From the book, A Byzantine Rite Liturgical Year, by Fr. Julian Katrij, OSBM, translated by Fr. Demtrius Wysochansky, OSBM.
Christians of the first centuries always prepared themselves for great feasts with fasting and prayer. Gradually shorter or longer fasts developed from this sacred practice. The Great Fast before the glorious feast of the Pasch occupies first place among the fasts. Soon before the feast of the Nativity, the fast of St. Philip came into practice. From a special cult in honour of SS. Peter and Paul, there arose a fast called Petriwka or Peter’s Fast. And finally, came the most recent of the four yearly fasts, the Fast of the Dormition. With this fast we prepare ourselves for the greatest of all the Marian feasts – the holy Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God. In this manner, we imitate the fasting and prayers of the Most Pure Virgin Mary by which she prepared herself for her encounter with her Divine Son in her holy Dormition (falling asleep). The Fast of the Dormition is called by our people the Fast of the Mother of God or Spasiwka. Spasiwka derives its name from the feast of Spas (Saviour) or Transfiguration which falls during the period of this fast. We shall consider the history of this fast, its duration, and its practice in the first centuries of Christian Rus’-Ukraine.
History of the Fast of the Dormition
The first mention made of the Fast of the Dormition occurs only in the ninth century. Just as the Petriwka and Pylypiwka, so too, this fast came into practice not by way of ecclesiastical legislation, but by way of custom. For this reason, many disputes arose in Greece regarding its existence, prescriptions, and duration.
The Evergetes Typicon of the eleventh century does not mention this fast, nor does the Typicon of the year 1136 of the Pantocrator Monastery in Constantinople. Similarly, the Typicons of St. Theodore the Studite and St. Athanasius of Athos up to the fourteenth century do not speak of the Fast of the Dormition. Of the ancient typicons, the first to mention the Fast of the Dormition was the Typicon of the Greek Nicolo-Casulan Monastery of the twelfth century in Calabria, Italy. Here, on the first of August, there is this following note: “Patriarch of Constantinople, Nicholas I (895-925), concerning the Forty Days Fast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God says: ‘We have another fast, called the fast of the Most Holy Mother of God, beginning on the first of August, which is mentioned by the Seventh Council of Nicea (920).’”
We find one earlier mention of the Fast of the Mother of God in the letter of Pope Nicholas I (858-867) to the Bulgarians. In this letter, he writes: “The holy Roman Church has from earliest times the custom of observing the following fasts: the Forty Days Fast before the Pasch, after Pentecost, before the Assumption of Mary the Mother of God, and also before the Nativity of our Lord.” This letter is regarded by some to be of dubious authority.
In the work “On Three Forty Days Fasts,” which is credited to the Antiochian Patriarch, Anastasius Sinaite (6th century), mention is made of the Fast of the Dormition as a fast that was separated from the Fast of St. Peter, for originally it extended from the Sunday of All Saints to the feast of the Dormition; later the month of July was eliminated from the Fast of St. Peter.
The monks of Athos, around 1085, queried the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael the Grammaticus, about the various fasts and in particular about the Fast of the Dormition. His answer was: “In the month of August there was a fast at one time, but it was transferred so that it would not coincide with a pagan fast. Even now, however, many people fast at that time, in order to protect themselves from sicknesses.”
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the fast of the Dormition came to be observed in the Byzantine empire more and more frequently. In order to encourage the faithful to observe this fast, Archbishop Athanasius of Caesarea, Palestine (c. 1090), published the results of his special research concerning this fast. In this he writes, “The holy Fathers and the holy patriarchs had handed down to us the fast before the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God, which is observed by all the cities and countries of the orthodox, especially the blessed and great city of Constantinople, as well as the Great Church.” Finally, this author concludes that this fast was already practiced up to the time of Emperor Leo the Wise (886-911). The issue of the fast of the Dormition was the theme for discussion at the Council of Constantinople (1166) during the reign of Patriarch Luke Chrysobergas (1156-1169) and Emperor Emmanual Comnen (1143-1180). The Council approved the practice of this fast.
