TABERNACLE FEAST – HOLY NATIVITY AND THEOPHANY
(BIRTH, BAPTISM, AND REVELATION OF GOD)
In the Armenian Church, and for the Armenian people, the most joyous and beloved feast is that of the Holy Nativity and Theophany. It is celebrated each year with great pomp and ceremony.
The revelation of God – Theophany – took place at the beginning of the first century when for mankind and history a new era began – the Christian Era.
Christ was born in Bethlehem, under the most humble circumstances. He lived for 33 years. From the Holy Birth to His Crucifixion, His Life was extraordinarily (Holy Nativity, by Taros Roslin, 1267-68) miraculous and for mankind it showed a way of life, to comprehend the true God.
Man, since the earliest of recorded time, has always had a religion. Man has worshipped nature’s elements, animals, symbolic idols, persons of wisdom or power, and prophets. He has built altars and temples of worship. However, none of these has been fully satisfying to mankind.
Christ’s Revelation as God put an end to man’s mental bewilderment and scrutiny. God sent His Son to mankind to teach the truth, to enlighten the mind, so that man might live and enjoy life under the noblest of principles. Thus, Christ’s Birth became recognized as a great turning point in mankind’s life, and in history.
Throughout the entire world, with great ceremony each year faithful observe the Nativity as a feast hailing the new enlightenment, peace, and love of man. It has become tradition for clergy to deliver messages to their flocks reflecting on the mystery and significance of Christ’s becoming flesh, and to remind people of life’s most essential principle – peace and love among all the world’s people. One of the most meaningful and popular of the hymns in the Armenian Church about the Nativity is “Khorhourt medz yev skancheli.”
It is a common practice among Armenians for priests to visit the homes of their parishioners during the Christmas season to bless their homes and families, to bring the hallowed message of the feast, and sing the popular hymn mentioned above with the household members.
THE DATE OF CHRISTMAS IN THE ARMENIAN CHURCH – WHY JANUARY 6?
The existence of two accepted dates for celebrating Christmas, December 25 and January 6, does not reflect a doctrinal issue. It is simply a question involving a different understanding of tradition, calendar variations, and divergent administrative approaches that have arisen between churches over a period of time.
In the earliest centuries, the mysteries of the Birth and of the Baptism of Jesus were observed on the same day, January 6. That tradition arose out of the Gospel according to Luke where after the verses describing Jesus’ Baptism (Luke 3:21-23) it is written that he had reached the age of 30, which would mean that He was baptized on the same date as His birth, namely January 6. The general history of the Christian churches confirms that until the fourth century the Birth and the Baptism, as well as the presentation of Jesus at the temple, were all celebrated on the same date. pious faithful went to the lands mentioned in the Holy Scriptures and to designated shrines to make their vows and conduct worship on the same day.
The birthplace of Jesus: Bethlehem.
The site of the Baptism: The River Jordan.
When the early centuries of Christendom had passed and the new faith had begun to be recognized by governments, religious leaders decided to hold a series of meetings in order to resolve doctrinal issues that had arisen, and to confer on current controversies. Some of the controversies or difficulties had arisen from old, pre Christian practices and traditions which, having prevailed for centuries, had set deep roots in the life of the people. Even though they had accepted Christianity, the people often would not abandon the old concepts and their corresponding festivals and celebrations. As a consequence of that situation, and the desire to have Christianity firmly imbedded in the lives of the people, church leaders felt it wise to identify certain well established pagan festival dates with Christian festivals.
During those centuries, worship of the sun god enjoyed great and widespread popularity among peoples both in the east and the west. Its festival occurred on December 25. It was called Saturnalia, and it marked the start of the sun’s return northward from its most southern position, nominally, the winter solstice. Thus, some churches that regarded the Baptism as especially important, acting according to their own particular circumstances, chose to leave its date to be January 6, but moved the date for the Nativity to December 25. The result would be that the festivals of old on December 25 would be dedicated not to the god of sun and fire, but to the birth of Jesus that could be taken as the material representation of rational light and the sun. Such actions were taken by the Church of Rome (Catholic) in 336, by the Church of Constantinople in 379, and by the Church of Antioch in 386.
Later, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, it was decided that all churches should accept and celebrate December 25 as the date of Nativity, so that there would be universal uniformity. However, in that very year, the Armenian people were locked in a life-and-death national-religious war under Commander Vartan Mamigonian against the Persians. As a consequence they did not attend the Council of Chalcedon (being the fourth of the series of Ecumenical Councils), and so remained faithful to its past practice, continuing to celebrate both the Birth and Baptism on January 6.
