This week begins the season of Great Lent, in Armenian Medz Bahk, Մեծ Պահք. Lent is perhaps the most well-known season of the Armenian Church: the penitential character is reflected in practices like the closed curtain during Badarak, while Divine Liturgy and the weekly readings include some of the most poignant of Jesus Christ’s parables. As a season of preparation for Easter, Lent leads the Christian to Holy Week, and the commemoration of entire point of Christ’s earthly ministry, his death and resurrection. Theologically, this is profound and consequential for the life of both individual Christians the life of the Church. Early Christian leaders recognized this, and it was common practice for catechumens, the initiates preparing to become Christians, to receive instruction during the period of Lent before their baptism on Easter. St. Cyril of Jerusalem gave the most celebrated of these instructional lectures as series of sermons. Armenian Church theologians found these homilies so profound that they embedded the readings at the heart of St. Cyril’s sermons into the daily readings for Lent. Lent, then, is a deeply spiritual season, one which, more than other seasons—before Christmas, or the “Season of the Cross,” for instance—still impacts the lives of contemporary Christians.
That impact is felt by Armenian Christians in large part due to the practice of fasting during Lent. Indeed, the name for Lent translated literally means the “Great Fast.” It is the longest and most consequential of the fasts of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Other seasons and days of fasting are also built into the Armenian Church’s calendar. During a “normal” liturgical week, Wednesdays and Fridays are intended to be fasting days. Other shorter fasts precede most feasts. Easter, as the culmination of Christ’s ministry and the heart of mystery of Christian salvation, is in some ways the ultimate feast. It makes sense, then, that it is preceded by the ultimate fast.
Fasting in the Armenian Church, though, especially during Lent, often causes anxiety amongst parishioners are believers. Perhaps due to a lingering understanding of the Lenten fast as “giving something up” and sticking to it in a legalistic manner, many Armenian Christians worry about whether or not they are doing Lent “right.” There have been many things written to dispel this problematic anxiety. We will not rehearse the arguments against them here. Instead, I would suggest a beautiful little piece written by Bishop Findikyan, which you can find in the magazine The Treasury, called, “Giving it Up? Fasting During Great Lent in the Armenian Church.” He eloquently posits, “fasting is not a fundamental, right-or-wrong exercise that must be enforced by strict rules in order for it to be effective.” Rather, fasting helps remove “clutter from our lives so that we may more plainly recognize God in the world around us, in people around us, and in our very own lives.” Any fasting practice that helps accomplish this is “doing Lent right.” I encourage you to read the entire article for his thoughtful and productive discussion on how to approach “the true meaning of Lenten fasting.”
|Chasher ew khnchoykʿ Hin Hayastani mēj||“Meals and Feasts in Ancient Armenia,” by the Mkhitarist priest and scholar Fr. Vartan Hatsuni. It provides “the history of Christian fasting in Armenia,” to quote Bishop Daniel Findikyan. Still the definitive book on the subject of fasting in the Armenian Christian tradition. In Armenian.|
|Worship traditions in Armenia and the neighboring Christian East : an international symposium in honor of the 40th anniversary of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary||Edited by Dr. Roberta Ervine, this volume includes an essay by Dr. Abraham Terian, “Mandakuni’s ‘Encyclical’ Fasting.” The essay describes one of the most famous Armenian pieces about fasting, including a partial English translation.|
|Matenagirkʿ Hayotsʿ||The definitive collection of Classical Armenian texts, published by the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias. Currently 15 volumes, it includes the “Oft-repeated Discourses,” sermons attributed to St. Gregory the Illuminator. Homily 9 deals with fasting. Other texts related to Lent and fasting can also be found in the collection.|
Today, rather, than rehearse arguments about fasting, I will simply point to some of the classic works on the topic in the Armenian Christian tradition. These are the sources at the heart of the Armenian understanding of fasting, those texts that have shaped all subsequent thought on the topic. As the Bishop notes, “the diversity in perspectives and approaches to fasting from one Armenian Church teacher to another is dizzying.” However, taken together, these sources on Armenian understandings of fasting can help to guide the believer on her Lenten journey, to approach Lenten fasting as a meaningful practice embedded in the larger spiritual practice of Great Lent.
Dr. Abraham Terian, Professor Emeritus at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary notes that “a substantial part of the early Armenian writings on fasting is associated with the name of Hovhan Mandakuni, a prominent churchman of the 5th century who held the office of Catholicos for twelve years.” Some of the writings on fasting attributed to him have been convincingly shown to be from the pen of other authors, most notably a homily known as “On Strictness in Fasting.” This piece thought by many to be written by Hovhan Mayragometsi. Of those definitely written by Mandakuni, there is an “encyclical” on fasting from the Book of Letters, which we discussed just two weeks ago, as well as some canons on fasting and a litany. Dr. Terian writes about the so-called “encyclical” from the Book of Letters, as well as a longer piece titled “On Love and Sanctity Whereby Creatures Prosper,” from which the “encyclical” was excerpted. You can read Dr. Terian’s discussion of Mandakuni as the major source of Armenian theological thinking on fasting, along with a partial translation of the “encyclical” either in the book Worship Traditions in Armenia and the neighboring Christian East or in Volume 13 of the St. Nersess Theological Review.
Outside of Mandakuni (and Mayragometsi), several other Armenian patristic writers tackled the question of fasting. Many of these sources can be found in classical Armenian in the Matenagirkʿ Hayotsʿ, the fifteen-volume definitive collection of Armenian classical writing published by the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias. First and foremost among these is Homily 9, from a collection of sermons attributed to St. Gregory the Illuminator known as the Hajakhapatum Jark, or the “Oft-Quoted Discourses” (found in Volume 1:7-138). One of the most important sources in Armenian Christianity throughout the ages, there is currently no definitive English translation of these sermons, including Sermon 9 dealing with the topic of fasting. Other authors who discuss fasting or even the specific fast of Lent include Khosrovik Vardapet (Volume 6:699-707) and a short piece “On Lent, with an Explanation of the Readings” attributed to “Samuel Kamrjadzoretsi and Paul, with others” (Volume 10:742-746). Though these important sources are only in Classical Armenian, they will greatly reward any reader who takes the time to tackle them.
In terms of more contemporary sources, Bishop Daniel’s beautiful little article points us to what is still the definitive treatment of fasting in the Armenian Christian tradition, a book in Armenian titled Meals and Feasts in Ancient Armenia by a Mkhitarist monk and scholar, Fr. Vartan Hatsuni. This book includes references to the fasting practices of historical and saintly figures of the Armenian Church. According to Bishop Daniel, the book “shows that the earliest writings in the Armenian language already mention fasting as an established ingredient of Christian life in the homeland.” In addition to this definitive book in Armenian, there are many short introductory books in both Armenian and English to the saints, feasts, and fasts of the Armenian Apostolic Church. We encourage you to come to the Zohrab Information Center and explore all the great sources that can support you on your Lenten journey!
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