Tracing the Tradition of Lenten Fasting
(This brief description of the tradition of Lenten fasting is adapted from “The Golden Chain of the Sundays of Great Lent” (1971) by Archbishop Shnork Kalustian.)
Great Lent is a time for Christians to prepare for the glorious resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ through prayer, introspection, and fasting.
The Scriptural basis for Lent resides in the 40-day period Christ spent in the wilderness following his baptism. In the words of St. Matthew’s Gospel (4:12): “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry.”
The first recorded mention of Great Lent was at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. (the same council also established the Nicene Creed used today in the Armenian Church). The reference to Lent occurs in a decision issued by the council to hold one of its three annual meetings before the 40-day Lenten period.
Five years later, in 330 A.D., St. Athanasius of Alexandria—one of the most influential early Church Fathers—called on his community to fast for 40 days before Holy Week. In these early days of the Church, the faithful were permitted one meal a day during Lent (the daily meals were prepared without meat or other animal products). Fasting was understood not as a complete abstinence from all food, but rather as a limiting of one’s intake to the most essential needs for survival.
The Apostolic Cannons—a series of decrees attributed to the Apostles and compiled in the second half of the 4th century—further stressed the need to observe fasting during Great Lent. According to article eight of the document, “The Apostles directed that 40 days of fasting must be observed to reject all evil, sin, and food before the days of sufferings of our Savior.”
In the centuries that followed, the tradition of fasting continued to evolve. Eventually churches in the West permitted the faithful to take more than one meatless meal per day. This practice gradually spread to the East.
Today the Armenian Church prescribes forbearance from all animal products for 40 days preceding Holy Week (fish is permitted on Sundays). In our day, many find this difficult and choose to keep the fast only on Wednesdays and Fridays.
About Fasting and Lent
The Armenian words Dzom and Bahk (Fast and Abstinence) appear often in the Books of the Gospel, and they are often used to mean the same thing. More strictly, Dzom means to abstain from any and all food intake, while Bahk means to abstain only from certain foods. The broader meaning of both terms refers to an individual's staying away from extravagant living and sensual pleasures, for a certain period of time, and becoming reinforced spiritually through prayers and approaching God and truth.
Both fast and abstinence need to be accompanied by prayer, an evident truth that becomes revealed on reading the appropriate and designated passages from the Gospel.
It must also be pointed out that the ideas of fast or abstinence is not peculiar to Christianity.
Religions, from the earliest centuries, arising out of independent principles of faith, have inspired rules of behavior on their adherents. Such rules have arisen generally from social, spiritual, intellectual, moral, health, and other concepts.
With us Armenians, abstinence, as a canonical religious mandate, calls for avoiding, abstaining from, the consumption of foods containing meat, fats, milk products, and eggs, of alcoholic drinks, and also of participating in merriment. Instead, it is prescribed to eat vegetables, grains, and foods based on them, prepared with vegetable oil or olive oil. Honey is also permitted. Fasting or observing abstinence, by its very nature, not only calls for the faithful to be modest, but also to be mindful of the need to live a worshipful and moral life. Also, doing so is looked upon as a means of reinforcing the faith, and as occasions for meditation and preparation. Thus, instead of material and carnal pleasures, in exchange for undergoing certain deprivations, the emphasis will be put through prayers on life, beauty, and spiritual values.
Generally, then, abstinence or fasting is the means for man to be renewed and reinforced in the sense of the cleansing of the soul and of religious morality, apart form the fact that it also enables the development of piety and the strengthening of faith.
Even though fasting and abstinence are characteristic practices in all important churches, there is no uniformity in either the occasions and times for them, or in the rules or principles that govern the practice.
For example, the Roman Catholic Church permits milk products. The Russian Orthodox Church permits fish. The Armenian Church, more strict, forbids both of them. On the other hand, the Evangelical churches have left the matter entirely to the choice of the faithful individually
Grate Lent (Medz Bahk)
In addition to the one-day and week-long abstinences the Armenian Church has the forty-day period of abstinence, which is Lent (in Armenian, "Medz Bahk"), while other churches have virtually eliminated long-duration abstinence.
