Dormition Day in Russia According to Historical Facts
and Liturgical Traditions

The feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, the patronal feast of the Cathedral of Dormition in old Moscow was met with particularly festive and majestic services. This being the feast day of the see of the Patriarch, it played a particular role in church services.

Preparations for the patronal feast at the Cathedral began long before the 15/28 of August. Two weeks before the feast the sacristans began to clean the Icons, chandeliers and all of the church fixtures. For this work, the help of many of the people of varied talents, when and where they were needed, was conscribed. Candles and stands were brought from the patriarchal residence; 35 pound candles and lampadas with oil were brought from the Imperial Palace. Two days prior to the feast, the patriarchal groundskeeper was instructed to prepare straw, fine and good straw. On the eve of the feast before small vespers, the straw was distributed on the floor of the entire church; in the altar, the narthex, even the places of the Czar and the Patriarch did not escape. In the latter of these places as with the place of the Empress, added to the straw were sweet smelling grasses and herbs. The dressings of the Icons and on the hands of the wonderworkers as with the vestments on the relics of the saints were changed to feast day covers adorned with pearls and other finery. The directions to the Imperial bread garden were issued, that they prepare "large breads of thanksgiving" to be used and blessed at the Litya during the all night Vigil.

On the eve of the feast, the Patriarch with his entourage of Clergy and servers would in procession with Cross and Holy Water make his way to the Imperial Residence to extend his invitation to the Divine Services, and to his Feast-day table thus: "should the great Czar, and the great Duke, rulers of all of Russia, will to attend the Divine Services of the Dormition of the Most Pure Mother of God, in her House and the House of the Great Wonderworkers Peter Alexis and Jonah, deign then also to eat bread with us worshipers of God."

The services themselves were conducted with particular grandeur and pageantry. The Czar would attend each service, and for the Divine Liturgy would come in all his royal attire. After Liturgy the Patriarch would present the Czar with a complete "bread of thanksgiving" from the service on a silver platter, other loaves were distributed to the bishops and to the nobility; the Patriarch himself distributed bread to all in attendance.

To the general grandeur of the services were added some particular details, reserved only for this feast of the Mother of God. The most notable of these and the most striking was the serving of the all night vigil, which was structured similarly to the vigil of Holy and Great Saturday, with lamentations sung at the Shroud of our Lord. Matins of the feast was also celebrated with similar likeness and reverence.

It is interesting to note the desire, even in 15th century Russia, to serve the midnight all night vigil in the same form as Holy and Great Saturday. In "The Church Rubrics" of Tver (1438) for the Dormition of the Mother of God we see the direction "chanting to be before the sepulcher" if the rector so wills. Further, it is directed that the chanting before the Icon of the burial be prescribed for all churches named in honor of the Dormition. For this order of chanting before the sepulcher, the Icon of the feast was placed in the middle of the church, the Priests and Deacons in full vestment would gather before it and candles were distributed to the faithful. The rector would begin the censing of the Icon and the entire church, while at the same time the cantor would begin chanting the Troparion: "all nations bless thee, O Virgin Mother of God" followed by the 3 stanzas if the 17th Kathisma: "Blessed art thou that art blameless in the way" in the very same order as found in the Vigil of Great Saturday with of course the necessary alteration to honor the feast of the Mother of God. Each stanza was followed with the small litany, and the second stanza began "Meet it is to bless thee O Mother of God" and the third "All nations sing thee praises O only Theotokos".

In regards to the rite of chanting the service, we find in the Order of the Divine Services of the monastery of St. Joseph in Volokolam, the following notation: "On this great feast of the life bearing Dormition of our Lady the most Holy Mother of God, we observe a joyous celebration, by the will, and directions of the Holy Apostles and our father amongst the Saints the wonderworker Joseph, this entire rite is observed in all churches and not reserved only for monasteries". According to Professor Dmitrovsky, this right was also observed in the traditions of the Greek Church, verily from whence it came to the books of our Holy Church.

In the 17th century, this rite of serving the all night vigil as on Holy Saturday was used throughout all of Russia. In the center of the church was prepared a table, on it was placed the image of The Mother of God. Following the Great Doxology, an image of the burial was brought out and laid on the table behind the Icon. Then began the chanting of the 17th Kathisma with the songs of the Matins service and the appointed Gospel reading. After the reading of the Gospel, the burial image was covered and the Icon placed upon it. Then the faithful would approach and venerate the Icon. Both the Icon of the Theotokos and the Burial Image were left in the center of the church until the entrance with the Gospel during the Liturgy. They were then carried into the Altar.

In the Moscow Dormition Cathedral, the Patriarch himself preformed this rite of chanting over the burial image. After the singing of the 6th Irmos and the reading of the prologue, the patriarch, accompanied by the clergy would take his place before the Feast day icon in the center of the church. The Czar would at this time, leave his place and come to stand near to the patriarch. The patriarch would distribute tapers to his highness, the members of the nobility, the bishops and the priests; he would then begin the censing of the icon table and the cathedral itself. At this time the Magalynarion was chanted and the entire 17th Kathisma was read by the sub-deacon. Upon completion the Icon was approached and venerated by the Czar, followed by the Patriarch, the nobility, and the Hierarchs and Clergy. The Patriarch then unvested in the Alter with the Clergy and took his place, as did the Czar, while the completion of matins continued. It is interesting to note that the Czars attended all of the Divine Services with the exception of the Services of intercession (moleibin) of which there were several; after small vespers, after the vigil, and before the Liturgy with the blessing of the waters.

After Liturgy, the patriarch would himself go "up" with Holy Water to serve a moleibin for the Czar. There would be assigned a clergyman’s salary of 7 rubles, to cover the expense of a moleiben celebrated on the Dormition of the Theotokos. In the living quarters of the Patriarch, after the liturgy, a festive table was laden for the Czar, nobility and designated clergy. The Patriarch would meet the Czar, and escort him into the banquet. After the customary prayers and the blessing, all would take their places. After many and varied courses, the meal would end with the traditional "cups to good health" or as today they are known – toasts. Our pious ancestors even willed to fulfill this tradition to the Glory of God, and the toasts were accompanied with songs of intersession and glory, as well as with prayer. These toasts were, as a rite of their own, and were called the "Rite of requesting good tidings and health for the Czar". This was even recorded in some books with golden inlay and highlighted title lettering. Occasionally, this was carried out to written music. The tradition of these "cups to good health" is an ancient one, contemporary to the origin of the Church in Russia itself. St. Theodosious of the Caves even instructed on this that at the banquet, there should be but three Troparion sung, and three cups lifted; to the glory of Christ God, His most Holy Mother, and to the health of the Czar.

In the 17th century there was a particular rite for these cups which began with the prosphora to the honor of the Mother of God known as the Panagia.
This Panagia was brought before the patriarch at the banquet in special vessel "the carrier of the all Holy". The patriarch would read the before meal prayers over it, and after the meal would distribute parts of the Panagia to those present. Following were sung Troparion to the Theotokos, and the Patriarch himself would intone the "many years" for the Czar: Grant O Lord that our Emperor….will be preserved for many years".

It must be noted that this rite was similarly fulfilled at all major festal occasions, especially in the monasteries. The Imperial table would only see this rite performed when Clergy were present. Together with this grand royal banquet table, the day of the Dormition also witnessed another banquet. In the quarters of the Patriarch was set a feast. To this all the poor and needy were invited. His Beatitude the Patriarch himself, would serve all these, the lesser of brothers. This was the Feast of the Dormition in Holy Russia.

Priest Anatoly Trepatschko
July 2002


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