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.

Corpus Christi and All Saints: After Pentecost for Western and Eastern Christians

Stained glass window with yellow fancy goblet and wheat beneath, blue tinted background

A stained glass window of the Eucharist. Photo by stainedglassartist, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, JUNE 7: Pentecost has passed for both Eastern and Western Christians, and today, the faithful observe the Sunday of All Saints and the Feast of Corpus Christi (respectively). While Western Christians observe All Saints’ Day in November, Eastern Orthodox Christians honor this feast on the Sunday following Pentecost. On this first Sunday of June, Eastern Christians honor all saints—known and unknown—and Western Christians set aside a day for sole veneration of the Eucharist, in the Feast of Corpus Christi. Note: The Feast of Corpus Christi is liturgically celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday—this year, June 4—but is moved to a Sunday in places where it is not a holy day of obligation.

EASTERN: SUNDAY OF ALL SAINTS

On the first Sunday following Pentecost, Eastern Orthodox Christians mark the Sunday of All Saints. What began as the Sunday of All Martyrs now includes all saints whose works honor God—the righteous, the prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, shepherds, teachers and holy monastics, both known and unknown. Eastern Christians honor them for their examples of virtue, and as intercessors for the behalf of the living with God.

WESTERN: THE FEAST OF CORPUS CHRISTI

In Christian tradition: Known also as The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, the Feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the tradition and belief in the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and his real presence in the Eucharist. While the Eucharist is recognized and honored on Holy Thursday, its celebration can be overshadowed by the approaching Paschal (Easter) Triduum. Thus a day was designated with the sole purpose of recognizing the Eucharist. At the end of Mass on the Feast of Corpus Christi, Catholic churches may hold a procession of the Blessed Sacrament, followed by a Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

The institution of a day for the Eucharist in the Church calendar began with the decades-long work of Juliana of Liege, a 13th-century woman of Belgium who was orphaned and raised by Augustinian nuns. With a special veneration for the Blessed Sacrament, Juliana reported having a dream of the Church under a full moon, with one dark spot: the absence of a solemnity for the Eucharist. For 20 years, Juliana had visions of Christ, and she relayed these to her confessor. (Wikipedia has details.) Word passed, and Pope Urban IV instituted the Solemnity of Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Pentecost for the entire Latin Rite. Pope John XXII promulgated a collection of laws in 1317 that made the feast universal.

Nativity of Christ: Orthodox Christians on Julian calendar observe Christmas

Nighttime with lit old architecture in background crowd of people clapping hands and singing

Coptic Christians from Eritrea and Ethiopia at an Orthodox Christmas celebration at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, January 2012. Photo by Ridvan Yumlu, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 7: Cathedral bells ring in Christmas Day across Russia and in several Orthodox Christian communities worldwide, as those who follow the Julian calendar observe the Nativity of Christ. For the Orthodox churches that follow the Julian calendar, the calendar created under the reign of Julius Caesar in 45 BCE ushers in Christmas on what most of the world views as January 7. From the Patriarch of Russia (who sent greetings to non-Orthodox churches on December 25) to Orthodox communities in Jerusalem, Serbia and Poland, elaborate services will usher in Christmas Day.

Having fasted in preparation for 40 days, it is with overwhelming joy that these Orthodox Christians approach the Nativity of Christ.

For Orthodox Christians, the feast of Christmas is officially called the Nativity in the Flesh of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Services begin on the morning of Christmas Eve with readings of prophesies in the Bible; a fast is kept until sunset, and when the first star appears in the evening, a distinctive meal is consumed. The Christmas Eve evening meal, sometimes referred to as the Holy Night Supper, may consist of 12 vegan dishes—one for each Apostle. After the food has been partaken in, carols are sung and blessings are recited. (Learn more from the Orthodox Church in America.)

Additional services continue on Christmas Eve and throughout Christmas Day. The following day, Dec. 26, is occasion for honoring the Virgin Mary as the mother of God. Church services on this day are devoted to Mary, as part of the Nativity.

Recent studies in Russia have shown that only 6 percent of Russians had planned to celebrate Christmas on December 25, and that approximately 87 percent of Orthodox believers—72 percent of the general population—will mark Christmas on January 7. According to polls, most celebrants will observe Christmas with their families, at home. (Tass Russian News Agency has the story.) This year, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin banned government officials from taking a lengthy holiday for Christmas, stating that the paid time for employees cannot be afforded. (Read more from Yahoo! Finance.) While Russian companies and government officials are typically permitted time off between January 1 and 12, many will be limited to keeping Christmas celebrations within a couple of days.

