August 1 is a day of multiple events in the Byzantine rite calendar. It marks the start of the Dormition Fast; the Procession of the Holy Cross; the Seven Macabee Martyrs (Old Testament saints) with their mother and teacher; and the Little Blessing of Water.
Dormition Fast – this second “summer Lent” lasts for only two weeks, ending at Vespers on August 14. The Dormition of Our Lady is a great feast, marked by pilgrimages across Eastern Europe to Marian shrines, and at our eparchy’s shrine in Olympia, WA. This was a strict fast in Europe, excluding meat, dairy, fish, oil and wine. Basically people ate vegetables! This Fast is much mitigated today, and the Church in the US only suggests abstinence from meat on Wednesday in addition to the obligatory abstinence of Friday. You can also add Monday. In Europe, this is another vegan fast: no meat or dairy products. And in Europe at this time, it is a) hot as blazes b) time to bring in harvest by cutting or digging and c) after harvesting, time to hit the road and go on pilgrimage to a big shrine. And all this while being vegans! Ask an American to do that!
Procession of the Holy Cross – In medieval cities, summer was the season of plague and other ailments. This is why the Dormition Blessing of Flowers includes medical herbs, used in medicine. It became the custom to carry the Cross, and especially a relic of the True Cross, through the streets of Constantinople and other cities on August 1, height of the plague season, to ask for protection from illness.
Maccabee Martyrs – The history of the Maccabean revolt against forced imposition of pagan practice is found in the Bible in 1 and 2 Maccabees. This story is found in 2 Maccabees 6:18–7:42. This chapter strongly influenced Christian writing about the sufferings of martyrs. In particular, the discourse of the mother to her last, and youngest, son is deeply moving.
The Maccabee books recount the struggle that took place when Antiochus IV began his rabid persecution of the Jews, trying to force them into the Hellenic world and paganism. The first uses of the words “Judaism” and “Hellenism” appear in the Bible in these books. The last high priests were incredibly corrupt and gave Antiochus the impression that the office was simply one that could be traded around for bribes. The last one actually stole sacred vessels from the Temple, resulting in riots. Antiochus brutally suppressed the riots, installed altars of Greek gods and a statue of Zeus on the altar in the Temple itself, and ordered pagan worship. Jewish sacrifice was forbidden, sabbaths and feasts were banned. The circumcision of newborn boys was outlawed, and mothers who circumcised their babies were killed along with their families. There was extensive resistance, and there were Jews who gave in, but in 166 BC Antiochus came up against this family that gives new meaning to the word “stubborn.”
The mother, whose name is usually rendered Salome, was brought forward with her seven children, because they refused to eat pork. The boys’ names are generally given as Habim, Antonin, Guriah, Eleazar, Eusebon, Hadim (Halim) and Marcellus – which is a Greek name! Thus the family interacted with the larger society, but held firm to its Jewish beliefs.
The account says of her: “[she] was the most remarkable of all, and deserves to be remembered with special honor. She watched her seven sons die in the space of a single day, yet she bore it bravely because she put her trust in the Lord.”
In addition, the scribe Eleazar, over 90 years old, was killed for the crime of teaching the Jewish faith, in particular to this stubborn family, and refusing to sacrifice to the idols. The mother died last, either executed or throwing herself off of a high building to save herself from the Greeks. The Church preserves this feast because of what it teaches about constancy in faith, no matter what the cost, and the Macabee Martyrs have been invoked over the centuries as inspiring figures.
So, US reader:
– how strong is our faith in the face of any opposition: employer, relatives, friends, roommates?
– how much fasting or abstinence do we do, not to prove how tough we are, but out of love for Jesus and His Holy Mother?
– the Cross comes in many ways and Jesus says we must take up our cross and follow Him. Do we take it up? Or do we look for another one that is not so heavy/ scary/ burdensome/ time-consuming/ dirty/ etc? And now think of the people we met today: our East Europeans digging up the harvest on a minimal diet out of love for Mary; the Jews who endured against terrible odds (and now what do Jews have to put up? More enemies!); our Lord Who willingly went up on the Cross out of love.
And now, dear reader, let us love.