Throughout the year, the Armenian Church prescribes daily Bible readings for the liturgical services of the day. Most visible are the Sunday Gospel readings, chanted by the deacon after he brings the Gospel around the altar as the choir sings Surp Asdvadz. Such daily Gospel readings are given for every day, but there are also readings from the Old Testament, usually from the prophets, and from other books of the New Testament, most often from St. Paul’s epistles. These readings connect the liturgical life of the Armenian Church to daily devotional practices and to the very fabric of time.
If we follow the readings, we move through the week and the year in a way that gives color and flavor to every day. Wednesday and Friday are traditionally penitential and fasting days in the Armenian Church. The variable songs sung during the services reflect this somber and reflective orientation, and often the daily readings as well. If we let them, the liturgy and calendar of the Armenian Church gives a texture to every day and offers lessons and encouragement for our lives.
During the Great Lent (Medz Bahk) season, the Armenian Church liturgy and calendar are organized in such a way that they give texture and meaning to our days. For forty days, we fast and reflect, pray and offer service, all in preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. Every Sunday is organized around what are some of the best-known Gospel readings and teachings of Jesus Christ.
The early Church also emphasized Lent as a time for teaching and instruction. As the message of the Gospel spread, large groups of adult men and women would prepare for baptism. These baptisms often took place for many people at once, as for instance when our own St. Gregory the Illuminator baptized the entire court of King Drtad as well as the kings Georgia, Lazica, and Albania and their companions, a remarkable 370,000 people (Thompson 1976:lxix). Since these were adults knowingly becoming members of the universal Church of Christ, there was usually instruction in the basics of Christian belief and practice.
Such instruction in preparation for baptism is known as catechesis, a word which we might have heard from the Roman Catholic practice of a formal instructional catechism. In the Armenian Church, the most famous catechesis and one of the most ancient in all of Christendom is the Teaching of St. Gregory, a long sermon delivered by St. Gregory the Illuminator, found in the history of Agathangelos.
Another famous Christian catechisms is the Catechetical Lectures or Lenten Sermons of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. These lectures were probably delivered during Lent of 349 A.D. by St. Cyril, then the Bishop of Jerusalem. They were meant to prepare a large group of people for baptism on Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday at the end of Lent.
In this way, the preparation for baptism took place during Lent, already a period of reflection and fasting. And the baptism itself would occur on Easter, the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection, and a day of renewal. As Christ, through his glorious resurrection, made all things new, so baptism leads to new life in Christ, a renewal that parallels the renewal of Easter.
Like St. Cyril, our Armenian Church Fathers understood the connections between Christ’s Resurrection and our baptism. Our own church calendar is highly influenced by the liturgical life of Jerusalem in the fourth and fifth centuries, and the Armenian Church Fathers who developed our calendar of readings were also familiar with Cyril’s Catechetical Lectures.
In fact, if we scratch the surface of the daily readings for Lent, we find something rather amazing: The Bible passages on which St. Cyril bases his lectures are also the prescribed readings of the Armenian Church for many of the days of Lent! Clearly, our Armenian Apostolic Fathers recognized the importance of Cyril’s catechesis, and they thought it was a relevant instructional and devotional tool for Lent.
While the match is not perfect (there are a couple lecture passages missing), and while the readings that coincide with Cyril’s lectures often skip several days before reappearing, this connection between one of the most influential ancient Christian teachings and the daily calendar of Lent offers us as Armenian Christians a beautiful way to refresh us in the essence of the Gospel, the Bible, and Church life.
As a possible devotional practice for Lent, and a way to prepare ourselves for the renewal that is the Glorious Resurrection of Christ which we celebrate on Easter, the following calendar gives the Bible passage for the day and the accompanying Catechetical Lecture of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. I would encourage you to read through these clear statements of Christian doctrine along with our Armenian Church calendar. In this way, you can prepare yourself for renewal in Christ on Easter, while connecting with the ancient Christian practice of Lenten catechesis and with our Armenian Church Fathers who embedded this wisdom into the time and calendar of the Armenian Church.
You can find St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures online (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3101.htm), or there are several nice versions available for purchase. The following table is calculated for this year, 2018, but I give the numbered “day of Lent,” so you can easily follow the correspondence in future years. The Bible passages given are those found in the Armenian Church Calendar. They often include more verses that encompass the one or two verses on which St. Cyril bases his lecture. Some entries are marked with an asterisk to indicate that the given reading either does not correspond exactly, or that there are readings for the lectures that appear to be absent from the Armenian calendar. There is a “Prologue” or first introductory lecture that I would encourage you to read on Poon Paregentan, or perhaps in the coming week before Lent. The correspondence begins with the First Day of Lent, the Monday after Poon Paregentan, with Lecture 1 from the Catechetical Lectures.
Monday, February 12 (First Day of Lent): Isaiah 1:16-20, Lecture 1
Tuesday, February 13 (Second Day of Lent): Ezekiel 18:20-23, Lecture 2
Thursday, February 15 (Fourth Day of Lent): Romans 6:3-14, Lecture 3
Monday, February 26 (Fifteenth Day of Lent): Colossians 2:8-3:4, Lecture 4
Tuesday, February 27 (Sixteenth Day of Lent): Hebrews 11: 1-31, Lecture 5
Thursday, March 1 (Eighteenth Day of Lent): Isaiah 45:17-26 (Isaiah 45:16), Lecture 6
*Sunday, March 4 (The Sunday of the Steward): Ephesians 4:17-5:14 (Ephesians 3:14,15), Lecture 7
*Monday, March 5 (The Twenty-second Day of Lent): Jeremiah 32:19-41 (Jeremiah 39:18,19), Lecture 8
Tuesday, March 6 (The Twenty-third Day of Lent): Job 38:2-39:35, Lecture 9
Thursday, March 8 (The Twenty-fifth Day of Lent): 1 Corinthians 8:5-9:23, Lecture 10
Monday, March 12 (The Twenty-ninth Day of Lent): Hebrews 1:1-14, Lecture 11
Tuesday, March 13 (The Thirtieth Day of Lent): Isaiah 7:10-8:10, Lecture 12
Thursday, March 15 (The Thirty-second Day of Lent): Isaiah 53:1-54:5, Lecture 13
Lecture 14 (No Correspondence): 1 Corinthians 15:1-4
Lecture 15 (No Correspondence): Daniel 7:9,13
Monday, March 19 (The Thirty-sixth Day of Lent): 1 Corinthians 12:1-7, Lecture 16
Tuesday, March 20 (The Thirty-seventh Day of Lent): 1 Corinthians 12:8-27, Lecture 17
Thursday, March22 (The Thirty-ninth Day of Lent): Ezekiel 37:1-14, Lecture 18