Nikon, a monk of the Black Mountain near Antioch, who lived in the second half of the eleventh century, says in regard to the Fast of the Dormition that those who keep it have no basis in antiquity; nor do those who observe it have the support of apostolic tradition, but rather have the support of a custom of very ancient origin.
Duration and Prescriptions of the Fast of the Dormition
In the Greek Church, for a long time no uniformity existed in regard to the duration of the Peter and Philip Fasts, as well as the Fast of the Dormition. Patriarch Balsamon (+1204) says that during his time some kept all three fasts – Peter’s (Petriwka), Philip’s (Pylypiwka) and Dormition (Spasiwka) – and that the duration was the same as today, while others observed only the Petriwka and Pylypiwka and did not even want to hear about the Fast of the Dormition. In his letters he defends the Fast of the Mother of God and orders that it be kept. He even appeals to the Council of Constantinople of 1166, which not only approved this fast but also determined its duration from the first to the 15th of August.
The Fast of the Dormition in ancient times was stricter than the Petriwka and the Pylypiwka, but was more mitigated than the Great Fast. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of this fast, dry food – that is, bread, water and dried fruits – were prescribed, and on Tuesday and Thursday cooked food was permitted but without oil. On Saturday and Sunday wine and oil were allowed, while on the day of the Transfiguration of the Lord, fish was also permitted.
The Synod of Lviv (1891) gives the same prescriptions for the three fasts – Petriwka, Pylypiwka, Spasiwka – namely, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday the Synod permits dairy products, while on the other days of the week it permits meat. On these four days, the clergy must recite Psalm 50 before the noonday meal and supper, and the faithful are obliged to recite five Our Fathers and five times O Mother of God, Virgin.
The Fast of the Dormition in Rus-Ukraine
As among the Greeks, so too, in our Church there was disagreement regarding the above-mentioned fasts. It is true that we have documents concerning these fasts from the second half of the eleventh century, but they are not clear and sometimes they contradict one another. The Kievan Metropolitan, George (1072), in his “Rules” for priests and laity, informs us that during his times all three fasts were kept. The Petriwka and Pylypiwka began at the same time as today, and the Fast of the Dormition was shortened by some. Metropolitan George commands that the Fast of the Mother of God be kept from the first to the 15th of August, but he does not mention anything about its prescriptions. However, the Studite Typicon of Patriarch Alexis, which St. Theodosius Pechersky introduced in our Church during the time of Metropolitan George, speaks only of the Christmas fast and does not mention the fasts of St. Peter and Dormition. Precisely because this Typicon does not say anything about the Dormition fast, some not only shortened it, but did not observe it at all. Similarly, the three anonymous authors of the work “Words of Instruction’ of the pre-Mongolian period mention only the Petriwka and Pylypiwka fasts, and say nothing of the Spasiwka.
Following the invasion of the Mongols, two documents relating to these three fasts have come down to us, namely: the work of Metropolitan Maxim (1283-1305) and Metropolitan Photius (1408-1431). Metropolitan Maxim in his “Rules” for the entire Rus Church gives detailed prescriptions regarding the various fasts and their times. Regarding the three fasts, he writes: “The holy Councils gave us still another fast – the fast of the Apostles. When the feast of the holy Apostles falls on Wednesday or Friday, then the faithful are not permitted to eat meat, but must keep the holy day and eat fish… They also instituted a fast in the month of August before the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. No matter on what day the first of August falls, meat and fish are not allowed. Should the feast of the Most Holy Mother of God fall on Wednesday or Friday, then meat is not to be eaten; however, because it is the feast of the Most Holy Mother of God, fish may be eaten… And they instituted a forty day fast before the holy and great mystery of the Birth in the flesh of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Metropolitan Maxim does not mention the Great Fast, for there were no doubts about it or controversies over it. The “Rule” of Metropolitan Maxim which was sent out throughout the Rus Church had binding force on all; for almost a whole century there was no disagreement in this matter.
Metropolitan Photius in his circular letter to all the clergy exhorts the priests to teach the people to religiously observe the following fasts: the Great Fast, the Petriwka, the Fast of the Dormition and the Christmas Fast.
Note – the present Particular Law of the UGCC (2018) prescribes that we abstain from meat and foods that contain meat on Wednesdays and Fridays from August 1-14.