Focus on the Faith: The Dormition Fast: Commitment vs. Convenience
by Archpriest Steven Kostoff
August 1 – is the beginning of the relatively short Dormition Fast that culminates with the celebration of the Great Feast of the Dormition on August 15. Every fast presents us with a challenge and a choice. In this instance, I would say that our choice is between “convenience” and “commitment.” We can choose convenience because of the simple fact that to fast is decidedly in-convenient. It takes planning, vigilance, discipline, self denial, and an overall concerted effort. It is convenient to allow life to flow on at its usual (summer) rhythm, which includes searching for that comfort level of least resistance. To break our established patterns of living is always difficult, and it may be something we would only contemplate with reluctance. So, one choice is to do nothing different during this current Dormition Fast, or perhaps only something minimal, as a kind of token recognition of our life in the Church. I am not quite sure, however, what such a choice would yield in terms of further growth in our life “in Christ.” It may rather mean a missed opportunity.
Yet the choice remains to embrace the Dormition Fast, a choice that is decidedly “counter-cultural” and one that manifests a conscious commitment to an Orthodox Christian “way of life.” Such a commitment signifies that we are looking beyond what is convenient toward what is meaningful. It would be a choice in which we recognize our weaknesses, and our need precisely for the planning, vigilance, discipline, self-denial and over-all concerted effort that distinguishes the seeker of the “mind of Christ” which we have as a gift within the life of the Church. That is a difficult choice to make, and one that is perhaps particularly difficult within the life of a family with children who are often resistant to any changes. I still believe, though, that such a difficult choice has its “rewards” and that such a commitment will bear fruit in our families and in our parishes. (If embraced legalistically and judgmentally, however, we will lose our access to the potential fruitfulness of the Fast and only succeed in creating a miserable atmosphere in our homes). It is a choice that is determined to seize a good opportunity as at least a potential tool that leads to spiritual growth.
My observation is that we combine the “convenient” with our “commitment” within our contemporary social and cultural life to some degree. We often don’t allow the Church to “get in the way” of our plans and goals, and that may be hard to avoid in the circumstances and conditions of our present “way of life.” It is hard to prevail in the neverending “battle of the calendars.” The surrounding social and cultural milieu no longer supports our commitment to Christ and the Church. In fact, it is usually quite indifferent and it may even be hostile toward such a commitment. Though we may hesitate to admit it, we find it very challenging not to conform to the world around us. But it is never impossible to choose our commitment to our Orthodox Christian way of life over what is merely convenient – or simply desired. That may just be one of those “daily crosses” that the Lord spoke of – though it may be a stretch to call that a “cross.” This also entails choices, and we have to assess these choices with honesty as we look at all the factors that make up our lives. In short, it is very difficult – but profoundly rewarding – to practice our Orthodox Christian Faith today!
I remain confident, however, that the heart of a sincere Orthodox Christian desires to choose the hard path of commitment over the easy (and rather boring?) path of convenience. We now have the God-given opportunity to escape the summer doldrums that drain our spiritual energy. With prayer, almsgiving and fasting, we can renew our tired bodies and souls. We can lift up our “drooping hands” in an attitude of prayer and thanksgiving. The Dormition of the Theotokos has often been called “pascha in the summer.” It celebrates the victory of life over death—or of death as a translation into the Kingdom of Heaven. The Dormition Fast is our spiritually vigilant preparation leading up to that glorious celebration. “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Orthopraxis: The Blessing of Grapes on the Feast of the Transfiguration
(based on a homily by Fr Joseph Honeycutt)
At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy on the Great Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord on Mount Tabor, the bishop or priest blesses grapes and fruits.
Here follows some answers …
The blessing of grapes, as well as other fruits and vegetables on this day is a most beautiful and adequate sign of the final transfiguration of all things in Christ. It signifies the ultimate flowering and fruitfulness of all creation in the paradise of God’s unending Kingdom of Life where all will he transformed by the glory of the Lord.
This is an ancient Christian custom. The first week of August, on the sixth of August, the farmers used to gather the early fruits of their summer harvest (grapes, figs etc.) and to present them in the Church to be blessed and distributed for free to the congregation and to the poor. These fruits are called the “beginnings”.
In a text from the 7th century (“The Laws of the kingdom” by emperor Constantine “Porphyrogenitos”) this custom is described vividly: “The Emperor of Constantinople gathers the “beginnings” (“aparches”) in Chalcedon, where there are many vines, and then he waits for the Patriarch of Constantinople to come on the Holiday of Transfiguration, to bless the fruits and to personally hand out the grapes to the laymen”.
This custom is honored in many places in Greece where there are plantations with vines.
We must not forget that the Church was presented once as a “vine.” So, [the] Church blesses the first fruits of vine giving a “theological” meaning to the farmer’s work.
In footnote 2 for Canon III of the Canons of the Holy Apostles it says that, “during the festival of the Dormition…they used to offer bunches of grapes to the patriarch…at the end of the divine service. Today however [this is St Nikodemos Agiorite writing in the early 19th c] it is the prevailing custom in most regions for such grapes to be offered at the festival of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, and for them to be offered by the priest.”
A nun, Mother Evfrosinia adds …
However, as grapes do not ripen at the same time everywhere, the Church adapted this tradition in various ways. In some places in the Holy Land, for instance, grapes are blessed on the feast of the prophet Elijah. In Russia, where grapes were not always readily available, apples were more commonly blessed, and Transfiguration is known as “Yablochny Spas”, “the Apple Feast of the Saviour”. In northern Russia, where even apples weren’t ripe by August 6/19, it was traditional to bless peas. Nowadays, when you can buy any sort of fruit or vegetable year round, we’ve lost the sense of getting a blessing to partake of the first fruits. But we can still try to keep to the spirit of this tradition. In our monastery we bless all sorts of fruit on Transfiguration, but we abstain only from grapes, taking care not to eat grapes of the new harvest until the feast, in keeping with the ancient monastic practice.
