One of our Parish family members recently asked me a question about the June Apostle’s Fast, specifically when the Fast began. It might very well be something I learned in Seminary many years ago, but I couldn’t honestly give him an answer.
With that question in mind, and with the Dormition Fast in honor of the Falling Asleep of the Blessed Theotokos beginning on August 1st, I did some minor research on the Internet and came up with the following explananations for the Apostles Fast and the Dormition Fast. Most interesting to me is the esteem early Church Fathers held for the Dormition Fast, ranking it only below the Great Fast of Lent as a fasting period for Orthodox Christians.
In truth, the two summer Fasts are often ignored by many members of the Faith. As a child I don’t recall any priest ever mentioning the Fasting periods; I also recall living in the 60’s and 70’s (80’s & 90’s in some places) where it was common to offer non-fasting dinners at churches during times like the Nativity Fast or the summer Fasts. I believe we have become more educated about our Faith in recent years (no offense to the Babas who were often the backbone of parishes), but still, the summer Fasts are by no means held in the same view as Great Lent.
The two articles below are worthwhile reading for all Orthodox Christians, and they remind us of an important part of our Faith: the Fasting and Repentance that are integral aspects of our beliefs.
What is the Apostles Fast?
By Fr. Brendan Pelphrey in Orthodox Christian Reference Guide
- Orthodox Christians around the world observe four fasting seasons during the year. Two of these—the Great Fast for the forty days of Lent, and the Dormition Fast during the first fifteen days of August—are considered “strict” fasts. The other two are generally observed as “lesser” fasts: the so-called “Christmas Lent” or fast during the forty days before the Feast of the Nativity, and the Fast of the Apostles which occurs in June.
In America the Fast of the Apostles is probably the least well known, but is among the oldest of Christian traditions. It is mentioned by St. Athanasius in the fourth century, and there are other testimonies to its existence very early in the history of the Church. The fast begins on the day after the observance of All Saints’ Sunday, which falls one week after Pentecost.
Today the fast ends with the observance of the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, which is held on June 29. In earliest practice, however, the fast was probably not connected with the Feast of Peter and Paul. Rather, it was a time for fasting after the celebration of Pentecost and/or All Saints. Apparently, different traditions prescribed different lengths of the fast—whether for one week, several weeks, or even only one day. Today, the fast still has a variable length because of its connection to the date of Pentecost, and therefore of All Saints.
The date of Pentecost varies with the date of Holy Pascha (Easter), falling fifty days after Pascha. Therefore, the date of the Sunday of All Saints varies accordingly. This means that the length of the Fast of the Apostles also varies each year. For those churches which follow the Old Calendar, the Fast can be very long (as long as 42 days) or very short (8 days), depending upon when Holy Pascha falls. For Orthodox churches which use the New Calendar, there are some years in which there is no Apostles’ Fast at all.
There are different traditions regarding how strictly to follow the Fast. In most Orthodox traditions, the fast is not as severe as that during Great Lent. Fish, wine and oil are permitted on all days except Wednesday and Friday, which are strict fast-days throughout the year except immediately following the Great Feasts of the Lord. In other traditions, fish, wine and oil are permitted on Saturdays and Sundays during the Fast of the Apostles.
For faithful Orthodox today, the Fast of the Apostles can be an occasion for reflection upon the lives and example of the Holy Apostles. On the Sunday of All Saints, we remember and celebrate the lives of all those who have gone before us in the faith: our fathers, forefathers, the apostles, preachers, evangelists, teachers, hierarchs and martyrs. The readings which are appointed for that day (Hebrews 11:33-40, 12:1-2, and Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38, 19:27-30) remind us that countless worshippers of God have sacrificed their lives for the faith which we have inherited.
Following Jesus’ admonition recorded by St. Matthew, the Apostles left behind their parents, their children, and their possessions in order to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to people who did not know Him. Christian missionaries around the world are still doing this today. During the Fast of the Apostles we are reminded to pray for them all, and for Orthodox mission everywhere.
