Es kushir Hampartsum eh, hele hele hele hele ninnayeh… Էս գըշիր Համբարձում է, Հէլէ հէլէ հէլէ հէլէ նիննայէ…
This favorite folk song, sung in the accent of Dikranagerd (modern-day Diyarbakır), begins a verse with, “Tonight is Hampartsum.” Though the refrain including the words hele hele is the most enjoyable to belt out, perhaps while dancing as many did this past weekend at the ACYOA Sports Weekend, it is this first line that concerns us here. The reference is to Hampartsum, the Feast of the Ascension, celebrated this Thursday. Liturgically important in the calendar of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the existence of a beloved folk song that makes reference to the feast offers us the chance to reflect on the convergence between liturgy and custom. As we have argued before, the liturgy of the Armenian Church is a profound source of theological thought and experience. Here, we see that liturgy not only influences the time and calendrics of the Church, but that it meshes and molds with life outside the walls of the church, acting as an even broader source.
Biblically, the reason for the Feast of the Ascension is found at the very beginning of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. It marks the fortieth day after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (that is, it is always celebrated forty days after Easter, which means it always falls on a Thursday). We read in Acts 1:3 that after the Resurrection, Jesus Christ appeared to His apostles “during forty days.” Later in the chapter, in Acts 1:9, it says that as the apostles were looking on, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Similar accounts are also found at the end of the Gospels of Mark and Luke, which add the detail proclaimed weekly in the Nicene Creed, that Jesus Christ “ascended to Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” The Biblical account of Jesus Christ returning to Heaven to be with God the Father after forty additional days of ministry on earth following His Resurrection is the source of the liturgical celebration of Hampartsum on the fortieth day after Easter.
This liturgical celebration has subsequently become the source of extra-liturgical celebrations, of songs, traditions, and customs associated with the Feast of the Ascension. We have considered the ways that liturgy organizes time for the Armenian Christian, with cycles of feasting and fasting, weekly movements through days of different variables and qualities, and even the potential to participate briefly and ineffably in God’s time. If, as the great Orthodox theological Alexander Schmemann suggested, homo adorans, humanity as a worshipping animal, thrives in a holistic environment where worship is not merely sequestered to Sunday mornings, then it is a small step to the realization that for Armenian Christians living a life grounded in the rhythms of the liturgical year, their entire lives, and not merely liturgical life, could be structured by the yearly calendar of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Consider, for instance, feasts that are either directly or indirectly associated with harvests and other agricultural events. Or, for a more current example, simply recall the wide variety of customs and practices that we still associate with Christian feasts, though clearly extra-liturgical: dyeing eggs and having egg fights at Easter or exchanging presents at Christmas. Moments in the liturgical year have been indelibly associated with extra-liturgical customs and traditions.
|Tsisakan baṛaran||A “Ceremonial/Ritual Dictionary” prepared by the great scholar and Patriarch of Istanbul, Malachia Ormanian. Ormanian’s works, such as The Church of Armenia, are a great introduction to the Armenian Church. Here, this “dictionary” provides important details related to ritual and ceremonial life of the Armenian Church and Armenians. In Armenian.|
|Living the Armenian church year : Some information on feast days and saints of the Armenian Church||Prepared by the Department of Religious Education of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church, this booklet provides a succinct account of the main feasts of the Armenian Apostolic Church, including the Feast of the Ascension.|
|Armenian Village Life Before 1915||An important book by Susie Hoogasian Villa and Mary Kilbourne Matossian, it documents the customs, practices, and economic considerations that made up Armenian life in the villages of the Armenian Highland before the Genocide.|
What are some of the customs associated with Hampartsum, the Feast of the Ascension? We have already mentioned the well-known folk song from Diyarbakır, Tigranakert. This song is still sung in the distinct dialect of the Armenians of Tigranakert. Folk songs, a distinct genre from the sharagans or other kinds of hymns sung in a liturgical context, nonetheless share musical elements with them. Just as the basic musical building blocks of a hymn like “Amazing Grace” and more recent pop music are chords and scales, both Armenian liturgical and folk music build from a similar modal musical building block. In the case of folk music, these modes are usually known as makams, while in the liturgical context they are called tsyans. Nonetheless, they share many elements, and someone with a well-trained ear could “translate” between makams and tsayns. Similarly, while the lyrics of folk music are not the sources of developed theological thinking, they do, like the song above, often draw on Christian themes or take liturgical events as their source. On the excellent website houshamadyan, you can find not only this song from the Tigranakert region, but another song from Marash about the Feast of the Ascension.
In addition to music, a number of folk customs and traditions associated with Hampartsum developed in different historically Armenian regions. As with other feasts with which we are today better acquainted, these practices often have only a glancing connection to the liturgical event they ostensibly commemorate. With Ascension, there is an association with the luck and fate of young women. In different regions the specific custom developed differently: as noted on houshamadyan, in Marash, Hampartsum was also called Vidjag, “Raffle.” This refers to the central custom of having young women pick items out of a pitcher, with refrains of a song making predictions about the fate of the young woman sung after each item is pulled out. Similar customs were practiced in different regions, though the basic association between young women and luck or fate usually remains.
This practice is not clearly related to the Biblical story of Jesus Christ’s ascension into heaven. We can imagine that in the provinces, spring was a season of courtship and potential marriage, so there is perhaps a broader connection to the time of year when a particular liturgical feast is celebrated. Of these tenuously connected practices, perhaps the most controversial is the custom of having newlywed couples jump over a fire at the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord to the Temple, Dyarnuntarach, celebrated on February 14. In a beautiful sermon this year on Dyarnuntarach, our Primate offered a meditation on the light of Christ during a time of year still quite dark. Yet often, including here in a video produced for Bread and Salt, the potential pagan origins of the practice are pointed out. These two aspects of the practice are not mutually exclusive, though teachers and leaders of the Armenian Church should emphasize the Christian message of Christ as source of all light and salvation. Clearly, then, not all folk traditions associated with liturgical feasts of the Armenian Church are directly related to the Biblical story or the liturgical raison d’être. Nonetheless, even in these instances, we can recognize what a profound source liturgy and the liturgical calendar has been for Armenian Christians—the reach extends well beyond the walls of the church to folk practices and customs!
|Armenian Tigranakert/Diarbekir and Edessa/Urfa||Edited by Richard Hovannisian as part of the series on specific historically Armenian regions and series. The book contains chapters on the architecture of the city, basics of Armenian life there, as well as a chapter on the regional dialect.|
|Tigranakerti barbaṛě||Discussing the dialect of Tigranakert, this book by Haneyan is a product of the Soviet-era study of Western Armenian dialects. The Zohrab Center has many books on Western Armenian dialects of the various regions of historic Armenia, including dictionaries and scholarly works such as this one. In Armenian.|
|Zhoghovrdayin ergaran : aweli kʿan 500 erger ew otanaworner, azgayin, heghapʿokhakan, krōnakan, ergitsakan, mōt 50 dzaynagruats erger||One of many “songbooks” in the collection of the Zohrab Information Center, this three-volume collection first published in 1910 offers the lyrics of over 500 songs of many different contexts and genres, including both folk and religious songs. In addition to collections of lyrics like this one, there are also notated songbooks at the Zohrab Center. In Armenian.|
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