FEAST DAYS OF THE ARMENIAN CHURCH
Five Major Feast Days
In the Armenian Church there are five great annual feasts which are called Daghavars. They are: Christmas, Easter, Transfiguration(Vartavar), Assumption of Saint Mary, and Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The day following each Daghavar is designated as a memorial day for the departed by death (merelotz in the Armenian language). Also, the week preceding each Daghavar is a week of fast, except for Easter, which has its own seven week fast named the great fast or lent. On the following Monday of the Daghavars, people usually go to the cemetery to honor the memory of their departed ones, and the priest blesses the tombs. And also it is a duty for the Church members to receive communion on the days of Daghavar, or at least on Christmas and Easter, previously having confessed to the priest.
This feast is the anniversary of the birth and the baptism of Jesus Christ. He was born in a manger of Bethlehem, near Jerusalem City, but He was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. The Armenian Church celebrates both the birth and the baptism of Jesus Christ on the same day, the 6th day of January. Because Jesus was baptized when He was almost thirty years old (Luke 3:23), His baptism happened nearly on the same day as His birthday, according to church traditions. For this reason this feast is called birth and baptism, or Christmas and Epiphany. When Jesus was baptized, He prayed to His Father; and as He prayed, Heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit of God descended upon Him like a dove. And a voice came from Heaven which said, “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). By these words, the divinity of Jesus Christ was revealed to the world. This event is called Epiphany.
In the beginning all Christian Churches celebrated both Christmas and the baptism of Christ on the same day, the 6th day of January, as the Armenian Church does. But later on the date of Christmas was changed to the 25th day of December, which was the pagan feast day of the sun in Rome. In order to abolish this heathen feast, the Roman Catholic Church transferred Christmas from the 6th day of January to the 25th day of December. It was very hard for the Church of Jerusalem to celebrate Christmas in Jerusalem and then go to the River Jordan on the same day, the 6th day of January, to celebrate the baptism of Jesus. Therefore, these two feasts were separated, and Christmas was celebrated on December 25th and the baptism on January the 6th. Then, the Roman Catholic Church in the West and the Greek and some other Churches in the East began to celebrate these two feasts on two separate days as mentioned above. As time went on, these two days, December 25th and January 6th, were finally sanctioned in these ancient Churches. However, to this day the Armenian Church, being faithful to the old tradition of Christianity, continued to celebrate Christmas and the baptism on the same day, the 6th of January. Therefore, in the Armenian Church after the offering of Christmas Badarak (mass) a special ceremony of the blessing of water takes place every year. – The Cross is immersed in this blessed water and then taken out again, symbolizing the baptism of Jesus Christ.
The day of great Paregentan (carnival) comes three days after the Vardanantz Feast, followed by lent, which lasts seven weeks. This is a period of repentance and fasting. Each Sunday of lent is designated to a special purpose in the Armenian Church. For example, Paregentan~ Sunday is called “Paradise Sunday,” and the following Sundays are named, “The Exclusion,” “The Prodigal Son,” “The Steward,” “Unjust Judge,” “The Advent,” “Palm Sunday,” and then comes “Easter Sunday.” The last week of the lent is called Avak Shapat (Holy Week).
Easter is a feast that commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He died upon the Cross and was risen the third day. The good news of His Resurrection encouraged His disciples, who were very sad and disheartened because of His great suffering and crucifixion.
In 325 (AD.) the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea decided to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday of the next full moon after the Spring Equinox. This is the reason that the Feast of Easter is movable and falls on one of the Sundays between March 22nd and April 25th.
This miraculous feast of the resurrection of Jesus Christ grants great value to human life, giving hope of immortality.
Vartavar is the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ. Vartavar was one of the great pagan feasts of the Armenian people before Christianity. At this feast of Vartavar, the people of Armenia decorated the temple of the goddess Asdghig with roses and flowers. For this reason, -the feast was called Vartavar, which means decoration with roses. On this occasion, people let pigeons fly in the air and threw water on each other. However, the practice of sprinkling water on each other has been handed down to us so that even today in many places this is still the custom. Saint Gregory the Illuminator, in order to abolish this heathen custom of The ‘Vartavar” united it with the Feast of Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ happened on a high mountain where Jesus had gone with Peter, James and John to pray. As He was praying, suddenly His countenance (expression) was altered, and His raiment (garment) was white and glistening, radiating light, and there talked with Him two men who were Moses and Elijah. The Feast of Transfiguration is celebrated on the 6th day of August in the Greek and Roman Catholic Churches. In the Armenian Church, by the arrangement of Saint Gregory the Illuminator it was celebrated on the first day of the month of Navasart, which fell on the 11th day of Aug. But Catholicos Moses of Eghivart changed the date of this feast and transferred it to the Sunday fourteen weeks after Easter, when he renewed the Armenian Church calendar in 551 (A.D.). Therefore, according to this new arrangement, the Feast of Transfiguration began to be celebrated in the Armenian Church between June 28th and August 1st, on one of the Sundays adjusted from the date of Easter of each year.
