Monday, November 21, 2016

"Advent" in the Armenian Church?

Most of us are at least familiar with the season of Advent, the period of time in the church calendar when many faithful prepare and look forward to the coming of Christ, celebrated on Christmas. Some of us may even participate in various Advent activities, such as keeping an Advent calendar, a daily prayer journal, or perhaps lighting an Advent wreath.

But when it comes to liturgy, things are not always as they seem. Often we assume that where two things appear similar they must be the same. This is what we find with the season of Advent, which, contrary to common assumptions, does not exist in the Armenian Church.

What is Advent?

In the Roman rite of the Catholic Church and some Protestant traditions, the season known as Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The word “advent,” from Latin adventus, means “coming,” specifically the coming of Christ into the world. So liturgically and in custom, the season of Advent focuses on the two comings (or advents) of Jesus Christ: his first coming in the flesh at his birth, and his final coming in glory and majesty.

As a liturgical season, Advent is purely a Western Christian phenomenon that came into existence only after Christmas itself was established on December 25. (Throughout the Christian world, except for the city of Rome, January 6 was the earliest date of Christmas, as it is today in the Armenian Church). In other Eastern Christian traditions, year-end seasons show great variety in theme and purpose, some of which, most notably those of the Syriac language, devote the season to Mary, the Mother of God.

In fact, a growing number of scholars even question whether Advent in the West originally had any connection with Christmas at all, believing that Advent’s proximity to Christmas is more accidental than deliberate. It is possible that Advent originally functioned as a time of preparation for baptism, when the Feast of Epiphany was an important day to conduct that sacrament, just as Easter is today in many Christian traditions.

What about the Armenian Church?

In the Armenian Church, we do not have the season of Advent, nor do we have a period that resembles it. Often confused as “Advent,” our church calendar includes a year-end period referred to as Յիսնակ / Heesnag, from the word յիսուն / heesoon, which means “fifty.” Heesnag is the period of about 50 days at the end of the Armenian Church year between the season of the Cross and the Feast of Theophany. It begins on the Monday nearest November 18 and ends on the Eve of Theophany, January 5. Depending on how close the Sunday of the Exaltation of the Cross is to September 14, the first day of Heesnag falls between November 15 and 21 and consists of exactly 50 days only in certain years. Otherwise the exact duration of Heesnag fluctuates between 48 and 52 days.

Rather than being one continuous period of fasting, Heesnag contains three short, five-day bursts of fasting, which are not connected liturgically or thematically. Equally spaced in the beginning, middle, and end of Heesnag, the following ancient one-week fasts ultimately give some shape to the 50-day period:
  • Fast of Heesnag (Յիսնակամտի պահք / Heesnagamdee bahk), beginning on the Monday closest to November 18. An inauguration of Heesnag, this fast may just function as the threshold of one period of the church calendar to another.
  • Fast of St. James of Nisibis (Ս. Յակոբայ պահք / Soorp Hagopah bahk), the five days preceding the commemoration of St. James of Nisibis. Originally an ancient winter seasonal fast, in popular imagination it became associated with St. James, the Bishop of Nisibis (308-338).
  • Theophany Fast (Աստուածայայտնութեան պահք / Asdvadzahaydnootyan bahk), the five days preceding the Feast of Theophany set aside to prepare for the celebration of the revelation of Jesus’ divinity at His baptism and the revelation of His humanity in His birth.
The structure of the period suggests that these three one-week fasts preceded the conglomeration of the entire period that came to be known as Heesnag. In other words, at a later stage these fasts came to define the entire period between the season of the Cross and Theophany. This would explain why the commemoration of saints continues during most of the period of Heesnag, because in the Armenian Church, as a rule, fasting is incompatible with the commemoration of saints.

Heesnag is not Advent

Outside of the five-day Fast of Heesnag, there is no evidence that the 50-day period known as Heesnag ever functioned as a liturgical season of the Armenian Church. That is, there exist no designated customs, hymns (sharagan), course lectionary readings, or liturgical variables that would serve to unify this period. (Although the Տօնացոյց / Donatsooyts (the directory of feasts) designates Sundays during Heesnag as “First Sunday of Heesnag, Second, Third, etc.,” liturgically, they are Sundays “of the Resurrection”). During Great Lent, for example, the Armenian Church appoints families of hymns to be sung, along with consecutive Bible readings to be read from one day to the next. These hymns and readings, as well as liturgical variables, give the period of Great Lent a “seasonal” character with a specific theological and catechetical message, or function. Heesnag, on the other hand, has no such organization or cohesiveness, and as a result, does not have the character of a church “season.”

Instead, Heesnag is simply a transitional period that takes place between the season of the Cross and the Feast of Theophany. It is filled with three intense fasting weeks, two dominical feast days (the Presentation of the Mother of God to the Temple on November 21, and the Conception of the Mother of God by Anna and Joachim on December 9), and the commemoration of some of the greatest heroes of the Christian faith, saints who provide flesh and blood examples of how to believe and follow Jesus Christ. Sadly, these heroes are largely unknown by many Christian American-Armenians. One reason is perhaps that Heesnag is often obscured by “Advent.” So rather than celebrate a liturgical season that is foreign to our tradition, let us participate in the designated fasting periods, as well as turn our attention and devotion to the great saints who are commemorated during Heesnag.

St. James, the Bishop of Nisibis, was a miracle worker and much-loved saint of the Armenian Church, who is mentioned in every Badarak (Divine Liturgy). According to Armenian tradition, St. James was the first cousin of St. Gregory the Enlightener. He is credited with attending the Council of Nicaea as a signatory in 325, and also with discovering a piece of Noah’s ark. St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra (who has been morphed into the character of Santa Claus), was also much-loved by Christian Armenians, and is actually commemorated twice in two weeks due to a quirk in the Armenian Church calendar.

Other saints from this period worth getting to know better include, Sts. Thaddeus and Bartholomew our First Illuminators, St. Abgar the First Christian King, St. Ignatius, The 20,000 Martyrs of Nicomedia, The Holy Fathers of Egypt, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and the beloved St. Ephrem the Syrian. Just before the Fast of Theophany, four days are designated for the commemoration of major saints, those who are “witnesses to the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ:” Sts. David the Prophet and the Apostle James, St. Stephen the First Deacon and First Martyr, Sts. Peter and Paul, and the “Sons of Thunder,” Sts. James the Apostle and John the Evangelist.

When we overlook our own tradition, we overlook distinctive aspects of the life experience of the Armenian Church’s Christian witness, subtleties which the Armenian Church found important. As attractive as the customs of other Christian traditions may be, with Heesnag the Armenian Church offers her people a distinctive Christian vision, which we must believe is not only unique and beautiful, but also instructive and life-giving in its own way. In part, Heesnag shows us how the Armenian people since antiquity have uniquely experienced the Christian faith and Jesus Christ himself.

This article is featured in the Volume 2/Number 4 issue of The Treasury.

For further reading:
  1. Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson, The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2011, pp. 158-168.
  2. O. Sekulian, Յիսնեակ-Յիսնեկաց [Advent], Bazmavep vol. 96, 1982, p. 29.
  3. M. Daniel Findikyan, “Saints Nicholas in Armenia” in David A. Pitt, Stefanos Alexopoulos, Christian McConnell, eds. A Living Tradition: On the Intersection of Liturgical History and Pastoral Practice. Essays in Honor of Maxwell E. Johnson. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2012, pp. 59-74.

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