The Fast is also an occasion to remember that in Christ, we have a unity that goes far beyond our personal opinions, likes or dislikes. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the Apostles themselves recognized this very early. The occasion was an argument which took place regarding whether the followers of Christ needed to continue to observe the Law of Moses. At first, Peter and Paul took different sides in the discussion.
Both Peter and Paul were Jews, but their personalities and backgrounds were very different. Peter, who was formerly a fisherman, was among the first of the disciples to follow Jesus. Presumably he was uneducated and probably spoke only Aramaic in the local Galilean dialect. Paul, on the other hand, was very well educated under Gamaliel, the most famous rabbi (teacher) of his time, and spoke several languages.
Moreover, Paul—originally named Saul—was not among the Twelve Disciples. He even led a deadly persecution of Christians until he received an astounding vision of Christ while on the way to Damascus (Acts 9). The blinding vision changed his life forever. Thereafter he became an ardent witness to the risen Christ. But because of his former life, it was very difficult at first for the disciples to forgive and accept him.
Before very long, Peter and Paul became involved in the dispute about keeping the Law. Paul, who was preaching among Gentiles, taught that it was no longer necessary to keep the Law, because the purpose of the Law was to points to the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul even proclaimed that the Law had been nailed to the cross with Christ, for now we are justified by faith and not by following the Law (see Romans 10 and Galatians 3). Peter, however, was drawn towards the opinion of some Jews that although Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah, the Law nevertheless should continue to be observed for all time.
Paul journeyed to Jerusalem to meet with Peter and the other disciples in order to settle the matter. Paul says that he opposed Peter to his face (Galatians 2:11 ff.). After some discussion it was agreed that Christians would no longer follow the Law, including practices like circumcision and the complex dietary laws given in the Books of Moses. However, they would continue to observe some of the restrictions of the Law regarding moral principles, and the eating of blood.
It is significant that Peter did not simply decide to agree with Paul on these matters. Rather, he was given a vision from God in which it was declared that foods which were formerly declared to be “unclean” for all Jews, were now “clean” or acceptable (Acts 10). Thus, Peter realized that God was instituting a new order and way of life, and that to agree with Paul was a matter of obedience to Christ himself.
These events remind us to seek God when we have disagreements within the Church. This requires humility on our part, and the willingness to accept others even when we might not have agreed with them before. We let go of our own personal wishes or demands, and pray for the good of the Church and for a recognition of the will of God for all of us together.
At the conclusion of the Fast, therefore, we celebrate Peter and Paul together. The icon of the Feast depicts the two men standing side-by-side, holding the Church together in their hands. This is a powerful symbol of the supernatural love for one another which is given by the Holy Spirit. In the Holy Spirit we have agreement and new life. For this reason, Orthodox Christians today can regard the Fast of the Apostles as one of the most important times of the year, a time to humble ourselves and pray for genuine love and unity in the Church around the world.
THE DORMITION FAST
Fresco of the Dormition of The Mother of God
The Dormition fast was established as preceding the great feasts of the Transfiguration of the Lord and of the Dormition of the Mother of God. It lasts two weeks—from August 1/14–August 14/27 (old style/new style).
The Dormition fast comes down to us from the early days of Christianity.
We find a clear reference to the Dormition fast in a conversation of Leo the Great from around the year 450 A.D. “The Church fasts are situated in the year in such a way that a special abstinence is prescribed for each time. Thus, for spring there is the spring fast ]—the Forty Days[Great Lent; for summer there is the summer fast… [the Apostles’ fast]; for autumn there is the autumn fast, in the seventh month [Dormition fast]; for winter there is the winter fast [Nativity fast].”
St. Symeon of Thessalonica writes that, “The fast in August [Dormition fast] was established in honor of the Mother of God the Word; Who, foreknowing Her repose, ascetically labored and fasted for us as always, although She was holy and immaculate, and had no need for fasting. Thus, She especially prayed for us in preparation for being transported from this life to the future life, when Her blessed soul would be united through the Divine spirit with Her Son. Therefore, we also should fast and praise Her, emulating Her life, urging Her thereby to pray for us. Some, by the way, say that this fast was instituted on the occasion of two feasts—the Transfiguration and the Dormition. I also consider it necessary to remember these two feasts—one which gives us light, and the other which is merciful to us and intercedes for us.”
