The feast we are about to observe on October 1st is one of my very favorite feasts. When I was young, I knew it commemorated the fact that we should commit ourselves to the protection of the Theotokos, but had no idea what historical event had prompted this yearly feast. Once I researched it a bit I found it to be extremely suited to our present time. Here's a little historical background.
Various sources such as The Primary Chronicle of St. Nestor, the writings of Russian historians such as Bulgakov and Vasiliev, and our own sacred tradition all tell us, that on Sunday, October 1, in the year 911, the Christian people of Constantinople were afraid. Pagan terrorists from a far away nation, (some say they were from what is now Russia, and some say they were Muslims) threatened to invade and destroy the Christian city. Feeling that almost all hope was lost, Christians gathered in the Blachernae Church of the Mother of God, where relics of clothing once worn by the Theotokos such as her robe, her veil, and part of her belt were kept for veneration. They had planned an all-night vigil to beg God to protect them.
There was a man there known as St. Andrew, the Blessed Fool for Christ, due to his tendency to go to extremes in his devotion to Our Lord. He was said to have been of Slavic origin, just like us, and was living in Constantinople because he was taken captive and became the slave of a man who was a bodyguard in the city. At about 4 o’clock in the morning, Andrew looked up to see the dome of the church seemingly disappear and a shining figure of Our Lady, surrounded by the angels and saints such as John the Baptist, John the Theologian and Nicholas of Myra, descend from heaven toward the altar, where she knelt in prayer. She appeared to beg God tearfully on behalf of the citizens of Constantinople, asking her Divine Son to hear the prayers of all those who prayed for protection and begged her intercession.
When she finished her prayers, Andrew saw her remove her veil, and spread it over all the people in the church as a protection. He turned to his friend, a disciple of his named Epiphanius who later became a saint, and asked him if he saw the wondrous sight. St. Epiphanius replied that he saw Our Lady indeed, and was amazed. As long as Our Lady remained in the church, many were able to see her and the veil she extended over them. When she left their presence, a peaceful calm remained and when morning came, it was clear that the enemy had retreated, and that they would be safe.
How interesting is it that in 911 (note the date!) our ancestors in the faith were facing the same enemy that we Christians face eleven hundred years later? Radical Islam and Paganism threatened to invade and destroy them, just as they threaten our own society today. How interesting is it that this particular miracle was chronicled and remembered by our Byzantine Church so that we could recognize these similarities and be inspired by them in our present time? The answer to the prayers of those threatened Christians came in the form of a piece of heavenly clothing, belonging to Our Lady, and placed over them by Our Lady, herself! How can we, Christians of this present time period call upon her to do the same for us? The answer is very simple.
Galatians 3:27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
By virtue of our sacramental life in Christ, we become models of Him for our pagan brothers and sisters, who would otherwise not know Him at all! Note the reference to clothing. To be clothed in Christ is to be protected by Him.
Luke 8:43-44 And a woman who had a hemorrhage for twelve years, and could not be healed by anyone, came up behind Him and touched the fringe of His cloak, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped.
Here we see the power that is contained in the mere garment of the Lord. Legend says that the woman healed of her hemorrhage by touching the holy garments was none other than Veronica, my own patron saint....I just love her bravery and compassion and so I took her, and her name, to be my patron in Carmel years ago. I spent many years as a Byzantine Secular Carmelite at Holy Annunciation Byzantine Monastery where, up until just recently, the Carmelite order was observed by the nuns there and everyone wore scapulars, Byzantine as well as Roman Carmelites and we encouraged all to wear them as well. A wonderful devotion to include in your daily meditation involves the thought that we all can spiritually wipe the Holy Face of our suffering Lord with our scapulars, or our own garments, every day in reparation because he is so grievously offended in our world.
The Carmelite order received the scapular about three hundred years after the miracle apparition at Blachernae, on July 16, 1251. A man named St. Simon Stock was visited by Our Lady as he was praying earnestly for her intercession, this time, on behalf of his Carmelite order which was suffering much distress and need. When she came to him in a vision, she presented him with the brown scapular, the habit of all Carmelites, which symbolizes none other than Our Lady’s very own mantle. It is meant that everyone who wears this piece of brown woolen cloth over their shoulders wears a piece of the mantle, or veil, of Mary, herself, symbolically clothing himself with her garment as a sign of devotion to her intercession. Mary told St. Simon, “Take this Scapular. It shall be a sign of salvation, a protection in danger, and a pledge of peace. Whosoever dies wearing this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire. Wear the Scapular devoutly and perseveringly. It is my garment. To be clothed in it means that you are continually thinking of me, and I, in turn, am always thinking of you and helping you to secure eternal life.” As time passed, it became evident that the Carmelite order was growing in size and holiness. By the end of the fourteenth century, the order included secular or third orders, who advocate the wearing of the scapular by all people who wish to devote themselves to Our Lady according to this Carmelite tradition, not only the monks and nuns of the Carmelite Order.
If we wish to call upon Our Lady’s intercession as did the Christians of Constantinople, and want to ask for her protection as we face the forces of paganism and radical Islam, can we clothe ourselves in that very same veil that covered those early Christians like Andrew and Epiphanius by wearing the brown Carmelite Scapular? Can we do this even as eastern Christians? The answer is a resounding YES!!! So many believe that the scapular is purely a "Roman thing" but I challenge you, in light of the historical event we commemorate today and the symbolic act of placing ourselves beneath that same veil of protection, to accept that we as Byzantines may wear the scapular and claim it just as authentically!
Just as we see God’s wonderful creativity and poetic style in the compilation of our Holy Scriptures, we can see it in our Byzantine Church history as well. The writings of the prophets in the Old Testament foreshadow the events that would follow centuries later in the life of Christ, so that when God’s people would see the events of salvation unfolding, they would recognize their significance and act accordingly. We, in our present modern day, can look at the events of the year 911 in Constantinople and apply the lesson learned by our ancestors to the situations that threaten us in our own current time period. All that was necessary for the Christians of that time to be saved from invasion and destruction by the enemy was that they seek Mary’s intercession, and simply seek shelter under the protection of her mantle. If we are to survive our present battle with the evils of this world, we must vow to do the same.