Full of Grace
In the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, we hear that the Blessed Virgin Mary is to be the Mother of God. The Angel Gabriel greets Mary with a strange greeting. The angel says, recorded in the Greek, “Chaire, Kecharitomene… (Lk. 1:38).” St. Jerome translated this into Latin as “Ave, gratia plena,” which gives us the English rendering as well: “Hail, Full of Grace.”
However, Full of Grace does not do the Woman justice, nor does it capture the full implications of kecharitomene. The word appears nowhere else in Sacred Scriptures, nor does it appear in secular Greek literature. The root of the word charitoo does appear in St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. We read of the redeemed sinner: “for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted (echaristosen) us in the beloved (Eph. 1:6).” This grace is the same sanctifying grace that we receive in Baptism that justifies and saves us. It is the same sanctifying grace that flows from Christ through the Sacraments.
Therefore, Mary is not only favored or full of grace, she is the “most exalted one.” This term kecharitomene is not an adjective; it is a noun. Kecharitomene is who Mary is!
At the first moment of her creation in the womb of St. Anne, Mary was preserved from the sin of Adam. She is the Most Exalted One. She did not sin. There are consequences for this.
East and West – Dormition and Assumption
We can infer quite easily from the Bible that it would be unfitting that Mary, the God-Bearer (Theotokos in Greek), the Exalted One (Kecharitomene), would see bodily decay upon her death. Nor is it fitting that her bodily happiness in heaven would be postponed to the end of time. This tradition has been handed down from the time of the Apostles and has been held in the Christian Church for two thousand years.
Pope Pius XII declared the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary in 1950 saying, “Mary, the immaculate perpetually Virgin Mother of God, after the completion of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into the glory of heaven.” From this, we see the Latin-based Western time: Assumption.
This dogma has been held for millennia in the East as well under the title of the Dormition or “falling asleep” of the Theotokos. This doctrine has always preserved that the body of Christ originated from the body of Mary. In other words, Jesus is fully man. There were many heresies through the centuries that denied Jesus’ divinity and some that denied His humanity. This doctrine preserves that we, with our body and soul, are called to share in Christ’s Resurrection just as we share in His act of Redemption in uniting our suffering to His here on this Earth. The Theotokos shows us the model and went to our eternal destiny first.
The Dormition Fast – “Little Lent of the Mother of God”
The Dormition Fast begins on August 1 and ends on the day before the Feast of the Dormition (Assumption) on August 15. It has been celebrated in Rome in recent decades as the Little Lent of the Mother of God or Mary’s Lent. However, this fast extends back for centuries in the Byzantine, Russian, and Coptic traditions.
Fasting is meant to prepare our body and soul, our mind and heart, for what God has planned for us. By denying ourselves good things for a time, we are allowing a focus on God and prayer to enter in. Rather than being like Lazarus’ sister Martha, being anxious and worried, we are like her sister Mary who sits at the feet of Jesus to listen and learn.
The Theotokos, Mary Most Holy, did this better than any other servant of God. She heard of the Word of God and she kept it. In fasting, we become more like her.
There is an analogue to the Dormition in any human family. As the matriarch of the family nears her deathbed, the family usually gathers around her. The world around becomes dreadfully unimportant and all eyes are fixed on her who has given life to the family in so many ways. The Church is the same. Just as the first Apostles gathered at the deathbed of Kecharitomene, so too do we.
As an aside, it is an open theological question that is hotly debated about whether or not Mary actually died. In one view, she died but then immediately enjoyed the resurrection of the body and the assumption into Heaven. In the other view, she did not die and then received her glorified body and was assumed into Heaven. But that’s another conversation for another day…
We reflect on the life of the Theotokos and her continued intercession, queenship, and love of her adopted sons and daughters. She is the model of obedient service to God in all things. She heard the Word of God, but she was also the new Ark of the Covenant which brought the Word Made Flesh into the world. Thus, the Dormition Fast developed in the earliest time of the Church to mark this Great Woman and to imitate her Christian discipleship.
What Does the Dormition Fast Entail?
The Dormition Fast does vary between the various Rites in the Catholic Church. However, in general, the guidelines are as follows:
· Weekdays are Strict Fast Days. On these days there is abstinence from meat, dairy, fish with backbones, fowl, wine, and oil.
· Saturdays and Sundays are Wine and Oil Days. On these days the fast is relaxed a bit. Wine and oil are permitted but there is still abstinence from meat, dairy, fish with backbones, and fowl.
In the Byzantine Churches, the Feast of the Transfiguration always falls on August 6. This is ranked as one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Byzantine calendar. On this day, fish, wine, and oil are allowed, despite the day upon which it falls.