In a loving family, the news that our beloved mother is dying changes the course of our lives. We cancel the non-essential appointments and cut down on the entertainments to be close to our mother in her last moments on this earth. For the Orthodox faithful, the Mother of God is our Mother in heaven. The Dormition Fast is our occasion to remember Her as a model of Christian life and to emulate Her example in our lives. Like in the earthly family, we in the Orthodox family abstain from food, passions and exercise in virtues by fasting in Her honour. The Dormition Fast starts on 14 August and ends two weeks later, on 28 August (for the parishes and communities that use the old calendar (Julian). For those on the new calendar (Gregorian), the Fast of the Theotokos starts on August 1 and ends on August 14. The dates of the Dormition Fast are not variable, and the year 2023 is not an exception.
The feast of the Dormition, to which the fast owes its name, does not commemorate the death of the Mother of God, but Her transition from to everlasting life in heaven. Christians believe that the Most Holy Theotokos intercedes for the Christians at the throne of the Lord for all the faithful who invoke Her name in prayer.
The Dormition Fast has been observed since the time of the early church, and its first mentions in historical records date back to the fifth century. The Constantinople Council of 1166 determined when the Dormition of the Theotokos fast should end and start.
Three feasts of the Church coincide with the Orthodox Dormition Fast. The first is the Discovery of the Honourable Wood of the Life-Giving Cross is the first in this succession. Celebrated on 14 August (1 August in the old calendar), it commemorates the first Procession of the Cross at Constantinople. It is also the anniversary of Prince Andrey Bogolubsky’s victory over the Volga Bulgars in the 12th century that began the spread of Christianity among the Muslims and Pagans along the River Volga.
Five days later, we observe the Transfiguration of Christ, one of the 12 great feasts of the Church not counting Pascha. It commemorates the events on Mount Tabor, when three disciples of Jesus Christ were revealed His Divine nature in the middle of a prayer.
Immediately following the Dormition fast is the Feast of the Translation of the Image of Christ not made by hands from Edessa to Constantinople. On this day, we honour the image of Christ that was not painted, but appeared spontanrous on the cloth with which Jesus had wiped His face.
The above three feasts are better known in our part of the world as the feasts of the Saviour of the Honey, Apple and Hazelnut. They are the days when the fruit of people’s labours are blessed at the churches - honey, apple, grapes, eyes of wheat and nuts.
This two-week fast is one of the strictest in the church calendar. Although not as strict as the Great Lent, it is still more demanding than the Apostle’s and Nativity Fasts. Prohibited include meat, dairy and eggs. Fish is not allowed on all days except the Feast of the Transfiguration. The Monastic Typicon prescribes a diet consisting of uncooked foods. Cooked foods without oil are allowed on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and meals with oil and wine are permitted on Saturdays and Sundays. By tradition, Dormition Fast food menus also include the fruits of the new crop starting from the Holy Transfiguration.
The general rule on fasting is eat with moderation. It applies fully to the diet throughout the Dormition fast. For the faitful, fasting is not an end but a means towards salvation. We abstain from certain foods to tame our flesh and strengthen our spirits, weaken our worldly passions and attachments and dispose us towards prayer and contemplation.
Many assiate fasting with avoidance of certain foods, but we should remember that a fast is not about dieting. It is an exercise in self-restraint for the sake of our Lord, and has a deep spiritual meaning. To understand better what the Dormition Fast really is let us refer to the following lines of the Dormition Fast prayer:
“In vain do you rejoice in not eating, O soul! For you abstain from food, but from passions you are not purified. If you have no desire for improvement, you will be despised as a lie in the eyes of God, you will be likened to evil demons who never eat!”
Fasting is above all an exercise in prayer and righteousness. While fasting, we do not just abstain from food, but also from evil thoughts, passions, wrath and evil-doing. Today, believers are advised to diet according to their health and capabilities, without neglecting to give alms, do charity and avoid unnecessary entertainments. Some of us may find it a good time to reconsider our television viewing, computer and phone use, and news consumptions to free up the much-needed time to accumulate the riches in heaven for the salvation of our souls.