In a close-knit family, word that its mother is on her deathbed brings normal life to a halt. Otherwise important things (parties, TV, luxuries, personal desires) become unimportant; This is how one author has described the purpose of the Dormition Fast. He continues: It is the same with the Orthodox family; word that our mother is on her deathbed, could not (or at least should not) have any different effect than the one just mentioned. So, we can say that Just as the apostle’s gathered around Panagia -the Mother of God- at her falling asleep, so do we.
So much of our Christian life is patterned in imitation of the apostles and according to their instructions, how they lived, and of course, their lives were patterned after the Lord himself. And this is no mere ‘remembrance’ of some past events. In the church the Liturgy and sacraments make present the Lord and by the grace of the Holy Spirit the event commemorated, giving us the opportunity to take part in the event itself. Keeping the commands and teachings of the Lord always before us: this is the ministry of the church and the purpose of our daily commemorations and the liturgical cycle of feasts and fasts.
For this reason the Church, through the Paraklesis Service, gives us the opportunity to gather at the side of Panagia during this season and eulogize and entreat the woman who bore God and who is our chief advocate at His divine throne. This is also the reason we fast. Fr. Thomas Hopko once said that it was Mary the Theotokos who 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 then, this is the purpose of the first two weeks in August: to fast in contemplation of her life, & simultaneously to prepare ourselves to live a life in imitation of her. 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 the one who gave us Christ and became the first and greatest Christian. Reflecting on her life gives us a model of Christian living: We see how she embodies Christ’s response to that woman in the Gospel who cried out that Mary was blessed because she bore Him: blessed rather -the Lord said- are those who hear His word and keep it. Our Panagia did this better than anyone.
The dormition fast also calls us to unity: to unite ourselves to the Church, the Orthodox Christian faith, which means nothing less than unity with Christ Himself. The Apostle Paul speaks about unity and schism [division] in the Church. He pleads with the brethren/Christians to be like-minded, he says to “speak the same thing,” that there may be -he says- “no divisions among you.”
The word that he uses here to warn them in the original Greek is “skismata,” schism. We would do well to heed his words also. Often -instead of enjoying ‘unity of faith’- there are other things that become more important to making up our identity, whether political, ethnic, economic, or other, these are things that divide us from one another, causing great harm to our unity in the faith and the mission of our Church, hindering our healing in Christ, stumbling, disheartening, and leading many astray.
But, this is nothing new. Orthodox Christians have faced it countless times before, even in the 1st. c., the Apostolic Age. In fact, the Seven Great Ecumenical Councils of the Church, and many more synods besides, were called throughout the first millennium to deal with threats to the unity of the Faith, challenges to the timeless truth that IS Christ and His revelation to us.
The question is: what is it that we love most? This is the heart of the matter and it’s from where our unity or division is born. The Lord once said that what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander: These are what defile a person!
Unity must first become a reality within us – in the inner man. If our lives are not harmonized with the Gospel, and yet we call ourselves Orthodox, the result will be chaos that spills from our own hearts and minds into the community we’re apart of. The Gospel always calls us to unity and communion. And this unity first begins with the healing of each person.
In order to bring together our fragmented minds, to heal our divided hearts and to unite our disordered strength; in order to do all this, the Lord Jesus reveals the one thing needful, the one goal, and one only: the Kingdom of God. Christ the Wonder-worker strove to direct -to turn- the eyes of all people to this one point, to God; to one feeling: to love; to one yearning: to draw near to God/to come to know Him.
Remember the words that the Lord spoke to Martha: “Martha, you are careful and troubled about many things, but one thing is needful”. These are, in fact, said as a warning and a notice -not just to Martha- but to all people in every generation. And the one thing needful is the Kingdom of God. All that the Lord ever said & did was done with this aim in view: to gather all together – to gather all into the Kingdom- all the world’s travelers as we wander through the whirlpools of this transitory life.
Dear Christian brothers and sisters, the dormition fast calls us to unity, to contemplation of the life of our Most Holy Theotokos, and to prepare ourselves to live a life in imitation of her. We fast not to get what we want, but to prepare ourselves to receive what God wants to give us. We fast in order to bring ourselves more in line with another Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who was mindful of “the one thing needful.”
Fasting allows us to put God first and not our own desires. This way we can do God’s will, like Moses who fasted in his flight from Egypt and on Mt. Sinai, like the Lord when he fasted in the wilderness. Fasting turns us away from ourselves and toward God; it 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.
Ultimately, we fast because we believe. Fasting expresses belief, and when lived out, Belief transfigures our lives, producing holiness, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and self control, in other words, a pure heart with which we will see the Lord.