Most of us are familiar with the season of Advent, the period of time in the church calendar when many faithful prepare and look forward to the coming of Christ, celebrated on Christmas. Some of us may even participate in various Advent activities, such as keeping an Advent calendar, a daily prayer journal, or perhaps lighting an Advent wreath.
But when it comes to liturgy, things are not always as they seem. Often we assume that where two things appear similar they must be the same. This is what we find with the season of Advent, which, contrary to common assumptions, does not exist in the Armenian Church.
What is Advent?
The word “advent,” from Latin adventus, means “coming,” specifically the coming of Christ into the world. In the Roman rite of the Catholic Church and some Protestant traditions, the season known as Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. As a liturgical season, Advent is purely a Western Christian phenomenon that came into existence only after Christmas itself was established on December 25. In other Eastern Christian traditions, year-end seasons show great variety in theme and purpose. For example, those of the Syriac language, devote the season to the Mother of God.
What about the Armenian Church?
Often confused as “Advent,” our church calendar includes a year-end period referred to as Յիսնակ / Heesnag, from the word յիսուն / heesoon, which means “fifty.” Heesnag begins on the Monday nearest November 18 and ends on the Eve of Theophany, January 5, thus the exact duration of Heesnag fluctuates between 48 and 52 days.
Rather than being one continuous period of fasting, Heesnag contains three short, five-day bursts of fasting, which are not connected liturgically or thematically. Equally spaced in the beginning, middle, and end of Heesnag, the following ancient one-week fasts ultimately give some shape to the 50-day period:
• Fast of Heesnag, beginning on the Monday closest to November 18. An inauguration of Heesnag, this fast may just function as the threshold of one period of the church calendar to another.
• Fast of St. James of Nisibis, the five days preceding the commemoration of St. James of Nisibis. Originally an ancient winter seasonal fast, in popular imagination it became associated with St. James, the Bishop of Nisibis (308-338).
• Theophany Fast, the five days preceding the Feast of Theophany set aside to prepare for the celebration of the revelation of Jesus’ divinity at His baptism and the revelation of His humanity in His birth.
The structure of the period suggests that at a later stage these fasts came to define the entire period between the season of the Cross and Theophany. This would explain why the commemoration of saints continues during most of the period of Heesnag, since in the Armenian Church, as a rule, fasting is incompatible with the commemoration of saints.
Heesnag is not Advent
There is no evidence that the period known as Heesnag ever functioned as a liturgical season of the Armenian Church. There exist no designated customs, hymns, lectionary readings, or liturgical variables that would give it a coherent or seasonal character. Even the so-called Sundays “of Heesnag” liturgically function as Sundays “of the Resurrection.” Furthermore, the Armenian equivalent for the word “Advent” is Գալուստ / Kaloosd, which could have easily been chosen had that been the intended theme of this calendrical period.
Instead, Heesnag is simply a transitional period of about 50 days that takes place between the Season of the Cross and the Feast of Theophany.
Rather than celebrate a liturgical season that is foreign to our tradition, let us recognize Heesnag for what it is, and turn our attention to its designated fasting periods, feast days (Presentation of the Mother of God, and the Conception of the Mother of God), and to some of the greatest heroes of the Christian faith commemorated during this period.
As attractive as the customs of other Christian traditions may be, with Heesnag the Armenian Church offers her people a distinctive, instructive, and life-giving Christian vision. In part, Heesnag shows us how the Armenian people since antiquity have uniquely experienced the Christian faith and Jesus Christ himself.