Major Feasts and Observances

The Five Cardinal Feasts of the Armenian Apostolic Church (Daghavarner)
Christmas – Epiphany (Dznoont)
Easter (Zadig)
Transfiguration (Vartavar)
Assumption of Saint Mary (Asdvadzadzin)
Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Khatchverats)


Five Major Feasts

Christmas – Epiphany (Dznoont)
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.

To learn more, click here to read a presentation prepared by Der Antranig Baljian

Easter (Zadig)
The day of great Paregentan (carnival) comes three days after the Vartanants 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.

Transfiguration (Vartavar)
The Armenian Church has two important feasts between Pentecost and Vartavar. One is the Feast of Etchmiadzin Church, and the other is the Feast of Discovery of Relics of Saint Gregory the Illuminator. The first feast commemorates the establishment of the first official Church of the Armenian people. The second feast is for the commemoration of Saint Gregory the Illuminator. But Vartavar is the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ.

Vartavar was one of the great pagan feast 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 en 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 was altered, and His raiment was white and glistening, 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 August.

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 AD. 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. Assumption of Saint Mary, Holy Mother of God

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 Holy Cross (Khachveratz)
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 Elevation of the Holy Cross. The Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross is the last one of these five Daghavars. 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. The Feast of the Elevation 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 also 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 Elevation 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.

Thank you to our sister parish St. Gregory the Illuminator Church of Philadelphia for this information

Feast of the Assumption of St. Mary

The Feast of the Assumption of the Holy Mother-of-God is a non-variable commemoration and the oldest of all those dedicated to St. Mary. The Armenian Church celebrates this feast day on the nearest Sunday to August 15; a practice adopted at the time of St. Nersess the Graceful.

The Blessed Virgin Mary holds a high place in the Armenian Church, next to Christ. We begin our Divine Liturgy with these words, “Through the intercession of the holy Mother of God, O Lord, receive our supplications and save us.” In every Armenian Church the painting on the main altar is of Mary, holding the infant Savior. The Gospels teach us that Mary was blessed and called by God to fulfill God’s divine plan of salvation.  Mary has a primary place of honor because through her and by the Holy Spirit God became incarnate, became human.

Assumption comprises a week of fasting, Navagadik, and a Memorial Day. In the early centuries, the observance took place over the course of three days; but as arranged by Shnorhali, it was extended to nine days.

According to tradition, following the Ascension of Christ, Mary lived out the rest of her days in Jerusalem, cared for by St. John the Evangelist.  She died in Jerusalem some 15 years after Christ’s Ascension and was buried in her family tomb in Gethsemane.

After she passed away, all the apostles—save Bartholomew who was absent at that time—conducted her funeral with great ceremony at a cave-like tomb in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Later, St. Bartholomew returned and wished to see Mary one last time.

He convinced the apostles to open the tomb, but they could not find her body inside. Angels’ voices were heard for three days and nights. The apostles interpreted the angels’ singing as a sign that our Lord had assumed, or taken up, his mother into heaven as he had promised her.

They found the empty tomb a confirmation of that promise for she had not been dead, but had fallen asleep. For this reason, the church refers to the end of Mary’s earthly life as “the Dormition” rather than “death.”

The tradition concerning the Dormition of the Holy Mother did not become a basic teaching (doctrine) of the church until the 9th century, and it wasn’t until the 12th century that the feast was titled “the Assumption.”

This Sunday is the name day for those named Mariam, Maro, Mary, Mari, Makrouhi, Mayrenie, Maroush, Serpouhi, Dirouhi, Takouhi, Lousig, Lousnag, Arousiag, Arpine, Markarid, Nazig, Azniv, Seta, Dzaghig, Verjin, Arshalouys.

The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple

All of the events in Jesus’ life followed the Law of Moses, showing that He was the true fulfillment of the law and the prophets. The book of Leviticus (chapter 12) describes the procedure for circumcision of a male child and the purification of the mother. The circumcision of the child would be after seven days and the period of purification an additional 33 days. At forty days the new mother would go to the temple and make an offering to the priest and would become “clean” once again. When Mary’s time came, she took her first born son with her in fulfillment of the command of Exodus 13:2: “Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.” In the Armenian Church, the commemoration of this event is called Dyarnuntarach and celebrated 40 days after Theophany which falls on February 14.

