Fasting, Abstinence, and Lent:

A Part of the Christian Religion and Culture *

     

 

Cross with relic, 1746, Van

Source: Treasures of Echmiadzin

"Throughout all centuries, past religion has played a great moral and social role in influencing the history of peoples . . . At least some, if not all, of the feasts of the church comprise the structure of Armenian community life.  Thus, such celebrations serve not only for the preservation of our religious and moral precepts, but also for the general aim of reinforcing our national character." *

Introduction: About Fasting and Lent

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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.

 

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Days of Abstinence: Their Kinds and Duration

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Different churches, besides having different rules on what may be eaten during fast or abstinence, also have different times.

The Armenian Church has approximately 160 days of abstinence, consisting of durations of one day, one week, and forty days.

One-day abstinence:  All the Wednesdays and Fridays of the year are days of abstinence, except for the week following Theophany, and for the seven weeks following Easter, when the Wednesdays and Fridays occurring then are "eating days," so called.

It is of significance that the Armenian Church has designated weeklong abstinences for the start of each of the four seasons of the year, as a means of promoting good health.

The times for the weeklong abstinences are the following:

  • The week before Theophany

  • The week of Catechumens (established by St. Gregory the Enlightener) which precedes the feast of St. Sergius

  • The week before Easter, known as Avak Shabat (Holy Week)

  • The week before Transfiguration (Vartavar)

  • The week of the Discovery of the Relic of St. Gregory

  • The week before the Assumption of the Mother-of-God (Asdvadadzin)

  • The week before the Exaltation of the Cross

  • The week of Advent (50 days before Theophany)

  • The week of the start of spring (vernal equinox), which will always occur during Lent

  • The week of the start of the summer, also known as the Abstinence of the Feast of Elijah, which follows Pentecost

  • The week of the start of autumn (autumnal equinox), which occurs before the feast of the Cross of Varag, and precedes the feast of St. George

  • The week of the start of winter (winter solstice), also known as the Abstinence of St. James (Hacob) of Nisibis.

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Lent (Medz Bahk)

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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.

 

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References in the Gospel to Fasting                                                              Back to Religious History

 

Matt 4:1-4

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.'"

 

Matt 6:16-18

"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."

 

Matt 9:14-15

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."

 

Matt 17:14-21

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."

 

Mark 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 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."

 

Matt 9:27-29

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."

 

Luke 2:37

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."

 

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Reflections                                                                                               Back to Religious History

Some thoughts and suggestions about Abstinence and Lent from His Holiness, Karekin II, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia (now Karekin II, 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 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.  [Source: "Plain Words for Plain Souls", Antelias, 1975]

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Introduction: About Mid-Lent (Michink)                                                    Back to Religious History

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.

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Religious Services at Mid-Lent: Popular Contemporary Aspect of Michink      Back to Religious History

There are no religious services specifically designated for mid-Lent, since it is not a feast day.

The services for that Wednesday are the same as for other Wednesdays of lent, with the sunrise service and the ritual for confession and penance.

What occurs then is primarily making the observance a little more ceremonial.

Because Michink occurs on Wednesday, a work day, most men will be at work.

Also, because of the social and economic pressures Armenians experience in the Diaspora, being different from what they were in the homeland in former times, it is to be expected that the popular practices in observing Michink will be different.

Today, Michink has become mostly an occasion enjoying the attention of women.  It is principally the Armenian woman who makes an effort to recall the traditions of centuries past, and thereby to honor the customs of their forebears.

The gatherings that take place after the church services at Michink consist usually of tables set with the appropriate Lenten foods, and of programs that suit the occasion, evidence of the concern and perseverance of Armenian women.

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Traditions of Michink, Customs, and Mores; The Year's Lucky One            Back to Religious History

A variety of special foods were prepared in the homes for Michink unleavened breads, called "Bagharj," and a kind of sandwich called "Koutap."

It was common to hide a metal coin in the bagharj bread.  At mealtime, or when there was a gathering of friends, the bagharj bread was cut into portions and given out to all present.  They would watch eagerly to see who would be the year's luck one of course, the one who got the portion with the coin.

The michink Koutap was prepared for the same purpose.  The Koutap was a kind of sandwich of filling between two pieces of bread.  The dough was prepared with olive oil, and small lumps, about egg-size, or sometimes flattened, enclosed a filling of boiled green beans, broad beans, and other vegetables.  A colorful bead would be hidden in one of them, thus identifying the year's lucky person.

Gifts to Brides-to-be

It was once a custom for engaged young men, or their families, to give the bride-to-be a gift at michink

Michink, a Day of Freedom for Girls and Brides

In villages of the homeland, it was custom to allow girls and new brides a day of freedom once a year, at michink.  On that occasion they, free of the supervision of older women or of mothers-in-law, would take the koutaps they had baked and go off to some distant spot with their very close friends and spend some time together in unfettered talk, singing, and dancing.  That special occasion of michinks was looked upon as an opportunity for them to talk intimately about family difficulties, or possibly shed copious tears concerning a disappointment in love.

 

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*The text for this topic is taken from: Feast of the Armenian Church and National Traditions. Garo Bedrossian, Translated by Arra S. Avakian; Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, Los Angeles, Dedicated to the 1700th anniversary of the proclamation of Christianity in Armenia; Publication of the printed volume was made possible by Mr. and Mrs. Manuel and Josephine Sassounian, In Memory of their Father, Dikran Sassounian.  Printed by Yerevan Printing and Publishing, Gledale, California.  Original publication in Armenian by Nor Gyank Publishing House, Series No. 9.

 

 

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