Dormition Fast: Orthodox Christians fast for Mary, Mother of God (Theotokos)

Gold background foreground painting of icon of Virgin Mary holding child, halos around their heads

Painting of an Orthodox Christian icon of the Virgin Mary, or Theotokos. Photo by Duckmarx, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, AUGUST 1: As Orthodox Christians look to the Feast of the Dormition, millions enter a fasting period stricter even than that before the Nativity (Christmas).

For Eastern Christians, including many families in the U.S., the two weeks prior to the feast recalling the “falling asleep” of the Virgin Mary are focused on prayers to the Theotokos (“God-bearer”). In this fast, the observant abstain from red meat, poultry, dairy products, fish, oil and wine. The Dormition Fast continues until the Feast of the Dormition, on August 15. (Note: Certain restrictions of the fast are lifted on the Feast of the Transfiguration, on August 6).

The first day of the Dormition Fast hosts the Procession of the Cross, during which an outdoor procession complements the Lesser Blessing of Water.

END OF MARY’S LIFE

The first four centuries of Christianity lack notable reference to the end of Mary’s life, and in most manuscripts, it wasn’t until the 5th century that Dormition traditions begin getting mention. (Wikipedia has details.) Orthodox Christians believe that Mary died a natural death and that her soul was received by Christ upon her death; that her body alone was taken into heaven by Christ on the third day after her death. While some Roman Catholics agree with this belief—as was confirmed by Pope John Paul II, during a General Audience in June 1997—others hold that the Virgin Mary did not experience death and was, instead, assumed into heaven in bodily form.

Did you know? Jerusalem houses Mary’s Tomb and the Basilica of the Dormition.

Christian tradition holds that after Mary spent years serving and raising awareness of the new Church, she received a visit from the Archangel Gabriel, who told her that her death would occur in three days. It is believed that the apostles—many who were not in Jerusalem at the time, but preaching abroad—were miraculously transported to Mary near the time of her death. (Learn more from the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) Three days after her death, her body was gone and a sweet fragrance was emitted from the tomb. In many regions, it is still custom to bless fragrant herbs on the Feast of the Dormition.

IN THE NEWS: A MIRACLE?

Claims for miracles associated with Mary surface in news publications frequently, and recently, churchgoers in Sydney, Australia have been posting videos and talking about a painted portrait whose lips moved with the congregation’s recited prayers. (ChristianToday has the story.) The painting, depicting the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus in her arms, is reported as having moved under various lighting; the Catholic Church has reaffirmed that only the bishop of a diocese can officially declare it a miracle.

Dormition Fast: Orthodox Christians prepare for ‘falling asleep’ of the Theotokos

Russian cathedral of white, brown, turquoise with gold dome, view of pillars from ground

The Dormition Cathedral in Omsk, Siberia. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, AUGUST 1: As the death of the Virgin Mary draws imminently closer on the Christian calendar, Orthodox Christians prepare through the Dormition Fast. For two weeks, observant Orthodox Christians fast from red meat, poultry, meat products, dairy products, fish, wine and oil (an exception is made on August 6, for the Transfiguration. Wikipedia has details).

Orthodox Christians have one of the most extensive fasting calendars among the world’s great religions. In fact, they spend almost half of each year practicing some form of dietary restriction—and through August 1-14, the faithful make preparations for the approaching Dormition of the Theotokos, a phrase that refers to her death as her “falling asleep.” (Find Dormition Fast resources here.) In the Orthodox tradition, the Virgin Mary is called Theotokos, or God-bearer.

As would be in most families, the occasion of a deathly ill mother would bring children together—and this is still the case in the Orthodox Christian Church, points out the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Families should regularly gather and this fasting period is a good reminder of that, he writes. The routines of daily life should slow; during the Dormition Fast, Orthodox Christians reflect and honor the woman who bore God.

Today—the first day of the Dormition fast—is a feast day in the Church, called the Procession of the Cross. In commemoration, many Orthodox congregations hold an outdoor procession and perform the Lesser Blessing of Water.