While it is called the feast of the Presentation in English, the word in Armenian literally means “before the Lord” and the Orthodox Church also uses the phrase “Meeting of the Lord.” The Roman Catholic Church also uses the terms “Purification of Mary” or “Candlemas.”

This Feast is important because we understand it as Jesus, God’s only Son being consecrated by the Father to become in truth the Savior of Israel and all of humanity. This is reinforced by the story of Simeon and Anna. Simeon was a righteous, devout man who was promised by God that he would not die until he saw the promised Messiah. He is described as looking forward to the consolation of Israel and as a man in whom the Holy Spirit rested. Simeon recognized Jesus as the savior of Israel and the gentiles. (Luke 2:25)

Anna was a prophetess and a devout widow who worshiped constantly at the temple, never leaving it, praying and fasting night and day. When she saw the baby Jesus, she “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel.” (Luke 2:36)

In many Armenian communities it is customary to bring infants to the church during the vespers of the night before the Presentation to be presented at the altar of the church by the priest. It is also customary (as in the West) for each person to light a candle from the candle of the chief celebrant; hence the name Candlemas in the Catholic and Anglican traditions. In many areas of the world Armenians light a bonfire after proceeding from the church after the vespers service. This is seen as a vestige of the pre-Christian religion of Armenia called Zoroastrianism which considered fire as the divine manifestation of God, and worshiped by lighting bonfires in holy sites. Interestingly enough, this tradition is also practiced by Iranians who, even though predominantly Muslim, were also, for many centuries, devotees of Zoroaster. They light the fires on the festival of Nowruz (New Year’s) which begins on the vernal equinox and lasts for 12 days.

Today, our understanding of this practice is a bit different. We read in the Gospel of John the words of the Lord who says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (Jn. 8:12, NIV). We also read the following about Jesus: “In him was life and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn 1: 4-5). So for us today lighting up the night with candles and the flames of the bonfire signifies the victory of Christ, the Light of the World, over all the powers of darkness, bringing forth the light of grace and salvation to each and every believer.

Vartanants: Struggle for freedom of conscience

Armenians worldwide celebrate the Feast of Vartanants, commemorating the war between pagan Persia and Christian Armenia in 451. The king of Persia ordered all Christians under his rule to abandon Christianity and embrace Zoroastrianism. The Armenian clergy and leaders refused to follow this command and took an oath to fight the enemies of truth. Before the two armies met on the morning of May 26, 451, Vartan Mamigonian, the leader of the Armenian forces, addressed his soldiers:

He who supposes that we put on Christianity like a garment, now realizes that as he cannot change the color of his skin, so he will perhaps never be able to accomplish his designs. For the foundations of our faith are set on the unshakable rock, not on earth but above in heaven where no rains fall, no winds blow, and no floods rise. Although in the body we are on earth, yet by faith we are established in heaven where no one can reach the building of Christ not made by human hands.

Vartan was the leader of the Armenians in the decisive battle on the plains of Avarayr, and although outnumbered, the Armenians put up a fierce resistance against the mighty Persian Empire. Vartan and many of his soldiers died, but the Persians sustained even greater casualties, and they recognized the strong commitment the Armenians had to their Christian faith. With this battle the Armenians clearly demonstrated that Christianity had become a part of their national identity.

The resistance to Persian rule continued for more than thirty years, led by Vahan Mamigonian, nephew of Vartan. Vahan successfully negotiated the Treaty of Nvarsag, the first document in history granting religious freedom and home rule, preceding the Magna Charta by nearly 750 years.

The heroes of Vartanank were canonized as a group by the Armenian Church in the fifth century. Our generation witnessed the historic collective canonization of the 1.5 million martyrs of the Armenian Genocide that took place on April 23, 2015, in Holy Etchmiadzin under the auspices of His Holiness Karekin II and His Holiness Aram I. This was the first canonization by the Armenian Church since the 15th century, when Krikor Datevatzi was granted sainthood.

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 Shapat) 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 sharagans (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 worshiper’s; 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.

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 faithful 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.  [Source: “Plain Words for Plain Souls”, Antelias, 1975]