Currently, the Armenian Apostolic Church is in the middle of the Octave of Christmas or the Octave of the Feast of Theophany. In the Armenian Apostolic tradition, after celebrating Christmas on January 6, the celebration of the appearance of Jesus Christ on earth (Theophany) continues for another week, totaling a continuing celebration of eight days. Each day has a designated canon, a full set of hymns, and specific readings, all relating to the celebration of the Incarnation of the Word of God, the becoming-human and revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God through His birth—the Nativity. Such an octave, like other cycles of feasts and fast of the Armenian Apostolic Church, organizes time. It becomes the source for how we move through the world, the very fabric of our existence.
Last week, we had occasion to reflect on renewal and tradition, on how the renewal of the world through the Incarnation does not quite align with dominant conceptions of novelty. We suggested that those dominant conceptions of both novelty and tradition are “profoundly at odds with the way the Armenian and other Orthodox Churches have conceived of tradition, and with it, the very fabric of time.” This week, in the middle of the Octave of Theophany, we have the opportunity to offer some first reflections on how exactly the Armenian Apostolic Church does conceive of “the very fabric of time.” For an octave, like other feasts and fasts, organizes time. With a better understanding of the temporal underpinnings of the Armenian Apostolic Church, we can approach our liturgy and our written inheritance—foundational sources of Armenian Christian thought and experience—with new eyes.
Suggesting that time itself works differently is a difficult and even disturbing idea. After all, “Time marches on!” or “Time flies!” These common phrases suggest the dominant way of thinking about time that we have internalized and naturalized as the only possibility for how we might experience the passage of time: as something that moves in one direction, namely forward, inevitably and constantly. Perhaps we can chop it up into bite-sized pieces (“the present”) or guess at what is to come (“the future”) or remember what has already happened (“the past”), but we have difficulty imagining that it could be any other way. As with many things in life, alternatives to our naturalized way of thinking seem not only impossible, but unthinkable.
Yet this is profoundly dangerous when we approach both older Armenian sources and for our spiritual life. Such a progressive, linear way of thinking about time, what the famous philosopher Walter Benjamin called “homogenous, empty time” actually structures how we live in the world. If time is merely a series of days that are all the same, all with twenty-four hours, all with the same potential to be filled as we please, we will anticipate things in a certain way, marking out the days until the thing is coming, being anxious about it as it approaches. Our experience (here anticipation and anxiety) is shaped by the fact that we consider time to be something marching forward through days that are basically the same towards an event at a point somewhere further along the single line of time. What we do and feel, how we experience the world, is conditioned by what we could call a philosophy of time.
The Octave of Theophany explodes our experience of “homogenous, empty time,” our experience of every day as being similarly empty until we fill it as we please. Today, on the Third Day of the Nativity, if we were to offer one of the daily services of the Armenian Apostolic Church, we would read Matthew’s account of the baptism of Christ, which we celebrated on Sunday. We would sing hymns glorifying the birth and baptism of Jesus. Today, then, is linked to Sunday, and also repeats some of its themes. Today is not empty or open to whatever we may please but comes pre-filled with experiences and expectations regarding the Birth and Revelation of Jesus. Today, while different from yesterday and tomorrow, is also connected to them through the Octave.
