Divine Liturgy every Sunday at 10 AM

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Dormition of Theotokos feast

Falling asleep of the Mother of our Lord

by Daniel Manzuk (from The Word, June 2008)

It would be a gross understatement to say that much has been written about the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. Yet very little has been written about the fast that precedes it.

Every Orthodox Christian is aware and generally knows the reason behind the fasts for Pascha and Christmas. But while they may know of the Dormition Fast, few follow it, and more than a few question why it is there, neither knowing its purpose. First, given the pervasive misunderstanding of
the purpose of fasting itself, a refresher on its purpose is always a good idea. There is a perception that we should fast when we want something, as though the act of fasting somehow appeases God, and seeing us “suffer” gets Him to grant our request. Nothing can be further from the truth. (ed. In fact, this is a pagan mindset.) It is not our fasting that pleases God, it is the fruits of our fast (provided we fast in the proper mind set, and do not merely diet) that please Him. We fast, not to get what we want, but to prepare ourselves to receive what God wants to give us. The purpose of fasting is to bring us more in line with another Mary, the sister of Lazarus, and away from their sister Martha, who in the famous passage was “anxious and troubled about many things.” Fasting is intended to bring us to the realization of “the one thing needful.” It is to help us put God first and our own desires second, if not last. As such it serves to prepare us to be instruments of God’s will, as with Moses in his flight from Egypt and on Mt. Sinai, as well as our Lord’s fast in the wilderness. Fasting turns us away from ourselves and toward God. In essence 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.

Why a Fast for Dormition?

So why do we fast before Dormition? In a close-knit family, word that its matriarch is on her deathbed brings normal life to a halt. Otherwise important things (parties, TV, luxuries, personal desires) become unimportant; life comes to revolve around the dying matriarch. It is the same with the Orthodox family; word that our matriarch is on her deathbed, could not (or at least should not) have any different effect than the one just mentioned. The Church, through the Paraklesis Service, gives us the opportunity to come to that deathbed and eulogize and entreat the woman who bore God, the vessel of our salvation and our chief advocate at His divine throne. And as, in the earthly family, daily routines and the indulgence in personal wants should come to a halt. Fasting, in its full sense (abstaining from food and desires) accomplishes this. Less time in leisure or other pursuits leaves more time for prayer and reflection on she who gave us Christ, and became the first and greatest Christian. In reflecting on her and her incomparable life, we see a model Christian life, embodying Christ’s retort to the woman who stated that Mary was blessed because she bore Him: blessed rather are those who hear His word and keep it. Mary did this better than anyone. As Fr. Thomas Hopko has stated, she 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 it (Him). So while we fast in contemplation of her life, we are simultaneously preparing ourselves to live a life in imitation of her. That is the purpose of the Dormition Fast.
When the assumption of thine undefiled body was being prepared, the Apostles gazed on thy bed, viewing thee with trembling. Some contemplated thy body and were dazzled, but Peter cried out to thee in tears, saying, I see thee clearly, O Virgin, stretched out, O life of all, and I am astonished. O thou undefiled one, in whom the bliss of future life dwelt, beseech thy Son and God to preserve thy people unimpaired.
(Sticheron after the Gospel, Orthros)

Daniel Manzuk is a reader at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Alsip, IL.

Paraklesis and Finding Refuge in the Theotokos
By: Cynthia Long (From OCN.net)

In preparation for the Dormition, a supplication to the Theotokos called the Paraklesis is often chanted. (A longer title is “The Paraklesis Service with the Little Supplicatory Canon to the Theotokos.”) Father Thomas Hopko tells us paraklesis means comfort and encouragement. This beautiful service implores the Mother of God to intercede with her Son to deliver us from all troubles. During every Divine Liturgy we implore, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us.” The Paraklesis is an “extended version” of this prayer.

The hot summer months in Byzantium were a time when plague and disease tended to reoccur, and the tradition of offering prayer, fasting, and singing praises in the weeks preceding Dormition arose. The words of the hymns make frequent reference to illness. Ode 6 laments, “bedridden I lie supine with sickness now…” while the Hymns after the Third Ode ask the Theotokos to look upon “my body’s grievous infirmity.”

The hymnographer considers himself living “in a place of sickness” (Ode 9). Modern medicine has largely wiped out plagues in the industrialized world, but in previous eras, horror and helplessness accompanied outbreaks of disease. A bubonic plague pandemic visited Constantinople in 541-542 A.D., while medieval Europe was likewise decimated by the Black Death. Even the 20th Century has known the great influenza (the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918), which killed millions. Outside of a horror movie, it’s hard for us to imagine such large-scale epidemics. The tradition of praying the Paraklesis every evening during the Dormition Fast became widespread.

In the depth of this service—the depth of Orthodoxy—both body and soul are addressed. The Mother of God is praised because she intercedes for healing for “all the diseases that plague my soul” and “the sufferings of the flesh” (Ode 8). Orthodoxy knew about the connection between body and soul long before modern medicine and psychiatry began to diagnose psychosomatic symptoms. The hymnographer states clearly—and if we’re honest, we can, too—”diseased is my body and my soul” (Ode 1). Moreover, sin makes us sick; sin ultimately brings death. This connection between sin and illness is made explicit in the hymns: “Heal me, O Pure one, of the sickness which the passions bring” (Ode 5). Not that all illness is a result of sin; in the Gospel of John, Christ heals the man born blind so “the works of God should be revealed in him” (John 9:3). On the other hand, psychiatry and medicine are just starting to plumb the ways stress, guilt, and other passions can make us sick. I know that’s true in my own life.

I have a great love for this service. During the summer when I was a catechumen, I experienced job distress, family estrangement, and a recurrent sinus infection. It didn’t matter how sick I was; I went to every Paraklesis service I could. The words seemed to be written for me: “I beseech thee, O Virgin, do thou dispel far from me all of the distress of despair and turbulence in my soul.”

I needed our Mother’s “inexhaustible treasure of unfailing healing” (Ode 3). All of the Orthodox hymns are beautiful; so many of the texts are pure poetry. The dismissal hymn addressed to the Theotokos is a great example:

You are a tower adorned with gold, a city surrounded by twelve walls,
A shining throne touched by the sun,
A royal seat for the King,
O unexplainable wonder,
How do you nurse the Master?

The Mother of God is a refuge greater than even the mighty walled city of Constantinople; we flee to Her to find aid and comfort for both our bodies and souls.


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