The Dormition Fast: Ending another year of grace in Our Lord
The Orthodox Church since at least the 5th century has practised a period of fasting prior to the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. This ancient custom has much to offer contemporary Christians. Christians of the East have always recognized the mystery of Our Lady’s Dormition, her ‘falling asleep’ at the end of her natural life when in a miraculous way she was assumed into heaven to sit with her Lord and our Lord. Recognized in the West as Our Lady’s ‘Assumption’ into heaven, the passage of Mary the Virgin Mother of God from this life to life eternal is a cause for reflection for Christians.
Mary, the God-bearing Mother of God, was the first Christian and is a model for the followers of her Son, Jesus Christ. The Church venerates Mary for being the chosen vessel of the New Covenant, preserved from sin from the very moment of her natural conception to the very end of her days. Since God is perfect and will not countenance sin, how could He be incarnated in a woman wherein resided any kind of sin? Mary’s life was totally consecrated from its very beginning to God and so it was she was chosen out of all women to bear the Incarnate Word into the world.
Any Christian’s calling differs not from Mary’s. We too are to bear Christ into the world and bring his Light to dark places. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we are to serve the Lord in whatever task we are assigned. It is on the journey or pilgrimage that is life that we are called at waystations such as the Feast of the Dormition to reflect on our vocation and the paths we have taken. Just as we come to the end of secular year with resolutions and hopes for renewal, the Fast of the Dormition comes at the end of the church year provides a time for change in our spiritual and eternal lives.
The fast begins on August 1 and continues until August 15 at which time is celebrated the vigil of the Feast. For some churches the fast is optional. In others, Christians are called upon to solemnly fast not for bodily benefits but as a spiritual medicine that serves to remind us of our total dependence on God. Coptic Christians, for example, who in Egypt make up one of the oldest churches of all, observe the fast faithfully, along with Lent and Advent. A fast in the summer, as autumn approaches, is indeed a tonic for our souls. The Universal Church, the hospital for sinners wherein Jesus Christ is the ultimate Physician, prescribes the fast for our eternal benefit. It is on August 1 that the Church prescribes the Lesser Blessing of Waters to begin the Fast of the Dormition and thus recalling our baptism and cleansing of our souls.
The Dormition of our Most Holy Lady the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary
Already in the 2nd century, we hear St. Justin Martyr, one of the Fathers of the Church, refer to the Virgin Mary as the “new Eve.” The book of Genesis recounts that the first Eve received her name because she was the “mother of all the living.” (Genesis 3:20). In this Old Testament framework, Eve’s motherhood begets generations of disobedience and selfishness. If we continue reading the Old Testament, the progeny of Eve – such as Cain – certainly reflect these vices.
In the New Testament, Mary as the new Eve becomes the Mother of all those who choose to live in Christ. She counters Eve’s disobedience with her obediences – the ‘fiat’ of the “Let it be done according to thy Word” recounted in the Gospel of St. Luke and recalled in the prayers of millions. She was always prepared to do the Lord’s will (Luke 1:38). Mary as our Mother becomes our example of Christian living. We walk with her throughout the liturgical year from her birth on September 1st to her Dormtion on August 15. Her death is a foreshadowing of every Christian death, not as a finite ending but as a passing over into the next world and an encounter with God.
The story of Jacob’s ladder, a vision recorded in Genesis 28, is read at the vespers for the feast and offers us the image of a ladder extending from earth to heaven. Traditionally, the Fathers of the Church considered this passage as an image of Mary herself. In a particular way, in light of the feast of the Dormition, Mary’s tomb is not a locked grave but a stairway to heaven. Indeed, there is no tomb known for Mary, even though she was the Mother of God. In her modesty and devotion to our Lord she would have forbidden any memorial after death, as surely there would have been since the Apostles recognized her unique holiness that surpasses all the saints.
Her Dormition is in a sense a second Pascha and one that shows to us the life that awaits us faithless servants who at the end of our earthly trials seek the face of God for mercy. As we “groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies,” (Romans 8:23) we see in Mary’s passing a foretelling of the flight of our human nature to rest securely in the divine life of God. In this way, we are assured that every Christian death is not a descent into a cold grave, but an ascent on a ladder to heaven.
On this feast, we bring flowers in the church to be blessed. We do this to pay homage to the Mother of God, who is the first flowering of redemption in Christ. As she was taken up bodily and preserved from corruption, she shows us what is to come to every Christian. Just as the first budded rose hints at what is to come in spring for the rest of the flowers, so too does the Dormition hint at our heavenly future in the celestial Garden.
From the Dogmatikon of Vespers:
The Holy Apostles were taken up from every corner of the world and carried upon clouds by the command of God. They gathered around your pure body, O source of Life, and kissed it with reverence. As for the most sublime powers of heaven, they came with their own leader to escort and to pay their last respects to the most honourable body that had contained Life itself.