Epiphany: Christians celebrate the manifestation of God

Neutral color depiction of three men on camels in desert, facing forward, caravans behind

James Tissot’s The Magi Journeying (Les rois mages en voyage). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, JANUARY 6: Christians worldwide rejoice in the manifestation of Jesus, revealed as God the Son, on the Feast of Epiphany (in Greek, Theophany). Literally “striking appearance,” or “vision of God,” Epiphany and Theophany have been central to both Eastern and Western Christian calendars for centuries. Through Advent, the Western Christian Church anticipated the coming of Jesus, and of course Mary and Joseph were the earliest witnesses. But Christian tradition holds that one key moment in this revelation was the arrival of the Magi—representatives of other nations—when the true unveiling of God’s purpose took place. (Learn more, and find resources, at Catholic Culture and Women for Faith and Family.)

In a similar way, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Jesus’s manifestation as the Son of God, at this time of year, but Eastern tradition focuses on his baptism in the Jordan River as the key moment of revelation.

Note: Many churches in the United States today commemorate Epiphany on the Sunday between Jan. 2 and 8—this year, Jan. 4—and Eastern Orthodox churches following the Julian calendar will observe Theophany in 13 days (on Jan. 19). Most Western Christian churches will commemorate Jesus’s baptism on Sunday, Jan. 11.

Man with tall decorated hat surrounded by crowd of children wearing paper crowns

Three Kings Day Parade 2013, in New York. Photo by Dave Bledsoe, courtesy of Flickr

Epiphany customs in some regions of the world rival those of Christmas, complete with parades, parties, king cakes and “visiting” Magi. (In centuries past, Epiphany Eve—Twelfth Night—had elaborate traditions all its own.) On the morning of Epiphany in Poland, some children dress in renaissance clothing, carols are sung and homes are blessed; in Argentina, many children awake to find gifts left by the “passing” Magi.

A house blessing, inscribed with chalk, is popular in several parts of central Europe. Write a blessing on your home by inscribing the following above the front door: 20 C+M+B 15. (“2015” split into two, and the initials of the Magi.)

Finnish piparkakuts, ginger spice cookies, are typically cut into the shape of a star and served on Epiphany. Find the authentic recipe at this blog, or in this New York Times post.

In many countries, a king cake filled with almond paste, spiced with exotic spices or decorated with dried fruits is baked, and one bean is tucked inside: the recipient of the slice of cake with the bean is believed blessed for the year (or, in Mexico, the recipient must host the Candlemas party. Wikipedia has details). In some Orthodox nations, a Cross is cast into open water by a priest, and swimmers compete to retrieve it—the reward for which is a blessing by the priest. In numerous countries, Epiphany officially kicks off Carnival season.

THE MAGI, THE BAPTISM AND THE MIRACLE AT CANA

In the Western Christian Church, Epiphany commemorates the Adoration of the Magi—and, to a lesser extent, the Baptism of Jesus and the Wedding at Cana. All three events reveal the manifestation of God as Jesus, Christians believe, and some early accounts detail the Miracle at Cana—Christ’s first public miracle—as having occurred on Jan. 6. Eastern Orthodox tradition focuses on Jesus as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) As Jesus’s baptism is commemorated foremost in the Orthodox Church, a Great Blessing of the Waters is performed.

Tradition has it that the Magi were baptized by St. Thomas. They are considered saints of the Church.

 


Eastern and Western Christians observe Birth of Mary, Nativity of Theotokos

“It’s Blessed Virgin’s Birthday,
The swallows do depart;
Far to the South they fly away,
And sadness fills my heart.
But after snow and ice and rain
They will in March return again.”
An Austrian children’s rhyme, for September 8

Painting of women in fancy room, gathered around woman with young baby, one woman pouring water into a bowl

Birth of Mary, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, c. 1486-1490 CE. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: Most of the world’s 2 billion Christians rejoice today in recalling the birth of Mary. In traditional Catholic and Orthodox teaching, Mary is regarded as a figure foretold in passages as ancient as Genesis. And this holiday is known as the Birth of the Virgin Mary among Western Christians, as well as the Nativity of the Theotokos among Eastern Christians.

Though the Bible contains no record of Mary’s birth, the Protoevangelium of James—an apocryphal writing from the second century—describes Mary’s birth, as well as the story of her parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim. (Learn more from Catholic Culture and Fish Eaters.) Accounts detail that St. Anne and St. Joachim, though faithful and pious, were without children. Anne and Joachim prayed for a child; though older, they conceived a child, whom they would call Mary. Tradition tells that Mary was born in Jerusalem.

Did you know? The birth of Mary also is included in the Quran. She is a major figure in Islam. (Wikipedia has more about Mary in Islam.)

The feast for Mary’s Nativity originated in Jerusalem, in the fifth century, and records point next to Syria and other parts of ancient Palestine, both of which were observing a feast for Mary’s birth by the sixth century. By the end of the seventh century, the feast was accepted by the Roman Church, and it slowly spread through Europe. By the 12th century, Mary’s birth was observed in all Christian countries. (Get the Eastern Orthodox perspective from Orthodox Church in America and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.)

