Before you fast

August 1st marks the start of a fasting period in the Orthodox Church. This is commonly called the Dormition Fast, because it spans the two weeks (Aug. 1-14) leading up to the feast of the Dormition on August 15th. The Dormition celebrates the earthly death of Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and her reception into heaven. Although the details of the event as preserved in church writings cannot possibly be taken as historical facts, the spiritual meaning of the feast is really what is important. I will have occasion to discuss the meaning of the feast in the coming two weeks. The icon of the Dormition, Κοίμησις της Θεοτόκου, is rich with theology and spirituality:

Icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos
Icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos (click to enlarge)

In a powerful inversion of the Nativity (Christmas) icon, here Christ is shown in glory receiving the eternal spirit of his Mother in the form of a newborn babe. I will have more to say about this extraordinary iconographic tradition in a later post.

Close-up of a Dormition icon, showing Christ receiving the eternal spirit of his Mother as a new-born infant.
Close-up of a Dormition icon, showing Christ receiving the eternal spirit of his Mother as a new-born infant (click to enlarge)

The Dormition is the Pascha of our Lady. And just like the Pascha of Christ is preceded by a long fasting period – Great Lent and Holy Week – likewise the Pascha of the Lord’s Mother is preceded by a fasting period, August 1-14. Whereas the fast preceding Pascha is seven weeks total, the fast preceding the Dormition is only two weeks long. But it is just as strict as the Lenten fast! This means: no meat, no dairy, no fish, no alcohol, etc. There are several resources on the Web that discuss the history, rules and principles of fasting, including the following pages on the Archdiocese website:

Faith and Life brochure on Fasting

Fasting from Iniquities and Foods

The rules of fasting, especially for Lent and the Dormition fast, are so severe that very few people observe them. Various compromises are made by Orthodox people and the clergy who advise them. One is justified in asking: Why not modify the rules so they can be more realistic? Indeed, why not? Because almost everyone in the Orthodox Church is afraid of upsetting the monks and the few traditionalists out there. Also, there is a feigned fear of changing anything that the Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils set forth. That is unfortunate. As a result, we don’t change the written rules, but change and even ignore them in everyday practice!

Another problem is our exclusive focus on fasting as a spiritual tool and a practice to accompany repentance. It is, of course, all that, and the spiritual benefits of fasting are beautifully expressed in the two links given above. But isn’t this focus on spiritual benefits a bit self-centered? Are we missing something bigger about fasting? Consider the following passage from Isaiah, chapter 58. God is speaking here:

Shout out, do not hold back!
    Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
    they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
    Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
    and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.

God’s ideas about fasting seem quite different from our own. God seems to care more whether our fasting leads to awareness of what’s around us and how we relate to others. God’s priorities are clearly different from the priorities of monks. So, before you fast, read again these words from Isaiah and contemplate how fasting can help you become more actively involved in the lives of others and how you can contribute to improving your little corner of the world.

Don’t worry about following rules that are too hard for you to observe. Let your fasting from food be sincere. Let your fasting be guided by a love of creation and a concern to eat food that is simple and free of harmful pesticides and additives and destructive farming practices. Let these concerns lead you on a search how to make your eating be in greater harmony with God’s concern for all life. You can make your fasting immensely meaningful by learning how food comes to your local supermarket and dining table. And August is the perfect month to support your local farmers market. Yes, it costs more to buy from farmers, but at least you know where your dollar is going and who is benefiting from it. If it costs a little more than what you buy at the supermarket, it might make you more cognizant about what and how much you eat. And that too, is part of the spiritual benefit of fasting. Anything you learn along these lines will elevate your fasting to what God wants it to be.

Before you fast, read Isaiah 58 and think deeply about it. May God bless your Dormition fast and your growth in godly awareness.

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