In our national and church life, great importance is given to the divine traditions that originate from the Holy Scriptures. They became a way to express the unique image of our nation and church. These traditions were valued and adopted as sacred services, and evolved over the centuries.
One of the holy celebrations of the Armenian Church is the Blessing of the Grapes, which is offered following the celebration of Divine Liturgy on the Feast of the Assumption of the Holy Mother-of-God. It is also one of the Holy Traditions of the Universal Church.
In pre-Christian times, the “Feast of Roots and Fruit” constituted part and parcel of the religious rituals of almost all nations. On this day a special ceremony was conducted by the servants of the temple, during which the first fruit of the year was offered to the corresponding god embodying fertility as a sign of obedience, gratitude, and fruitfulness for the coming year.
Although the ceremony of first fruits was also found in Armenian traditions, it was not distinguished as the “Feast of Roots and Fruit.” It was considered to be one of the feasts devoted to the goddess Anahit, who embodied fertility and fruitfulness.
But after Armenia’s adoption of Christianity in 301 A.D., St. Gregory the Illuminator implemented new directions for the Armenian Church concerning such traditions. The first Armenian patriarch changed the essentials of the services, but included parts of some customs and rites of the old Armenian religion into the new Christian traditions. One of these was the offering of the first fruit from the harvest. After reviewing and modifying this tradition, St. Gregory the Illuminator Christianized the service and introduced it into the Armenian Church traditions, correlating it with the Feast of the Assumption of the Holy Mother-of-God. At the direction of St. Gregory, the “offering” of the fruit was changed into a blessing of the harvest conducted by a priest.
Scripturally, the order to offer “first fruits” to God was established by Moses:
“When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.… So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down and bow down before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 26:11-3; 10).
During a generic “first fruits” service, wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and honey might all be offered to a god. Grapes held special significance for two reasons. First, wine made from grapes was thought to relieve sadness and was associated with happiness. Second, the grape was the national symbol of Israel and at the same time a symbol of peace.
Accordingly, every year Israelites offered the first fruit of their gardens to God’s temple. They clearly understood that all the fruit they enjoyed was granted to them by God.
In the Armenian Church, too, grapes are privileged over other fruits to be blessed as the first fruit of the harvest. This is conditioned by a number of historical and religious circumstances. After the Flood, our ancestor Noah planted a vineyard in the valley on the slopes of Mt. Ararat and grew grapes: “Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard” (Genesis 9:20).
The fruit of the vineyard became the decoration of the Araratian valley; it was considered to be the noblest fruit and was called “King of the Fruit.” Jesus Christ repeatedly associated himself with the vine: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower” (John 15:1). According to the explanation of our church fathers, the Holy Mother-of-God was the selected branch that presented humanity with a pure and life-giving vine: Jesus Christ. The blessing of the fruit conducted on the Feast of the Assumption of the Holy Mother-of-God coincides with the end of summer when the grape ripens. On that feast day grapes are blessed after the Divine Liturgy and given to the faithful in attendance.
Although St. Gregory the Illuminator didn’t establish a specific service for offering the first fruit of the harvest, his followers kept this tradition and handed it down through the generations. St. Sahag Partev sanctified the practice, and St. Nerses the Graceful established it as a formal service with readings from the Gospel, the prophets, and the apostles, as well as a special prayer of consecration.
Thus, the Blessing of Grapes became a devout ceremony attached to the feast of the Assumption of the Holy Mother-of-God.
Today, it is still common for faithful Armenians who have grape vines or vineyards to offer the first fruit of their harvest during the Blessing of Grapes, so that God would abundantly bless their fields.
While the canons of the Armenian Church do not prohibit the eating of grapes before the Blessing of Grapes, a tradition of abstaining from grape-eating before the ceremony is common among the people, and has become a national custom. Since the grape was given preference over all other fruits for this ceremony, waiting with obedience and abstinence until the Blessing of Grapes would seem to follow in the tradition established by St. Gregory.