In addition, the blessing of grapes, that is specifically mentioned liturgically, is an allusion to the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist, the New Wine that is Christ’s Blood that nourishes us spiritually. The liturgical prayers also refer to Christ Himself as the “Divine Cluster” attached to the Cross from which “Drips the Mystic Wine.”
Some ancient Typicons prescribe the blessing of fruit of the vine (grapes), not on the feast of the Transfiguration, but on the feast of the Dormition. In the Greek Nicolo-Casulan Typicon of the twelfth-thirteenth century, we read: “Let it be known that, on the feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God, the 15th of August, grapes are blessed and eaten in church after the Divine Liturgy according to an ancient tradition.” The Typicon of Sinai of the year 1214 contains the same prescription. Similarly, the Typicons of the Lavra of St. Athanasius on Athos prescribes the blessing of grapes on the 15th of August. We have the custom of blessing flowers on the feast of the Dormition.
From the Fathers: Hieromartyr Hierotheos, First Bishop of Athens, ON THE DORMITION OF THE MOTHER OF GOD
When was such a wonder of wonders ever seen by men? How does the Queen of all lie breathless? How has the Mother of Jesus reposed? Thou, O Virgin, wast the preaching of the prophets; thou art heralded by us. All the people venerate thee; the angels glorify thee. Rejoice, thou who art full of grace, the Lord is with thee, and through thee, with us. With Gabriel we hymn thee, with the angels we glorify thee; and with the prophets we praise thee, for they announced thee.
Habakkum beheld thee as an overshadowed mountain, for thou art covered with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Daniel beheld thee as a mountain from whom, seedlessly, the solid and strong King, the Christ, issued forth. Jacob saw thee as a ladder upon Whom Christ came down to eat and drink with us. And although we, His slaves, contemplate ascending into the heavens, yet thou hast ascended before all. Rejoice, O Virgin, for Gideon beheld thee as a fleece. David saw thee as the virgin daughter of the King. Isaias called thee Mother of God and Ezekiel a gate. All the prophets prophesied thee!
What shall we call thee, O Virgin? Paradise. It is meet, for thou hast blossomed forth the flower of incorruption, Christ, Who is the sweet-smelling fragrance for the souls of men. Virgin? Verily, a virgin thou art, for without the seed of man thou gavest birth to our Lord Jesus Christ. Thou wast a virgin before birth and virgin at birth and still a virgin after. Shall we call thee Mother? This is meet too; for as a Mother thou gavest birth to Christ the King of all. Shall we name thee Heaven? This thou art also for upon thee rose the Sun of righteousness. Wherefore, rejoice O Virgin, and hasten to thy Son’s rest and dwell in the tents of His beloved. Hasten there and make ready a palace and remember us and all thy people also, too. O Lady Mother of God, for both we and thyself are of the race of Adam. On account of this, intercede on our behalf; for this supplicate thy Son Whom thou hast held in thine embrace, and help us in our preaching and then afterwards that we may find rest in our hopes. Go forward, O Virgin from earth to heaven, from corruption to incorruption, from the sorrow of this world to the joy of the Kingdom of the heavens, from this perishable earth to the everlasting Heaven. Hasten, O Virgin to the heavenly light, to the hymns of the angels, to the glory of the saints from all the ages. Hasten, O Virgin, to the place of thy Son, to His Kingdom, to His power, where the angels chant, the prophets glorify and the Archangels hymn the Mother of the King, who is the lit lampstand, wider than the heavens, the firmament above, the protection of Christians, and the mediatress of our race.
+ St. Hierotheos, Quoted from The Life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, Holy Apostles Convent, pp 476-77. Originally sourced from The Great Synaxaristes of the Orthodox Church (in Greek), see footnote 134, pg 592, in The Life of the Virgin Mary for greater detail.
Dormition and the Church at Home
In addition to the temple where we meet and worship on Saturday, Sunday, feast days and various other occasions, it is a part of normal Orthodox Christian life to have regular services in the home, usually in the “beautiful corner” set aside for such purposes. We all know about morning and evening prayers and house blessings, but there are other services that can be done in the home as “reader services”. Most of the services of the daily cycle can be done this way (except for the Divine Liturgy and other sacraments). In places without a priest, this has been a necessary means of keeping the life of the church going.
Many years ago, Alexey and Susan Young were new converts and pilgrims to the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery. They were instructed to do reader services at home as they could, since they were not near a local parish. They set up a storage shed in their backyard as a little chapel, and began to do the Ninth Hour, eventually adding Vespers. A curious neighbor happened to see them and commented:
“Every afternoon, I see you go into your shed for a while, and when you come out you look so peaceful. What do you do in there?” to which Alexey replied, “Come and see!”.
Out of that little effort to do services in the home, and share it with others, a new Orthodox parish was born, and Alexey was eventually ordained a priest to serve there!
August is filled with important feast days such as Holy Transfiguration, Holy Dormition and St Herman of Alaska. There will be Vigil and Liturgy services for these feasts at St. Nicholas. We will not be able to do the daily Paraklesis service, which is traditionally done during the evenings of the Dormition fast. This is a good opportunity for you do this service at home as you can!
In order to make this easier, You will find the full service on this page that you can download and place on your tablet or phone. It is in PDF format. Instructions in italics show you how to do this service as a “reader at home”. If you know the tones, or have sung this with us at St. Nicholas in the past, you can sing it at home. If you don’t know the melodies, you can simply chant it, singing only in your heart!
Upcoming events in August (see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info)