Age-old Marian icon offers solace and protection amid the horror of war

As Ukrainians turn to their faith amid the ongoing tragedy of their nation’s invasion by Russia, many who follow both Orthodox and Catholic traditions will turn to an unusual icon of Mary as their symbol. the comfort they seek.

In some news photos, clergymen are seen holding the icon, which depicts Mary holding a long piece of cloth in her outstretched hands.

This sacred image is known in Ukraine and many other Eastern European countries as “Pokrova”, or the Intercession of Theotokos, “mother of God” in Greek, a title for Mary used at the both in the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Byzantine churches.

The Pokrov icon has its origins in a 10th-century Marian apparition that occurred in Constantinople, according to Sarah Cahalan, director of the Marian Library at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

Orthodox tradition states that on October 1 in the year 911, Mary appeared to Saint Andrew the Fool of Christ during a vigil held at the city church of the Church of Saint Mary of Blachernae.

The saint said he saw Mary spreading her cloak – some accounts say it was her veil – over the congregation as a symbol of her protection. As the city was attacked and according to tradition, after Mary’s appearance, the attacking armies retreated.

After the appearance of Pokrov, the image of Mary holding her veil or cloak became associated with protection against war and natural disasters among Eastern Christians, and Prince Yaroslav the Wise placed Ukraine and his people under the protection of the Pokrov in 1037.

Cahalan noted that the Pokrova is one of many important Marian icons for Ukrainian, Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

Devotion to Mary is an integral part of Orthodox and Catholic spirituality in Ukraine, according to Father Silviu Bunta, an Orthodox priest from Romania and professor of scriptures at the University of Dayton.

He said the churches of the Orthodox Church, the most common form of Christianity in Ukraine, have many titles for Mary, ranging from “Theotokos” to protector and champion of the peoples of the earth.

“We Orthodox call her by many titles including ‘More honorable than the cherubim’ because to us she is the greatest person who ever lived and will ever live,” Fr. Bunta told Catholic News Service .

“She is the ultimate mediator for us in difficult times because she was 100% human as we are and can now mediate for us in heaven,” he said. “We in the Orthodox Church went to her immediately in times of distress.”

Father Bunta said the Pokrov icon can often be seen in Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches, and Orthodox churches across Eastern Europe celebrate a holiday associated with it on October 1, with prayer services and special processions.

The Pokrova icon, due to its origin in times of siege and war, would be a natural sight for Ukrainians in this difficult time, Fr. Bunta said.

He said the icon would likely also be on display in any Orthodox or Catholic churches in the country that could offer a special Eastern Rite service for those in crisis and distress called the “Paraklesis Service”.

Cahalan said the Pokrova is just one example of devotion to Mary in a country or culture after she intervened during a time of conflict. She noted that during World War II there were accounts of Greek soldiers who reported seeing Mary holding a protective veil, an echo of Pokrov’s appearance.

When immediate victory is not possible, Mary is also a vital source of comfort and hope for those who suffer, in part because she has known so much suffering in her own life by having to endure persecution. and the crucifixion of his Son.

“She offers protection, and when protection is not possible, she offers solace to the persecuted and marginalized,” Cahalan said.

As an example, she described photos from the library’s collection of rosaries confiscated from migrants at the US-Mexico border, who had worn them in order to have a source of prayer and a sign. of their faith during their journey.

She also mentioned Mary’s apparitions in Kibeho, Rwanda, which many believe predicted the genocide that tore that nation apart in the 1990s and which has since become an important devotion for Catholics who are part of the Rwandan diaspora.

Cahalan said devotion to Mary is one of the important bridges that can help bridge the differences between the Orthodox and Catholic religions.

“Mary, with the Pokrova icon as an example, offers a possibility of shared ground,” she said. “I believe his love and protection is abundant enough for all of us.”

Mary is a comforter in difficult times because she is both an intercessor and has perspective on our human struggles because she has lived life on earth and experienced the same struggles, Fr Bunta said.

“We should look to her not just as someone who steps in, but also as someone who has lived our life,” he said. “Mary lived here on earth and carried God in her womb, and because of that she contains everything in our lives.

“Even when we have a sense of abandonment, estrangement and despair, we can turn to her because throughout her life she has contained everything and can offer comfort like no one else.”

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