Today, we begin the two week fast in preparation for the final feast of the Church year: the Dormition or falling asleep of the Most Holy Theotokos. This feast is commonly referred to as the “summer Pascha.” As we see in the verse above taken from the Vespers for this feast, the tomb of the Virgin becomes a ladder to heaven. The Theotokos, she from whom our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ received His flesh, is rightfully the first to share in the fullness of the promise of the Resurrection. Just as she carried the Incarnate Word made flesh in her arms, now she is carried by Him, body and soul, into the joy of eternal life.
It is right to call this the feast the “summer Pascha” because it reminds us once again how Christ has trampled down death by His death. It carries with it, somber similarities to the Feast of Feasts in how we celebrate it. Just as we, in procession, carry the shroud of our Lord and lay it in a tomb on Holy Friday, so too, on the eve of the Feast, do we carry a shroud of the Theotokos, lay flowers before it, and venerate it.
This is the shortest and sweetest of the fasts. It begins with the blessing of honey, and then the blessing of the fruits. This fast is also the lightest because the Mother of God takes care that the yoke of Christ would be light for us. She takes care of our bodies as well as our souls.
The Dormition fast begins on the feast of the “Procession of the Wood of the Life-Giving Cross of the Lord.”
In the Greek Horologion of 1897, the origin of this feast is explained: “Because of the illnesses that occur very often during August, the custom was established in Constantinople of processing the Precious Wood of the Cross through the roads and streets to sanctify places and prevent disease. On the eve of the feast, it was carried out of the royal treasury and placed upon the holy table of the Great Church (the Hagia Sophia, dedicated to the Holy Wisdom of God). From that day until the Dormition of the Most Pure Theotokos, liturgies were served throughout the city, and the Wood of the Cross was then offered to the people for veneration. This was the procession of the Precious Cross.”
In the Russian Orthodox Church, this feast was linked with the remembrance of the Baptism of Russia in 988. On this day, a feast was established of the All-Merciful Savior Christ God, and of the Most Pure Virgin, in honour of the victory of Grand Prince Andrei Bogolubsky over the Volga Bulgars, and of the Greek Emperor Michael over the Saracens. According to Orthodox Church tradition, on this day the Cross is venerated (according to the rubrics of the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross during Great Lent), and a lesser blessing of the waters is served. Together with the blessing of the waters, new honey is also blessed. (This is where the Russian folk name for the feast, “Savior of the honey,” comes from.)
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[Great Lent; 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].
Every Orthodox Christian is aware and generally knows the reason behind the fasts for Pascha and Christmas. But while they may know of the Dormition Fast, it is notable that some do not observe the fast. The Dormition fast is an extremely important fast. It is short but intense, therefore an excellent opportunity for spiritual exercise.
First and foremost, we have to keep the short but strict Dormition fast with care and attention because we love the Mother of God. She helps us, she loves us, she attends to our needs, and with the boldness of a mother, she intercedes with her Son on our behalf; not because He doesn’t already know our needs, but because that’s what a loving mother does! She is the foremost of the saints, the first Christian, the chosen one, the bush that burned but was not consumed, the ark, the tabernacle, the chalice, and the gateway to salvation. She loves us because we are her Son’s. She loves what He loves. By honouring her we honour Him, and because of Him, we honour her.
Secondly, we have to keep the Dormition fast with diligence because Satan and his demons hate her whom we love. They would have her dishonoured and, even better, forgotten, for the Incarnation of Christ through her is all mankind’s opportunity for salvation and deification—adoption by the Father into spiritual kinship with the Son. We take heed of this reality every year for, after the Resurrection, the powers of darkness despise the Dormition of Mary the most. She believed, she was saved, she suffered and was persecuted for the sake of her Son. His love for her would not endure that she should experience decay in the grave, so He took her bodily into heaven after her death. During the Dormition fast each year, take time to reread the account of the Virgin Mary’s death and bodily assumption. It will touch your soul and energize you spiritually.
The Dormition fast is not as strict as the Great Fast, but it is stricter than the Apostle’s and Nativity fasts.
On Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays of the Dormition fast, the Church rubrics prescribe xerophagy, that is, the strictest fast of uncooked food (without oil); on Tuesdays and Thursdays, “with cooked food, but with no oil”; on Saturdays and Sundays wine and oil are allowed.
Until the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, when grapes and apples are blessed in the churches, the Church requires that we abstain from these fruits. According to the tradition of the holy fathers, “If one of the brethren should eat the grapes before the feast, then let him be forbidden for obedience’s sake to taste of the grapes during the entire month of August.”
On the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, the Church rubrics allow fish. After that day, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the fruits of the new harvest would always be included in the meals.
The spiritual fast is closely united with the bodily, just as our soul is united with the body, penetrates it, enlivens it, and makes one united whole with it, as the soul and body make one living human being. Therefore, in fasting bodily we must at the same time fast spiritually: “Brothers, in fasting bodily let us also fast spiritually, severing all union with unrighteousness,” the Holy Church enjoins us.
The Great fast and the Dormition fast are particularly strict with regard to entertainment—in Imperial Russia, even civil law forbade public masquerades and shows during these fasts.