It would be a gross understatement to say that much has been written about the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (the Falling Asleep of the Mother of God). Yet very little has been written about the fast that precedes it.
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, and more than a few question why it is there, not understanding its purpose.
Given the pervasive misunderstanding of the purpose of fasting itself, a refresher on its purpose is always a good idea. There is a perception that we should fast when we want something, as though the act of fasting somehow appeases God, and seeing us “suffer” gets Him to grant our request. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Fasting Pleases God?
It is not our fasting that pleases God, it is the fruits of our fast (provided we fast in the proper mind set, with alms and prayer, and do not merely diet) that please Him.
1) We fast, not to get what we want, but to prepare ourselves to receive what God wants to give us.
2) The purpose of fasting is to bring us more in line with another Mary, the sister of Lazarus, and away from their sister Martha, who in the famous passage was “anxious and troubled about many things.”
3) Fasting is intended to bring us to the realization of “the one thing needful.” It is to help us put God first and our own desires second, if not last. As such it serves to prepare us to be instruments of God’s will, as with Moses in his flight from Egypt and on Mt. Sinai, as well as our Lord’s fast in the wilderness. Fasting turns us away from ourselves and toward God.
4) Fasting during the Dormition Fast helps us become like the Theotokos, an obedient servant of God, who heard His word and kept it better than anyone else has or could.
So why do we fast before Dormition?
In a close-knit family, word that its matriarch is on her deathbed brings normal life to a halt. Otherwise important things (parties, TV, luxuries, personal desires) become unimportant; life comes to revolve around the dying matriarch. It is the same with the Orthodox family; word that our matriarch is on her deathbed, could not (or at least should not) have any different effect than the one just mentioned.
The Church, through the Paraklesis Service, gives us the opportunity to come to that deathbed and eulogize and entreat the woman who bore God, the vessel of our salvation and our chief advocate at His divine throne.
The Paraclesis Service
The Service of the Paraclesis to the Theotokos consists of hymns of supplication to obtain consolation and courage. It should be recited in times of temptation, discouragement or sickness. It is used more particularly during the two weeks before the Dormition, or Assumption, of the Theotokos, from August 1 to August 14. The theme of these Paraclesis Services centers around the petition. . “Most Holy Mother of God, save us”.
If you have a problem or if something is burdening your soul, if you feel spiritually uneasy and if you are not at peace with yourself and with those around you, then, you should come to the Church during the first fifteen days of August and ask for the intercessions of the Mother of God. Even if you are fortunate enough to be one of those very few who are at peace with themselves and with God, then those blessed ones should come to these services and thank God and His Blessed Mother for the blessings that they have bestowed upon you and your family.
Since these Paraclesis Services to the Theotokos are primarily petition for the welfare of the living, let the whole Church pray for you during the first fifteen days of August and especially on the Great Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15th. Don’t let your laziness and your apathy cause you to miss this great blessing and inspiration that the Church can bestow upon you. Let the peace and holiness that only the Mother of God can give you enter into your life. “Let us lay aside all earthly cares,” and let us truly, during these fifteen days, participate in the fasting and prayer life of the Church so that we can “taste and see that the Lord is good” and so that we may fully experience the spiritual blessings that the Church offers to us at this holy time. “Blessed is he whom He shall find watching.” Come and pray to the Theotokos with us and with the Church and by her prayers and intercessions, may our souls be saved!
Observe the Dormition Fast
Fasting, in its full sense (abstaining from food ,evil thoughts, actions and desires) accomplishes this. Less time in leisure or other pursuits leaves more time for prayer and reflection on she who gave us Christ, and became the first and greatest Christian. In reflecting on her and her incomparable life, we see a model Christian life, embodying Christ’s retort to the woman who stated that Mary was blessed because she bore Him: blessed rather are those who hear His word and keep it. Mary did this better than anyone.
Fr. Thomas Hopko has noted, she heard the word of God and kept it so well, that she of all women in history was chosen not only to hear His Word but give birth to Him. So while we fast in contemplation of her life, we are simultaneously preparing ourselves to live a life in imitation of her. That is the purpose of the Dormition Fast.
When the assumption of thine undefiled body was being prepared, the Apostles gazed on thy bed, viewing thee with trembling. Some contemplated thy body and were dazzled, but Peter cried out to thee in tears, saying, I see thee clearly, O Virgin, stretched out, O life of all, and I am astonished. O thou undefiled one, in whom the bliss of future life dwelt, beseech thy Son and God to preserve thy people unimpaired.
Source: The Voice in the Wilderness: The Parish Newsletter of St. John the Forerunner Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church