Medz Bahk in the Armenian Church starts on Monday and continues for forty days to and including the Friday before Palm Sunday.
Holy Week (Avak Shabat) is also a week of abstinence, and the forty-day period continues without interruption for that additional week, through Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. The whole period of abstinence lasts nearly seven weeks, or more accurately, 48 days.
During this long interval of abstinence, especially during the first forty days, the Armenian Church has prescribed soul-fulfilling services of prayer for its faithful. These services, called "Arevagal" (Sunrise), and also "Khaghaghakan: (peace) and "Hangstyan" (Rest) are "Zhamergoutiun" (Liturgical Offices), and they are conducted usually on Wednesdays and Fridays, morning and evening, as dictated by local conditions and conveniences.
The sharakans (hymns) of the Sunrise Office were composed by Catholicos St. Nerses Full of Grace. They embody profound meaning and are beautiful literary gems. They are directed mainly to spiritual light, truth, and beauteous glorification.
These services conducted with the drawn veil concealing the altar during Medz Bahk direct the worshippers' attention to spiritual introspection and self-appraisal in place of the resplendence of the Divine Liturgy performed at other times by bishops in splendid vestments.
NOTE: As an exception, the Divine Liturgy is performed with the veil open during Lent for the feast day of St. Gregory the Enlightener's Entrance into the Deep Pit. Also, the sacrament of marriage (Holy Matrimony), by canon law, is forbidden during the entire period of Lent.History
The Triple Meaning of Lent
The forty-day period of Lent offers a marvelous opportunity for the faithful to experience spiritual renewal. When the period is lived mindfully it becomes the most influential and beneficial occasion for spiritual ennoblement and the enhancement of man's happiness.
To live the Medz Bahk mindfully means the following:
1. To make prayer, both alone and collectively, the axis of our lives
People need to preserve in trying to cleanse themselves spiritually and come closer to God. The path for approaching God is prayer, from the depths of the heart, in which one speaks to God, expressing thanks, and glorifying Him for the life and all kinds of goodness He has granted. One must understand their value and live appropriately. In prayer, one must open his heart to God from its very depths.
2. To observe abstinence, in the sense of self-denial.
Abstinence, which is essentially a religious, moral, and spiritual concept, cannot be comprehended as something to do with foods or eating. Its origin or presence in church life cannot be explained by concerns about nutrition.
In its correct and profound meaning, abstinence is an act in which man leads himself willingly into denying himself sensual and material pleasures, and lavishness.
Just as physicians sometimes prescribe restrictions on certain foods and physical activity in order to enable the restoration of physical health, so too, spiritual doctors, that is, the heads of the church, vartabeds, prescribe abstinence so that the faithful will be able, through prayer and self-denial, to restore spiritual health.
3. To perform good works by offering services
Often, in sharing the pain being suffered by others, people not only do good to those other by lessening their pain, they also do good to themselves. Specifically, the faithfull would do well during Lent to try to bring comfort to a sick person, give aid to a poor person, provide support to an incapacitated, elderly person, assist as a volunteer in a benevolent or cultural institution.
Lent has been instituted to provide the opportunity for the faithful to prepare themselves spiritually to accept the good news of Christ's Resurrection, which is the supreme power of Christian life.
The very day of the mid-point of Lent is very special, and it is called in Armenian, "michink," meaning "middle." It is the 24th day of Lent, and it occurs on the Wednesday of the fourth week.
It marks having successfully triumphed over the demands of restraint and continence called for by the long Lenten period of abstinence. It also, in a sense, is regarded as an occasion for celebration.
Though that is all true, it must be pointed out that it is not a religious feast of any significance. Thus, it is only to mark a popularly observed occasion. Morally, it inspires and encourages steadfastness, so that the faithful will continue on through the second half, to its end, on Easter Sunday.
