Just last week, I and mine observed the Feast of the Transfiguration, one of the Twelve Great Feasts observed by the Eastern Orthodox Church. The feast occurred very near the mid-point of what would otherwise be the two-week long Dormition Fast -- relaxing the fasting rules a bit, and bringing fish to the table. We made bouillabaisse around a nice piece of sockeye salmon. You should have been there.
The Orthodox practice of fasting is often misunderstood. Chief among the reasons for that -- I'm guessing -- is that even most Orthodox are no longer very observant of the practice; even we have become more or less oblivious to the efficacy of fasting, its purposes. Another reason is that, in the West, Christians continue to be unduly influenced by a subtle range of Gnostic attitudes toward the body in general, imagining that the goal of human life is to shed the body altogether and become something like pure spirit.
So, from the outside, fasting can look like just another life-denying, body-hating, Gnostic perversion -- not to put too fine a point on it.
Well, body-hating is pretty much the antithesis of our calling, and you'd like to think that a tradition based upon the Incarnation of God might keep that nugget of wisdom firmly in mind. The fathers and the mothers of the Church suppose that much of our trouble comes from being slaves to impulse, from our bodies' being dragged into inexpedient behavior by habit, selfish passion, and all manner of chemical incentive. Judging from my own anecdotal evidence alone, I'd say they're probably right. Such behavior is arguably not so good for the soul or for the spirit; I daresay, over the long haul, it's not so good for the body, either.
The fathers and the mothers, therefore, have counseled that through a bit of on-the-job training, the body and its appetites can be reigned in, so as not to run our entire rig headlong off the cliff. Fasting is one way to wrestle the governance of our persons into something more like a democracy -- where soul and spirit are allowed to have a say -- bringing that selfish despot, the potentially insatiable body, under the equitable rule of law.
All of that is to say that fasting (coupled with prayer) is the means by which the body is actually recovered as a good partner in our person's progress.
In any case, observant Orthodox practice generally calls for fasting (abstaining from meat, dairy, wine, and oil) on most Wednesdays and Fridays. We also abstain from eating anything prior to receiving the Eucharist on Sundays. Besides those weekly practices, the Church calendar includes two greater fasts and two lesser ones. The greater (which is to say the longer) periods are the Advent Fast, the several weeks preceding Christmas, and Great Lent, the several weeks preceding Holy Pascha, our word for Easter. The two lesser fasts are two-week periods at the beginning of the summer (the Apostles' Fast) and now, toward summer's end (the Dormition Fast).
This Sunday, August 15, our brief fasting period ends as we celebrate another of our Twelve Great Feasts, the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God -- better known in the Western Church as the Assumption of Mary. "Dormition" is a handy, Latinate figure for her "falling asleep"; in the Greek, the word is "kimisis," (κοίμησις), and is the word from which our "cemetery" derives.
These words are significant, primarily, for their acute reconfiguration of what folks have long characterized as death, as outright demise. In our tradition, then, by Christ's having "undone death by death," by His having burst the hold death once had on us, human persons no longer succumb to death and to the body's utter dissolution. Au contraire. They fall asleep. And they await a one-day awakening.
The Dormition of the Theotokos, the God-bearer, is the day we commemorate her falling asleep.
It is something else, as well.
As the Theotokos lay dying -- tradition has it -- all the Apostles were miraculously drawn to her bedside, save Thomas, the famously tardy. In their presence, she fell asleep, and was thereafter entombed. Arriving three days later, Saint Thomas, desiring to see her one last time, compelled the others to open her tomb. To the puzzlement of all, her body was not there.
The event has become understood as her bodily "Assumption" into -- as we say of the presence of God -- Paradise. It has become a symbol of our own bodily resurrection, an image of how even our bodies will one day be recovered by the life-giving power of the risen Christ.
The icon of this feast day is a very moving one, showing as it does the Apostles gathered around her at the point of her falling asleep. It shows, as well, the Christ, attending her departure, and holding in his arms -- in an image that recollects the image of His own swaddled, infant Self embraced by her at His Nativity -- the Mother's shrouded spirit.
I offer this ekphrastic poem as a commentary, and as a token of love:
Most blessed among all women and among
the mass of humankind,
in this fraught image our mother is asleep.
She lies arms crossed and, notably, across
the spacious foreground
upon an altared bed, her head upraised
upon a scarlet robe,
and we surround her strange repose perplexed
by grief that couples homage
nonetheless. Not we, exactly, but our holy
antecedents, whose bright
nimbi gleam undimmed despite their weeping.
Here again the icon serves
to limn the artifice of time, drawing
to this one still point a broad
synaxis of the blessed, including some
whose souls unbodied have
preceded her to Paradise. Most are bent
in sorrow; several raise a hand to meet
fresh tears. They mourn the dire
severing of blesséd soul from blesséd body.
Leaning in, Saint Peter
lifts the censer with a prayer. Saint Andrew
nearly falls upon the bier.
Saint James Alpheus looks away, or looks
for solace to Saint Luke,
whose eyes--like those of Saints Heirtheus
and adjacent brother James--
direct us to the cupola behind our grief,
from which the risen Christ
attends the mother's solemn funeral
even as he bears her
gleaming spirit in his arms, where she,
so meek the weeping pilgrim might have missed her,
rests swaddled in her shroud,
waiting to be borne to Him, and bodily.