|S. Tsnndean ut‘ōēits‘ kanonner||Part of a series of books of liturgical music, this book contains all of the music related to the Feast of the Nativity, including all the canons for Octave of the Theophany.|
|Saints and Feasts of the Armenian Church||By Patriarch Torkom Koushagian of Jerusalem, an accessible and short introduction to the feasts and some of the major saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It includes a discussion of the date of Christmas and details several of the days of the Octave of Theophany.|
|The Concept of Time in Late Neoplatonism||A study of an alternate philosophy of time by the important set of philosophers known as Neo-Platonists for their reinterpretations of the foundational thought of Plato. Neoplatonic thought was highly influential for early Christian thinkers.|
So, what does the Armenian Christian conception of time look like? And why does it matter? How might it shape our actual experiences? We can begin by noting that in the Armenian liturgical calendar there are essentially three “kinds” of days: dominical, saint, and fasting. Even without knowing what these three kinds of days are or look like, we can see a fundamental difference from the dominant conceptions of time. If a day can be of a specific “kind” that means that it is neither empty nor homogenous. It cannot be filled with whatever we desire, because there are already existing contours to the day. Similarly, time is not homogenous as each of the three kinds of days have fundamental differences. What are they? The first, dominical, means “of the Lord,” so dominical days are “days of the Lord.” Every Sunday is the Lord’s Day, so every Sunday is a dominical day. Certain other feast days qualify as dominical days. Saints’ Days are given over to the commemoration of individual saints or groups of saints, usually held together in some way, such as when we commemorate all the Holy Translators. Most of the Back to the Sources texts have been connected to days commemorating saints. Finally, there are fasting days. Lent is the most famous collection of fasting days, but most Wednesdays and Fridays are designated as fasting days, and there are other pre-feast fasts throughout the year.
By contemplating this liturgical arrangement of days, we can perhaps better grasp what we mean by a “conception” of time and how such a conception shapes experience. If every day is fundamentally the same, perhaps with some weekends thrown in there, then we experience every day similarly. Imagine, however, a monastic existence where the monks strictly observe the different liturgical days, with parts of the daily services changing to fit the days. For the monk, a fasting day and a saint’s day are radically different. On a fasting day, feeling weaker than on a saint’s day since he is keeping a fast, he devotes more of his time to prayer and less to physical labor. On a day commemorating a saint, however, he might work long hours in a garden or doing other strenuous activity. We might expect that the fasting day feels longer—the monk is more aware of his body with its pangs of hunger, and consequently pays closer attention to the passage of time. If we live in a world where different days have characters and characteristic feels, we ultimately live differently. We fast and contemplate the lives of exemplary Christians. We meditate and pray some days and do physical labor on others. Moreover, when we do these things is partially predetermined. Days, weeks, months—time—has contours, feelings, emotions, and activities.
Each of these kinds of days, in fact, is a building block for the larger liturgical calendar of the Armenian Apostolic Church. For Armenian Christians, the fundamental unit of the calendar is the week. The organizational priority is the week, with its different kinds of days. This is part of the reason why the Armenian Church has relatively few feast days with set calendar dates (Christmas, on January 6th, is one of them). Instead of prioritizing the date of say, the Assumption of the Mother of God, which most other ancient Christian churches celebrate on August 15th, the Armenian Apostolic Church moves the commemoration to the Sunday closest to August 15th, prioritizing Sunday as the Lord’s Day. This recognizes the week (anchored by Sunday) as the organizing principle. Weeks, then, are organized into even larger units: Lent, again, is the clearest example. While a full accounting of the complex calendar of the Armenian Church would require a much longer piece, we can see that for the Armenian Church, days, weeks, and seasons are varied and richly textured, offering different experiences and prompting different actions.
Much of this is lost as we glide through “homogenous, empty time.” Yet, if we allow it, the temporal framework of the Armenian Apostolic Church can become a source for our activities and our reflections. While we are not monastics, we can let the contours of the days shape us and inspire us. Lightly fasting or setting aside time to reflect on the lives of exemplary saints can nudge us, ever so slightly, toward a different conception of time. Eventually, we may find that living according to an alternate temporal frame changes how we live in surprisingly fundamental ways.
|Domar||The “master calendar” of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which can then be calculated for any particular year. It provides readings and other liturgical details.|
|The Calendar of the Armenian Church||By Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, an introduction to the liturgical calendar of the Armenian Church, including the designated readings.|
|A comparative calendar of the Iranian, Muslim lunar, and Christian eras for three thousand years||In this work, Ahmad Birashk compares calendars used by different societies of the Middle East. Different calendars encode different conceptions of time, and the comparison in this book helps us to see how calendars and time differ between groups of people.|
Follow the Zohrab Information Center on Instagram @zohrabcenter for images of some of the old calendars and lectionaries of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the collection of the Zohrab Center!