References in the Gospel to Fasting
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the temper came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"
"And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast."
And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and kneeling before him said, "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; for often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him." And Jesus answered, "O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me." And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it out?" He said to them, "Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move hence to yonder place,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. But this kind of power never comes except by prayer and fasting."
Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day."
But Jesus took him by the land and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, the disciples asked him privately, "Why could we not cast it out?" And he said to them, "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting."
And as a widow till she [prophetess Anna] was eighty-four. She did not depart from her temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day.
And they said to him, "The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink." And Jesus said to them, "Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they fast in those days."
The Armenian Church calls the final week of Christ's life on earth Great Week or Holy Week (Avak Shapat). During this time, we share in His teachings, His suffering, His death, and His resurrection.
Holy Week is the most important week of the Church year. With Christ's Resurrection, the redemption of all humanity is realized and sin and death are vanquished. Faithful are asked to: Pray, Participate in all Holy Week Services, Reflect on Christ's sacrifice and let it be a real part of your life. Share Easter joy with others in the special greeting of the season:
Krisdos haryav ee merelotz!
Orhnyal eh harootiunun Krisdosee!
Selected Scripture: Matthew 21:18-22 , Genesis 1:1-3:24 , Isaiah 40:1-8 , Matthew 20:17-28
Holy Monday is dedicated to the creation of the world, of Heaven and Earth, as the foundation of Christ's Second Creation. On this day we recall the fig tree that did not bear fruit and was condemned by Christ (Matthew 21:18-22 ). Christ was disappointed to find that the people of the covenant (Israel) bore no fruit. Like the barren fig trees, Israel had failed to bring forth the fruits of repentance. Nevertheless, Christ points out that faith can move mountains and can overcome death and despair. In church we sing:
"O Christ, who is the one who renews our nature; who as a symbol of the oldness made the barren fig tree, renew us from all our sins; Come O sons of men, Let us mourn the venture of Adam, who took off, because of his sin, the garment of glory and instead of the ineffable light, put on the fig leaf."
Selected Scripture: Mark 12:13-44 , Genesis 6:9-9:17 , Isaiah 40:9-17 , Matthew 24:1-26:2
On Holy Tuesday, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens is recalled (Matthew 25:1-13 ). Ten maidens waited for their bridegroom. (In the custom of that time and place, the bridegroom would fetch the bride from her parents' home to bring her to his own.) Five of the women foolishly took their lamps with no extra oil and when the bridegroom was delayed, could not go out and meet him. The wise maidens went prepared and joined him in the marriage feast. Similarly, we pray and wait, spiritually prepared to receive Christ while recognizing that we are all sinners. In humility we ask that the Lord show us His compassion. We sing:
"Save me, O God, from the multitude of my sins, and render me worthy of Thy Holy Kingdom."
Selected Scripture: Mark 14:1-11 , Genesis 18:1-19:30 , Zechariah 11:11-14 , Mat. 26:3-16
On Holy Wednesday, we recall the fallen woman who anoints Christ with costly oil and kisses His feet, in contrast to Judas who betrayed Christ for money. The apostles chastised her for wasting what might have been used for the poor. Christ defended her action as one of beauty and devotion, knowing that this anointing was in anticipation of His death. (Matthew 26:3-16 )
Selected Scripture:Genesis 22:1-18 , Isaiah 61:1-7 , Mark 14:1-26 , I Corinthians 11:23-32, Matthew 26:17-30 , John 13:1-15
Holy Thursday marks the institution of Holy Communion, which Christ distributed to His 12 apostles at the Last Supper. During the Passover Meal, Christ broke and distributed unleavened bread and passed the wine. He told the Apostles that this was His Body and Blood of the New Covenant. Humankind could now participate in the Kingdom of God. At matins, we hear:
"O thou who hast prepared Thy mystic table, and didst this day give drink from the cup of immortality to Thy Holy disciples in the sacred Upper Chamber, we beseech Thee, have mercy."