It must be noted, however, that celebrating the Birth on December 25 made things very much more convenient for pilgrims visiting the holy places, because under the primitive conditions prevailing in those days it was in fact extremely difficult in the winter climate to observe the Birth in Bethlehem and then march on foot in procession to the River Jordan to celebrate the Baptism.
JESUS’ BAPTISM – BLESSING OF THE WATER
During the earliest centuries the Sacrament of Baptism, which was celebrated with the Nativity, was regarded to be of the highest level of importance. The profound significance and importance of the Baptism remains even today, receiving great emphasis in Christianity.
In the Armenian Church, Baptism is one of the seven sacraments. It became established and consecrated by St. John, who as forerunner to the Savior’s sacred mission had preached Jesus’ Revelation. For that reason he was called John the Baptist.
For a true understanding of the meaning of Baptism, it is absolutely necessary to read the Gospels. It is there that this sacred practice is eloquently described and explained. It follows that through baptism the individual accepts the faith and becomes entitled to practice it. There is a beautiful and wise practice formulated by our early church fathers, a practice that has become canonical. According to the practice, all Armenian infants of our church must unconditionally be baptized in the waters of the same baptismal font, to symbolize spiritual brotherhood.
The ceremony of baptism becomes more meaningful when we reflect on the following – During the baptism ceremony the one being baptized is asked (through the adult godfather) what is wanted from the baptism. The answer given is Faith, Hope, Love and Baptism. Thus, the rite of baptism is a sacrament to endow virtues that are fundamentally essential to a good life.
In being baptized, Jesus became a living example to mankind. It is in memory of that act that we conduct a special ceremony on January 6 immediately after the Divine Liturgy. In historical times that ceremony was conducted on the banks of rivers and streams, following the examples of Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan. In the course of time, because of practical difficulties, it became a necessary practice to memorialize Jesus’ baptism within the church sanctuary, in the rite of the Blessing of Water (Chourorhnek).
It is currently a common practice to designate a godfather for the ceremony of the Blessing of Water. The chosen person, so honored, in return makes a substantial gift to the church, or to some worthy cause.
NOTEWORTHY OCCASIONS OF “BLESSING OF WATER” THROUGHOUT HISTORY
ST. GREGORY THE ENLIGHTENER’S MOST BUSY DAY – JANUARY 6, 303
When St. Gregory the Enlightener was removed from Khor Virab (“Deep Pit”), with the help of King Tiridates (Dertad) he embarked on the far-reaching task of establishing Christianity throughout Armenia.
During the years 301-303 the Enlightener founded hundreds of Churches. He carried on an intensive battle against the pagans and had the existing temples and idols destroyed. When he returned from Edessa where he had been ordained with the highest rank of the church, St. Gregory baptized King Dertad, members of the court, and thousands of people, in the Aradzani (Murad, or southern branch of the Euphrates River). There, still standing today, is an outcropping of rock called Dertad’s Artsan (Statue of Dertad), which shows a likeness of King Dertad. According to historians, the number of those baptized on that day was four thousand “piur” (which would mean four thousand thousand or four million).
BLESSING OF WATER BY CATHOLICOS BEDROS KEDATARTS – JANUARY 6, 1023
During the last period of the Bagratid Dynasty, the Emperor Basil of Byzantium invited Catholicos Bedros to take part in the religious ceremony of Blessing of Water which was to take place on January 6, 1023 in the stream that followed through Drabizon.
Catholicos Bedros, who has been regarded as a vain person and who in our history has been blamed for the grave treachery of having yielded the capital city of Ani to the Greeks, gladly accepted the invitation and arrived on the appointed day with his retinue. When the ceremony began the Armenian Catholicos, cross in hand, was pouring some Holy Chrism (Holy Muron) into the water, when at that very moment some miraculous events occurred which became the subject matter for ecstatic talk among those present as well as for historians of the times.
The Armenian historian Lastivertsi wrote, “With the pouring of the sacramental oil into the water by the patriarch a ray of light suddenly sprang from the sprinkler into the water …”
Historian Vartan wrote, “A marvelous sign occurred. Light shone from the hand of the patriarch and from the consecrated oil, to the fascination of the observers, and the faith of the Armenians was much reinforced …”
Later, historian Anetsi added, “His Holiness Bedros halted the flow of the river for an hour, with the miracle of the sign (cross), before the King Basil…”
Historian Giragos wrote, “On the prayers of the hallowed Patriarch Bedros the waters rose and an intense light shone, surpassing the bright ness of the sun…”
It is because of these miraculous events that the Catholicos is called Bedros Kedatarts (Bedros, restrainer of the river).
