Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Byzantine Fast of the Dormition

In addition to Great Lent, the Byzantine tradition has three other fasts connected with major feasts. The liturgical year begins on September 1st, so first of these is the fast of the Nativity, which runs from November 15th to December 24th; this is almost exactly the same span as Advent in the Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites. Another fast is kept from the Monday after the feast of All Saints (which is celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost) to the feast of Ss Peter and Paul; because of the variable date of the former, this can run as long as 42 days, or as short as 8. The fast of the Dormition is kept from August 1-14, and is the strictest of the three, with no consumption of meat, dairy, fish, wine or oil; the last two may be taken on weekends, and fish on the feast of the Transfiguration. There are also a number of interesting liturgical features connected with this period.

A Russian icon of the feast of the Procession of the Cross
The first day, August 1st, is a feast known as the “Procession of the Honorable and Life-Giving Cross”, which is celebrated jointly with one of the most ancient and universal Christian feasts, that of the Seven Maccabee Brothers. In Constantinople, on the evening of July 31st, the relics of the True Cross were brought from the imperial treasury to Hagia Sophia, and laid upon the main altar. Over the next two weeks, they were processed through the streets and venerated by the faithful; this was done also in part to ward off the various illnesses which frequently afflicted the city in the intense summer heat. This procession was last celebrated in 1452, the year before the fall of the city, but the memory of it is still preserved in the liturgical books. As on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and the Third Sunday of Lent, the rubrics prescribe that at the end of Orthros, an icon of the Cross be brought from the sanctuary to the nave, and solemnly venerated, after which the following hymn is sung.

Come ye faithful, let us adore the life-giving wood on which Christ, the King of glory, willingly stretched out His hands, and exalted us unto the ancient blessedness, whom once the enemy, having despoiled us by pleasure, banished from God. Come ye faithful, let us adore the wood by which we were made worthy to break the curses of the invisible foes. Come, all ye nations of the gentiles, let us honor the Lord’s Cross with hymns. Rejoice, o Cross, the perfect release of fallen Adam. In Thee our most faithful kings make their boast, as they mightily subject the Ishmaelite people by thy power. Greeting thee now with fear, we Christians glorify God, Who was nailed upon thee, saying ‘Lord, who wast nailed upon this, have mercy upon us, as Thou art good and love-mankind.’

The words “the Ishmaelite people” mean the Saracens, over whom the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus (1143-80) gained a major victory in 1158, and instituted the feast in commemoration thereof. The same day is also the anniversary of the Baptism of the Rus’, a crucial event for the Christianization of the Eastern Slavs, which took place in the year 988, in the reign of the king Saint Vladimir. For this reason, it is the custom of the Russian church to bless water on August 1st, in the form known as the Lesser Blessing, to distinguish it from the Great Blessing held on Epiphany. In both forms, a cross is passed through the water three times in the form of a cross; at the Lesser Blessing, the following troparion is sung. “O Lord, save Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance. Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries, and by virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation!”


During the Dormition fast, the Greek tradition also prescribes the celebration of a service known as the Supplicatory Canon, or Paraklesis modelled on the hour of Orthros; there are two forms of it, the Greater and Lesser, which are said on alternate days, beginning on the evening of August 1st. (In the Russian tradition, these are shortened very considerably by the omission of most of the long series of hymns which is properly known as a “canon.”) Both of them are supplications to the Virgin Mary to intercede to Her Son on behalf of mankind; the lesser canon may also be sung at any point in the year, especially in times of suffering and difficulty. The following troparia, which are sung shortly after the beginning of the service, give the general theme; these are the same in both versions.

Let us sinners and lowly ones now fervently run to the Mother of God, and fall down in repentance, crying from the depths of our soul: o Lady, have mercy on us and help us; hasten, (for) we are lost in the multitude of our errors. Do not turn Thy servants away, for we have received Thee alone as our hope.
We, the unworthy, will never cease to speak, o Mother of God, of Thy mighty deeds, for if Thou didst not stand to intercede for us, who would have delivered us from such great? Who would have preserved us until now in our freedom? O Lady, we shall not depart from you, for you always save your servants from every sort of tribulation.

Towards the end, the following exapostilarion, a hymn which signals the conclusion of the service, is sung, looking forward to the upcoming feast. The Virgin Mary addresses the Apostles, who, according to a very ancient tradition, were all present for Her dormition, and laid Her to rest in the same place where Her Son had once been laid.

O ye Apostles, gathered together here from the ends of the earth in the place of Gethesemane, take care of (or ‘bury’) my body; and do Thou, my Son and my God, receive my soul.

The Dormition of the Virgin, by Pietro Cavallini, 1296-1300; mosaic in apse of the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome.

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