In the Evening the service of the Washing of the Feet takes place in memory of the Lord's example on Holy Thursday. Jesus took a towel and girded Himself and began washing His disciples' feet, setting an example of humility and love for the earliest members of the Church. The Service ends with the reading of John 13:12-14 : "For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you."
At Night On Great Thursday, an all-night vigil is kept in memory of the last sleepless night of our Lord on earth. This service is called Khavaroom (darkness). Before He was arrested, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and endured in solitude the agony of His impending death. Six sets of laments are chanted, each followed by a Gospel reading depicting Christ's betrayal, imprisonment, torture, trial, sentence, and crucifixion. Twelve lit candles, 11 white and 1 black (representing Judas), are extinguished in pairs. The crucifixion hymn (Daradzyal) relates:
"From hand to hand and foot to foot stretched across wood upon wood the bitter fruit (of Crucifixion) transfers life into death between two unrighteous ones.
"Here was the naked figure of the lawgiver, whom the blind (unbelievers) could not see, except for one of the thieves."
Scriptures: Mark 15:1-41 , Matthew 27:1-56 , Isaiah 52:13-53:12 , Zechariah 12:8-14 , Matthew 27:1-61
Holy Friday is the most solemn and sad day for Christians. The Crucifixion service, usually held at midday, recalls the suffering, crucifixion and death of our Lord. The memorial service features readings of the psalms. In the evening, at the entombment or burial service, a white tomb is placed in the chancel of the church. As they leave the church, the faithful approach the tomb, kiss the Gospel book and take a flower. It is adorned with flowers and during the service is taken in procession around the church. The hymn is heard:
"The Son of Righteousness, Christ, was placed in a dark pit, and the ray of glory from the Father was hidden under a stone in the midst of the earth."
The reading of the 12 lessons: Genesis 1:1-3,24 ,Genesis 22:1-18 , Exodus 12:1-24 , Jonah 1:1-4,11 , Exodus 14:24-15:2 , Isaiah 60:1-13 , Job 38:1-30 , IV Kings 2:1-22, Joshua 1:1-9 , Jeremiah 31:31-34 Ezekie1 37:1-14,
Selected scripture: Matthew 27:62-66 , I Corinthians 15:1-11, Matthew 28:1-20
At the Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday, the mystery of salvation in the Resurrection of Christ is celebrated. The lights of the church are dim until the reading of Isaiah 60 , when they are suddenly turned on. Already, in the dramatic candle lighting ceremony of Jrakalouytz, the joy of Easter Eve has begun. This last reading of Daniel is read by a chorus leader and three other
readers who represent the three young men who were thrown in the fire but were not burned, symbolizing the entombment of Jesus who, although buried, did not see corruption. The Resurrection chant is sung:
"Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem. Christ is risen from the dead. Alleluia!
Come ye people, sing unto the Lord. Alleluia! To Him that is risen from the dead, Alleluia!
To Him that enlightened the world, Alleluia!"
Easter Sunday celebrates the joy of the Resurrection; the choir and congregation exult:
"Christ is risen from the dead! He trampled down death by death and by His
Resurrection He granted life unto us. Glory unto Him for all ages. Amen."
The Resurrection of our Lord is theprori1ise of salvation for all humanity. The faithful share a joyous Easter feast, often including lamb and colored eggs (symbols of new life) and Easter bread (choereg). On the Monday after Easter, Armenian families in some parts of the world visit the graves of loved ones, share choereg and eggs among themselves, and whisper to their departed loved ones, "Krisdos haryatz ee merelotz!" Easter Sunday is followed by a period of 40 days, during which time there are no saints' days or fasting days. This period is dedicated to the glory of Christ's Resurrection and to the 40 days He spent on earth after His Resurrection. The 40th day after the Resurrection is Ascension Day, commemorating our Lord's entry into heaven. Fifty days after Easter is Pentecost, on which day the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles and gave them the power to preach in various tongues. This is marked as the birthday of the Church.