The Fast of the Theotokos

SUMMER, IN OUR WORLD AT LEAST, is traditionally a time for sun and fun: cookouts, the beach, pool parties and the like. Yet in the midst of summer – in the week which has been compared to the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning – we are called to fast. The first two weeks of August are observed in the Byzantine Churches as the Fast of the Theotokos, in preparation for the feast of her Dormition on August 15.

In the early Church, the Dormition Fast was generally observed in both East and West. Pope St. Leo the Great mentioned it in the mid-fifth century in connection with the seasons of the year: “The Church Fasts are situated in the year in such a way that a special abstinence is prescribed for each time. Thus, for Spring, there is the Spring Fast, the Forty Days {the Great Fast]; for summer there is the Summer Fast… [the Apostles’ Fast]…for Autumn there is the Autumn Fast, in the seventh month [Dormition Fast]; for Winter there is the Winter Fast [Nativity Fast].”

Today the Coptic. Malankara and Syriac Churches, as well as the Byzantine, continue to observe this 14-day fast period. In the Armenian and Maronite traditions, the fast lasts for one week rather than two. In the traditional calendar of the Roman Church, August 14 is observed as a day of fasting in preparation for this feast.

This fast period is one of several aspects of this celebration which has earned it the title of the “summer Pascha,” a feast pointing to the ultimate resurrection of all flesh at the last day. Just as the feast of Christ’s resurrection is paired with the feast of the Annunciation (March 25), the Dormition is paired with the feast of Christ’s Holy Transfiguration (August 6). As Pascha is preceded by the Holy Friday evening observance of the Burial of Christ, the Dormition is marked in many places by a comparable burial service for the Theotokos, when lamentations patterned after the Holy Week hymns are sung. In some places a burial shroud (epitaphios), with the image of the Dormition, is carried in procession as well.

The Paraclisis to the Theotokos

In the Byzantine Churches of the Mediterranean world, the most prominent feature of the Dormition Fast is the celebration of the Paraclisis to the Theotokos, a service invoking the Virgin’s intercession for those we commemorate during the service. It is said that, as the Virgin sensed her approaching death, she prayed continually for her Son’s disciples and for those who would believe their message. And so, as the feast of the Domition draws near, we ask her prayers for our Church and our loved ones with a similar intensity.

The Paraclisis to the Theotokos is patterned in part on Orthros (Matins). There is an opening psalm, troparia, a Gospel reading, and a canon, concluding with an incensing of the whole church and a solemn veneration of the Virgin’s icon. Intercessory litanies for those whom we are commemorating are interspersed throughout the service.

There are actually two canons used, which give their names to the service as a whole. The Small Paraclisis includes the older canon, composed in the ninth century by Theosterictus the Monk. This Paraclisis may be used at any time throughout the year. The Great Paraclisis, which is only sung during the Dormition Fast, was composed in the thirteenth century by the Emperor Theodore II Ducas Lascaris, in exile due to the Fourth Crusade. As a rule, these two services are sung alternately on successive nights during this Fast (the Great Paraklisis always being sung on Sundays). Neither service is sung on Saturday night or on the eves of the Great Feasts themselves.

For What Do We Pray?

Our liturgical books indicate that this service is prayed “in times of distress and sorrow of soul.” The opening troparion expresses these emotions: “We will never cease, O Mother of God, although unworthy, to proclaim your power. If you no longer intercede for us, who will deliver us from so many misfortunes? Who would ever have preserved us free until now? We shall never leave you, O Lady, for you always save you servants from all tribulations.”

The canon of the Small Paraclisis is sung to a lively melody and expresses confidence in the Theotokos’ care for us, in troparia such as these:

– “You who carried within you the Benefactor of all and the Cause of every good favor, let His abundant grace spring forth to all of us. You have the fullness of power, since you’ve given birth to the Lord, the Almighty One.”

– “Give me your pure joy, Virgin pure and immaculate, you who gave birth to the cause of happiness, and fill my heart with the gladness of your Son, our God.

The Great Paraclisis adds other notes to our picture of the Virgin as our intercessor:

– “I profess you, O Lady, to be truly Theotokos: you who have both banished and triumphed over the might of Death, for as the source of Life, you freed me from Hades’ bonds, raising me to life, though I was fallen down to earth.”

– “The turmoils of this life encircle me like bees around a honeycomb, O Virgin. They have seized my heart and now hold it captive, and I am pierced with the stings of afflictions, O Maiden. Yet, O all-holy one, be my defender, my helper and my rescuer.”

One unusual feature of these canons is the following pair of hymns sung after each one, with a metany after each verse:

– “Deliver your servants from all dangers, O Mother of God, for to you, after God, we flee for refuge. You are our impregnable fortress, Our intercessor.”

– “O Mother of God, worthy of all praise, look down with compassion upon the ills of my afflicted body and heal the infirmities of my soul.”

Finally the celebrant solemnly venerates the icon of the Theotokos as the following glorification (or megalynarion) is sung: “May the lips of all heretics be sealed because they refuse to bow before your all-holy icon, which is fashioned after the blessed Hodigitria, depicted by the holy Luke the Apostle.”

This hymn reflects the iconoclastic controversy during which this service was composed. The iconoclasts refused to venerate icons of Christ, His Mother or the saints and for over a century persecuted those who did venerate them.

The Hodigitria mentioned here is the image of Christ enthroned on the arm of His Mother who points to Him, showing us the way to the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. The original of this icon was reputedly painted by St. Luke. The most famous icon in Constantinople, it was lost during the fall of the city to the Turks in 1453.

Another observance associated with this Fast in the Byzantine tradition, is the outdoor procession with the Holy Cross on August 1. Due to its climate, Constantinople was subject to insect-borne diseases at this time of summer. A procession was held each day of the Fast, praying for relief. Water was blessed and sprinkled over the city as well. Today this observance is remembered on the first of this month with a procession and the Lesser Blessing of Water.