As we know, the Great Fast and the Great Week before Pascha are the most diligently observed fasts in the Church. After that, the most thoroughly kept fast is that before the Dormition, which in our Tradition lasts from August 1 through August 14. While there are no special services during the fast of Ss. Peter and Paul and only a few during the Nativity Fast, there are many liturgical observances during the Dormition Fast.
The first day is marked by the Procession of the Holy Cross. In the Byzantine era the Cross was carried solemnly through the streets of the city each day. We also serve the Lesser Blessing of Water on this day, to solemnize the start of this fast.
Like the Great Fast, the Dormition Fast has special services to set this time apart. In many Slavic Churches the daily offices (vespers, matins, etc.) are prayed in the Lenten format. In Greek Churches an intercession service, the Paraclisis to the Mother of God, is held nightly. In many churches there are actually two Paraclisis services (the Greater and the Lesser) held on alternate days.
This Fast also includes the Great Feast of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ which is kept from August 6 to 13. This period is so rich in opportunities for prayer and worship that it has traditionally been called our “Summer Pascha.” The Transfiguration celebrates Christ as the radiant Light of the Father’s glory while in the Dormition we see Christ, who trampled down Death by His death, take His Mother into the light of His resurrection. In many churches a service resembling the Matins of Holy Saturday is held in which the shroud of the Theotokos is carried in procession to recall her burial.
Asceticism in Our ChurchAt first not all these fasts were connected to a feast day, as they are today. Pope St Leo the Great in c. 450 explained these fasts as seasonal ascetical exercises: “The Church fasts are situated in the year in such a way that a special abstinence is prescribed for each season. Thus, for spring there is the spring fast – the Forty Days; for summer there is the summer fast… ; for autumn there is the autumn fast, in the seventh month; for winter there is the winter fast.” The Christian is called to practice at least part of the time the ascetical struggle which monastics observe every day.
Christians say the Lord’s Prayer often – perhaps several times each day. We repeat “Thy will be done” so regularly that its meaning may be blunted for us. We offer lip service to the idea of doing God’s will while spending most of our time satisfying our own will. In Christian asceticism we practice setting aside our own will so that we may be ever more open to God’s will, so often expressed in the needs of others.
The Fathers teach that, since the Fall, each person’s will has tended to serve its own ego exclusively. And so, being open to the will of another does not come easily. We have to develop new habits – habits of putting our needs and desires aside to serve God and others. It takes much practice before we can say, as Christ did to the Father “not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
Our modern world makes self-denial even harder for us to practice. Even working class Americans have more luxury that the royals and aristocrats of previous ages. We expect central heating and air conditioning, a refrigerator and a dishwasher, not to mention the rapid travel and instant communication which other generations never imagined. We have the possibility of doing whatever we want – and a culture of consumerism which pushes us to indulge ourselves at every turn.
As a result we find our spiritual life smothered. We become the person in Christ’s parable “who hears the word, but the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22). The regular observance of Christian asceticism, as in the fasting seasons, offers us a remedy against the rampant egoism of our age.
During the fasts the committed Christian makes a concerted effort to reverse that direction by using the means which the Lord indicated in the Sermon on the Mount. We strive to put God first through increased prayer. We seek to serve our neighbor through more intense almsgiving (the “alms” being the sharing of our time as well as our resources). Trying to distance ourselves from self-indulgence through fasting reminds us how little the rest of our life is open to God and to others.
The “How” of FastingMany people approach fasting in term of abstinence from meat and dairy products. We eat only “the food of paradise,” the fruit of the earth that our first parents enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. Some take this in a strictly chemical sense avoiding these foods while indulging themselves in meat and dairy substitutes. They fast from the substance of these foods but not the pleasure which the taste of them brings.
Some cultures, such as the Mediterranean, are so rich in fasting foods that it is possible to indulge oneself in delightful dishes without eating meat or dairy products. Here we must note that the Eastern Christian tradition of fasting tells us to avoid, not only meat and dairy, but eating any kind of food to excess.
Many Fathers say that there are three ways of eating. The first way, appropriate to non-fasting days, is to eat adequately. We should rise from the table not feeling hungry but not feeling overstuffed either. On fasting days, however, we should eat temperately, eating simply to sustain life and remaining a little hungry after eating. As St Gregory of Sinai said, the third kind of eating – eating more than one needs – “is the door to gluttony through which lust comes in.” How much food is “enough” will vary from person to person, but the Fathers’ principle is general enough to apply to us all.
Great Paraclitic Canon to the Theotokos By Emperor Theodore Ducas LascarisFrom the First Ode
Most holy Theotokos, save us. My humble soul is troubled by the rising storms of afflictions and woes; and clouds of misfortunes overcome me, bringing darkness to my heart, O Bride of God. But since you are the Mother of the Divine and Eternal Light, shine your gladsome light and illumine me.
Most holy Theotokos, save us. From countless trials and afflictions, from grievous foes and misfortunes of life have I been delivered by your mighty strength, O spotless and pure Maid. I extol and I magnify your immea-surable sympathy, and the loving care that you have for me.
Glory… Having my hope now in your mighty help, O Maid, I flee for refuge to you. Unto your shelter have I run wholeheartedly, O Lady, and I bow my knee and I mourn and cry, weeping. Do not disdain me, the wretched one, for you are the refuge of Christian folk.
Now… I shall not cease from making known most manifestly your great deeds, Maid of God; for if you were not present to intercede on my behalf and importune your Son and God, who would free and deliver me from such storms and turbulence, and surmount the perils that trouble me?