OUR CHURCH YEAR may be said to alternate between feasts and fasts. There are two fast days in most weeks – Wednesdays and Fridays – as well as four fasting seasons (before the Nativity, Pascha, Ss. Peter and Paul and the Dormition of the Theotokos). Those who observe all these fasts are keeping approximately one-third of the year as days of fasting.
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. 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 Church
At 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 Fasting
Many 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.
- In a tomb, were you placed, O Pure one, as the woman who contained God within your womb and ineffably gave birth to Him on earth.
- Mary, as the Mother of the Giver of life, how can you now die and dwell in a sepulcher, since your Son has raised the dead out of decay?
- He who set the measures of the earth, God the Word, deigned to be contained, O Pure one, within your womb. How do you now fit within a tiny tomb?
- Right it is indeed that we magnify you who received God; for you are the animate treasury of the virtues and of every grace of God.
- She who has contained Him who holds the universe together and is thus perceived as the house of God is translated now to heaven, there to dwell.
- You depart from us, O all-venerable Virgin Mother; even so your blessing and grace divine have remained on us who piously believe.
- Every generation offers hymns, O Virgin, in praise of your entombment.
- To death you submitted, O Virgin, who gave birth to Him who put Hades to death.
- In dying you went over to the undying dwellings, overcoming death by your death.