On that occasion an interesting additional event occurred when the Greek churchmen were conducting services. When they were sprinkling the Holy Chrism into the waters a dove was released. According to expectation, the dove, after a short flight, was to return and remain at the consecrated waters. However, unexpectedly, and eagle swooped in from afar, seized the dove and carried it off. “Suddenly an eagle swooped in, seized it, and left, much to the shame of all the Greeks who begrudgingly praised the faith of the Armenians …” (Historian Giragos).
FOREIGN HISTORIANS REGARDING THE ARMENIAN BLESSING OF WATER, JANUARY 6, 1211
The following is a memorable description of the historic Blessing of Water from the Cilician era, as written by a foreign churchman, Canonicus Willebrandt. He, along with Roman princes, had been a guest of the King of Cilicia. On the way to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem he had remained in Cilicia for four months enjoying Armenian hospitality.
Canonicus Willebrandt wrote, “We arrived at Sis on the day of Theophany (Revelation), on the invitation of King Leon, who was to show us their ceremony. Sis is one of their important cities. It has countless people of wealth. This is how they celebrated the Feast of the Revelation.
First, they did penance for twelve days and observed abstinence, even shunning fish, wine and oil. On the day preceding they fasted. In the evening they celebrated the Divine Liturgy and worshipped piously the whole night through. In the morning they went to the river bank near the city. King Leon was astride a tall and stately horse. The King’s courtiers, also grandly attired, proceeded before him, carrying banners. Thousands of people accompanied their king. The king’s second in authority, Roupen, along with the noblemen of the province, were following him. Then came the soldiers, en masse, all in attractive uniforms. The soldiers were shouting, ‘Hail to the King.’ When the military trumpets had sounded and the band played, the king dismounted and went to the tent that had been pitched for him on the river bank.
Then came the Greek patriarch with his retinue, and then the Armenian clergy with their Catholicos in a glorious procession. They began to bless the waters of the river. The Gospel was read in both Greek and Armenian. The Cross was put into the water, and off to a side a dove was released. Someone went into the river, and when he was in the center he cried out in a powerful voice, ‘Long live our King.’ Then he cried out again, ‘May Christianity rise and grow strong throughout the world.’ The crowd of people shouted ‘Amen.’ Then the king and many others sprin kled themselves with that blessed water. Assyrians who were with them bathed themselves unclad in the waters.
After the ceremony of Blessing of Water the churchmen departed, while the king and his retinue went for sports and games (horse racing), at a sports field near the city of Sis. I confess that I cannot say how pleasing or delightful those games were. The young noblemen engaged in games of archery and lancing. When the days of Theophany were over, the fine king treated us with great honor, and we traveled to other cities within King Leon’s realm. We later went to Adamod, the fortified hamlet which Leon together with the adjacent fiefdoms, had ceded to the Alaman people of the province of Shirag, whom they loved very much.”
THE EVANGELISTS AND JESUS’ BAPTISM
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW (Matt 3:13-17)
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, He went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on Him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased.”
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE (Luke 3:21-22)
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, ‘Though art my beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased.”‘
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN (John 1:29-34)
“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John bore witness, ‘I saw the spirit descend like a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”‘
GLOSSARY – NOTES
BETHLEHEM: City in Palestine, in the district called Judea, about 15km to the south from Jerusalem. It is mentioned in the Bible that the Messiah, Savior of the Jewish people, would be born there. Bethlehem was the birthplace of the great King David. Of the three great Christian monasteries existing in Bethlehem one belongs to the Armenian people.
RIVER JORDAN: With a length of 252km, it empties into the Dead Sea. It was there that Jesus was baptized.
VARTAN MAMIGONIAN: Died in May of 451 on the battlefield of Avarayr, in a battle with his 65,000 soldiers against the Persian army of more than 300,000 men. During that critical period the Armenian people could not be burdened with matters of religious feasts, changes of calendar dates, and such other issues, for its very faith was being threatened. The tyrant Yazdigerd’s purpose was to have Christians abjure their faith, destroy their churches, and have them embrace the worship of fire.
Courtesy of “Feasts of the Armenian Church and National Traditions” by Garo Bedrosian, 1993