GREAT LENT (MEDZ BAHK)
In addition to the one-day and week-long abstinences, the Armenian Church has the forty-day period of abstinence, Great Lent (in Armenian, “Medz Bahk”), while other churches have virtually eliminated long-duration abstinence.
Great Lent 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 “Arevakal” (Sunrise), “Hsgoom” (Vigil), and also “Khaghaghagan” (Peace) and “Hankstyan” (Rest) are “Zhamerkoutiun” (Liturgical Offices), and they are conducted usually on Wednesday mornings and Friday evenings, as dictated by local conditions and conveniences.
The hymns of the Sunrise Service were composed by Catholicos St. Nerses the Gracious. They embody profound meaning and are beautiful literary gems. They are directed mainly to spiritual light, truth, and beauteous glorification.
Services during Great Lent are conducted with drawn curtains concealing the altar, directing 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, Divine Liturgy is performed with the curtain open during Great Lent for the feast day of St. Gregory the Enlightener’s Entrance into the Pit.
The sacrament of marriage (Holy Matrimony), by canon law, is forbidden during the entire period of Great Lent.
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 tempter 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 power and fasting.”
Matt 2: 18-20
“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 the 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, his 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 the 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 bride groom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.”
Some thoughts and suggestion about Abstinence and Lent from His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia (later Karekin I, Catholicos of all Armenians).
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 persevere 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, vartabets, 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 others 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,
• 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.
Courtesy of “Feasts of the Armenian Church and National Traditions” by Garo Bedrosian, 1993