This feast is celebrated in the Armenian Church on Sunday following the feast of Shoghagot, which commemorates the vision or revelation of Saint Gregory the Illuminator. According to this revelation, the only begotten Son of God descended from Heaven to earth and showed to Saint Gregory the Illuminator the place where the first official Church of Armenia was to be built. In 303 (AD.) the Church was built and was called Etchmiadzin (the place where the Son of God descended from Heaven to earth). During this vision heavenly beams of light were thrown out from Heaven to earth on the ground of Etchmiadzin. The word Shoghagat explains in Armenian this effusion of light. The assumption of Saint Mary is a feast which commemorates the death and assumption of the mother of our Lord, Jesus Christ to Heaven. In the Armenian Church there are other feasts of Saint Mary. For instance, her conception, birth, offering to the temple, discovery of her locket and belt, and annunciation. These feasts are entered into the Armenian Church in later days during the middle ages. The oldest and the most important one of the feasts of Saint Mary is her assumption, which is celebrated in the Armenian Church on the nearest Sunday to August 15th, and is continued nine days according to the arrangement of Nerses the Graceful in the Twelfth Century. The hymns of this feast day were written also by the Catholicos, Nerses the Graceful. In the other ancient churches, the Feast of the Assumption of Saint Mary is celebrated always on the 15th day of August, whether it falls on a Sunday or on a weekday. The Feast of the Assumption of Saint Mary was established on the following tradition: Her death happened on the 15th day of August. However, the Apostle Bartholomew was absent at the time of her funeral. Upon his return to Jerusalem, he wanted to see her. When they opened the tomb and did not find her body there, this empty tomb caused them to think that her body was transmitted to Heaven, just as Jesus had formerly promised her. On this occasion, as a consolation, they gave to Bartholomew a portrait of Saint Mary, which he brought with him to Armenia and put it in the place named Tarpnotzkar where later they built a convent for the nuns. This is a monastery which is called also Hokvotz or Hokyatz Vank, where the people of Armenia went annually as pilgrims.
This feast day of the Assumption of Saint Mary was established in the Roman Catholic Church during the Sixth Century; in the Greek Church during the Seventh Century; in the Armenian Church during the Eighth Century. In the Twelfth Century, according to the arrangement of Catholicos Nerses the Graceful, this feast day began to be celebrated nine days instead of one, and the same ceremonies are repeated each three days. On the first day of this feast after the offering of the mass the grapes are blessed in the Armenian Church. Again the Catholicos, Nerses the Graceful, is the author of this ceremony and prayer for the blessing of the grapes.
Exaltation of the Cross (Khachveratz)
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is the last one of the five major feast days- Daghavars. The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross commemorates the emancipation of the Cross of Christ from Persia and elevation of it on the Calvary in Jerusalem. The story of this event is as follows:
When the Persian King, King Khosrov, occupied Jerusalem in 610 (AD.), he carried the Cross of Christ with him to Persia as a bondage in order to insult the Christian community. In 628 (A. D.) Emperor Heracles of Constantinople conquered Persia and emancipated the Cross of Christ from the bondage and brought it back to Jerusalem. The Armenian people also have their own share in this event. When the Cross was emancipated from Persia, it was brought first to Garin (a city in Armenia), and it was carried through Armenia into Constantinople and then to Jerusalem. Patriarch Zakariah of Jerusalem decorated the Cross with roses and flowers and erected it on the Hill of Calvary. On this occasion the Church of Jerusalem celebrated the emancipation of the Cross of Christ with great honor and much enthusiasm in order to inspire the people with the spiritual meaning of the Cross. One mountain top of Garin is called Khachapayd (the wood of the Holy Cross). When the Cross was carried from Persia to Jerusalem, the carriers passed through a road on this mountain. This is the reason why this mountain top is called the Khachapayd. Also, for the same reason an Armenian convent near the City of Garin is called Khachga Vank (the Convent of the Cross).
The Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14th, whether that day falls on one of the weekdays or Sunday. The Armenian Church celebrates it on the Sunday nearest to September 14th.
Between the Feast of Khachveratz and the Feast of Varaka Khach, there is another commemoration which is called “The Feast of the Church.” This commemoration has close connection with the feasts of the Cross. That is the reason that it is celebrated in this period.