The Dormition fast is not as strict as the Great Fast, but it is stricter than the Apostle’s and Nativity fasts.
On Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays of the Dormition fast, the Church rubrics prescribe xerophagy, that is, the strictest fast of uncooked food (without oil); on Tuesdays and Thursdays, “with cooked food, but with no oil”; on Saturdays and Sundays wine and oil are allowed.
Until the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, when grapes and apples are blessed in the churches, the Church requires that we abstain from these fruits. According to the tradition of the holy fathers, “If one of the brethren should eat the grapes before the feast, then let him be forbidden for obedience’s sake to taste of the grapes during the entire month of August.”
On the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, the Church rubrics allow fish. After that day, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the fruits of the new harvest would always be included in the meals.
The spiritual fast is closely united with the bodily, just as our soul is united with the body, penetrates it, enlivens it, and makes one united whole with it, as the soul and body make one living human being. Therefore, in fasting bodily we must at the same time fast spiritually: “Brothers, in fasting bodily let us also fast spiritually, severing all union with unrighteousness,” the Holy Church enjoins us.
The main thing In fasting bodily is restraint from abundant, tasty and sweet foods; the main thing in fasting spiritually is restraint from passionate, sinful movements that indulge our sensual inclinations and vices. The former is renunciation of the more nourishing foods for fasting food, which is less nourishing; the latter is the renunciation of our favorite sins for exercise in the virtues which oppose them.
The essence of the fast is expressed in the following Church hymn: “If you fast from food, my soul, but are not purified of the passions, in vain do we comfort ourselves by not eating. For if the fast does not bring correction, then it will be hateful to God as false, and you will be like unto the evil demons, who never eat.”
The Great fast and the Dormition fast are particularly strict with regard to entertainment—in Imperial Russia even civil law forbade public masquerades and shows during these fasts.
The Dormition fast begins on the feast of the
“Procession of the Wood of the Life-Giving Cross of the Lord.”
Icon of the Veneration of the Cross. Novgorod. (Preserved in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.)
In the Greek horologion of 1897, the origin of this feast is explained: “Because of the illnesses that occur very often during August, the custom was established in Constantinople of processing the Precious Wood of the Cross through the roads and streets to sanctify places and prevent disease. On the eve of the feast it was carried out of the royal treasury and placed upon the holy table of the Great Church (the Hagia Sophia, dedicated to the Holy Wisdom of God). From that day until the Dormition of the Most Pure Theotokos, lityas were served throughout the city, and the Wood of the Cross was then offered to the people for veneration. This was the procession of the Precious Cross.”
In the Russian Orthodox Church, this feast was linked with the remembrance of the Baptism of Russia in 988. The memory of the day of the Baptism of Russia was preserved in the Chronologies of the sixteenth century, which state that, “Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev and All Rus was baptized on August 1.” In the Discussion of active rites of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church on the Dormition, written in 1627 at the request of Patriarch Philaret of Moscow and All Russia, the feast on August 1 is described: “During the procession on the day of the Precious Cross, there is a blessing of the waters for the enlightenment of the people, throughout the cities and villages.”
On this day, a feast was established of the All-Merciful Savior Christ God, and of the Most Pure Virgin, in honor of the victory of Grand Prince Andrei Bogolubsky over the Volga Bulgars, and of the Greek Emperor Michael over the Saracens.
According to Orthodox Church tradition, on this day the Cross is venerated (according to the rubrics of the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross during Great Lent), and a lesser blessing of the waters is served. Together with the blessing of the waters, new honey is also blessed. (This is where the Russian folk name for the feast, “Savior of the honey,” comes from.)
Official site of the Moscow Patriarchate