misleading to many because it has too often been interpreted merely as an example of how we physically help one another. Certainly, we physically help one another, but that is the reality for all humanity–no human being is an island. What is unique for the Christian understanding is that the body is a metaphor for our spiritual dependence on one another, our prayers, our intercessions for one another. This is why St. Paul is continually begging everyone he writes to pray for him, and why he continually reminds everyone he writes that he is praying for them. Our spiritual success–growth in life and godliness–depends on the prayers of others. I cannot be saved on my own.
Any spiritual growth, any victory over the passions, any enlightenment or understanding of spiritual truth comes to us through the prayers and intercessions of others. This is how God set it up. God set it up so that with Christ as the head, the whole body would supply what every part needs (c.f. Eph. 4:16).
What I have noticed in my experience, is that many Christians do not have much time for prayer. They have to learn how to pray. Life has to teach them to pray. Often beginning with selfish prayers (“God, I could sure use a new car”), life experience, the scripture, the Liturgy and the spiritually wise whom God has placed along our path, all work together to teach us. We learn through failure and pain and just enough encouragement to keep going what works, what doesn’t work and that indeed we can trust God to take care of our needs (as Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount: don’t pray for these things for your heavenly Father already knows that you need them).
As our trust grows in God’s care for us personally, we pray more for those around us, for those we love. Here too, life experiences (often painful) teach us how to pray and how not to pray, what works and what doesn’t. Having gained a little confidence in prayer, we want to tell God how to save our friends, our enemies, and our loved ones. Like the new apprentice trying to tell the master craftsman how best to do his work, we newbies in the spiritual path want to tell our heavenly Father how to do His job. “Salvation is of the Lord,” remember? God is the One who saves. We get to watch, watch and pray, watch and pray and stay out of the way.
Here the Church helps us with prayers that remind us that we don’t know whether pain or blessing, tribulation or relief will best help someone grow into the person he or she needs to be. Most importantly, the Church teaches us to pray with the words: “Lord have mercy.” These are the most succinct words of prayer. These are the best words for intercession. When we can pray, “Lord have mercy,” and mean it, we are letting go of all of our agenda, all of our claim to know what’s best, and we are getting out of the way and inviting God to be Himself, to be His loving, merciful, powerful, gentle, and all-gracious self.
And I have heard about even higher forms of prayer and intercession: prayer in silence, in stillness. But I have not yet experienced this, except perhaps, as Moses on Mt. Nebo, to view it from afar. Heck, it’s only on really good days that I can pray “Lord have mercy” with any integrity. But some people do pray in stillness. Some people do pray in silence, in the language of heaven. And it is the intercession of these still and silent voices to God that the Body of Christ needs most of all. For these silent intercessors, death will be the most easy. The threshold into the silence of heaven holds nothing new for them: they already speak that language. And in heaven, these silent intercessors continue, now undistracted by any physical needs, to intercede for the rest of Christ’s body.
But the greatest intercessor in heaven, the one whose feast we celebrate today, is the Mother of Jesus Herself, the Theotokos, Mary, full of grace. God’s holy Mother intercedes for us, along with all of those who are with Her in heaven interceding for us. They protect us. This is what the Church means when it talks about the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God. The Mother of God is interceding for us. We depend on her as a body depends on its heart