The Christian Church marks most saints’ feasts on the date of their death, or return to God. To this rule, there are three exceptions: Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist, as they are recognized in the Church on both their death date and their birth date.

OUR LADY OF THE GRAPE HARVEST,
‘DOWN-DRIVING’ & THANKSGIVING

In the wine-growing regions of France, Mary’s birthday is affectionately called “Our Lady of the Grape Harvest,” when the best grapes are brought to the local church for blessings and bunches of grapes are tied onto the hands of Mary statues. In the Alps, September 8 begins “down-driving,” when cattle and sheep are led from their summer pastures, down the mountain slopes, to their winter residence in the valleys and stables. In several regions of central and eastern Europe, the Feast of Mary is associated with harvest, fall planting and thanksgiving.

Ecclesiastical Year begins: Orthodox Christians renew cycle of feasts and fasts

Ornate church with gold cross in foreground, red carpet and paintings in the background

Interior of an Orthodox Christian church. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 1: The Indiction—a new ecclesiastical year—is ceremoniously welcomed by Eastern Orthodox Christians today, in a spirit of rejuvenation and joy. As the autumn agricultural season brings harvest, so, too, does the new year bring gratitude for the abundance of festivals, fasts and feasts that will once again be observed in the new Orthodox year.

History details that the Church long marked the beginning of a new year on Sept. 1, and this was the custom in Constantinople until 1453 CE. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) At this time of year, Orthodox Christians recall the Gospel story of Jesus entering the synagogue in Nazareth, where he read from the book of the Prophet Isaiah, and they recall that the people of Israel celebrated the feast of the Blowing of the Trumpets. (Orthodox Church in America has details.)

Eastern Orthodox Christians mainly follow two calendars: the Julian Calendar and the Revised Julian Calendar, the latter of which coincides with the present Gregorian Calendar. Between 1900 and 2100 CE, there will exist a 13-day difference between the two calendars; the date of Pascha brings an exception, in that its date is calculated annually according to a lunar calendar, based on the Julian Calendar.

Sunday of All Saints: Orthodox Christians honor named and unnamed

Icon painting of a crowd, in lines, of saints

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, JUNE 15: It’s the Sunday of All Saints in the Orthodox Christian Church today, as the faithful recall the devoted saints of God, known and unknown—along with the Righteous, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors, Shepherds, Teacher and Holy Monastics. Although many saints are recognized on a specific, individualized day, there are countless others throughout history that Orthodox Christians believe will forever go unnamed. (Read more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) It is those saints—those who have been keepers of God’s commandments and “shining examples of virtue”—who are recognized and celebrated today.

The Apostle Paul described the achievements of the saints this way: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every burden, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.”

ALL ARE CALLED TO BECOME SAINTS

The Orthodox Research Institute points out that all Christians are called to become saints, and that the highly regarded figures were merely human beings willing to dedicate their entire being to God. Therefore, Sunday of All Saints also makes an appeal to every Christian, no matter the age or place in life, to dedicate all of life to God and become a saint. Orthodox teachers stress that the Gospels call saints to do three things: publicly confess Christ as Lord; love Christ and “take up his cross;” and follow Christ, no matter the sacrifice that must be faced.

While originally a feast for martyrs, it was Emperor Leo VI of the Byzantine Empire who all but transformed this Orthodox feast into a collective commemoration for all saints. Leo’s wife, Empress Theophano, had led a devout life before her death in 893 CE. Wishing to honor his deceased wife, Leo built a church for her—and was told the act was forbidden. Rather than forgo the church, Leo instead dedicated it to all saints, in the hopes that if his late wife were, in fact, among the righteous, she could be honored whenever and wherever the feast was observed.

Patriarch Bartholomew in long white beard and black traditional clothing, speaking at a podium in a dimly-lit churc

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has been making historical advances in warming relations between the Eastern and Western Christian churches. Photo in public domain courtesy of Flickr

IN THE NEWS:
FRANCIS AND BARTHOLOMEW
MEET IN JERUSALEM

Relations between the Orthodox Christian and Catholic churches have been warming lately. That doesn’t mean that major, historic splits are likely to be bridged anytime soon, experts warn. For example, the annual date of Easter often is different in Eastern and Western churches.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I recently met at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem, to pray together and hold dialogue. (Read more from Fox News and the UK’s The Guardian.) The two also marked, together, the 50th anniversary of the 1964 meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, in Jerusalem. That historical meeting is credited with ending 900 years of icy relations between the two churches.

In his public messages, Patriarch Batholomew has expressed a keen interest in continuing to improve relations between Eastern and Western Christianity.