By Father Leonidas Contos
There are in the Orthodox tradition three principal periods of fasting during the ecclesiastical year; they are also the ones that are the least neglected. One is the forty-day period of Advent; the second is the forty-day period of Lent; the third is the fifteen-day fast which begins the first of August, and will end on the fifteenth with the commemoration of the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos. Among the three there is an intimate and important connection. Unless we understand that connection well, unless we can see how the three are bridged, so to speak theologically, it is not easy for us to comprehend and appreciate the place held in Orthodox faith and worship by the Virgin Mary.
It is easy enough for us to perceive the relationship between Christmas and Easter. These are the two great acts of God, which, like two poles, form the axis on which the whole work of our salvation turns. In the Nativity God becomes man, to the end that man may become God, to employ the rather bold language of the Greek Fathers; or, to use another patristic expression, God becomes “sarcophoros,” the bearer of human flesh, so that man may become “pneumatophoros,” the bearer of the divine Spirit. At Easter the plan is fulfilled. What the birth of Christ pledged, the death of Christ achieved. The barriers that separated man from God are thrown down, all three in succession—the barrier of man’s own nature, for Christ assumed and deified it; the barrier of sin, for Christ met it and rejected it; the barrier of death, for Christ encountered it and vanquished it—and man can now find his way back to God.
All this, to the extent that it can be clear to us, is clear enough. What then is the connection of the fast of August? In the other instances we prepare ourselves by undergoing a sort of sorrow in anticipation of a great joy. Here our period of sorrow and penance ends in a deeper sorrow, the death of the Virgin. Ah, but to take this view of our fasts is to miss the whole point of them; and it is to miss the deep theological connection that underlies them.
If we were to go far back among the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church, back to St. Irenaeus of the second century, who wrote so gracefully on the “drama of salvation”; and if we were to look for a single word that ties together all the separate acts of that drama, that word would have to be “obedience.” Irenaeus’ basic theme is that man’s estrangement from God was the consequence of man’s disobedience; his reconciliation to God, on the other hand, was the fruit of Christ’s obedience. Indeed, not of Christ’s alone, but initially and importantly of Mary’s. The words of the Virgin to the herald of God, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word,” are an essential key that unlocked for us the treasury of God’s grace.
The gentle Irenaeus develops at great length an absorbing analogy between Adam and Christ. The word “analogy” is one he himself employs. And another expression of his “anakephalaiosis,” under the meaning of “going over the ground again,” recapitulating, becomes very graphic. By His obedience Christ, champion of man, trod precisely the same path that Adam had walked, but in the opposite direction. Irenaeus works out the analogy to show that every circumstance in the life of the first Adam was duplicated in the life of the Second Adam, Christ; except that at every point where Adam made a wrong choice, Christ redeemed it with a right one.
~Adapted from Leonidas Contos, In Season and Out of Season: A Collection of Sermons by Father Leonidas Contos