and the development of the commemoration of the Holy Birthgiver-of-GOD as celebrated in the month of August
Rev. Dr. George A. Leylegian, 2013
Throughout Christendom, all of the ancient, apostolic Churches observe a commemor
ation of the Holy Birthgiver-of-GOD, the Virgin Mary, in the month of August. In many Calendars, this commemoration is fixed on August 15, and is commonly referred to as either the “Falling Asleep” (in Greek, “Koimesis”, in Latin, “Dormition”) or the “Assumption” of Mary. Many of the menologies include details that the Virgin Mary “fell asleep in the Lord” on August 15, and several days later, her tomb was discovered to have been emptied. This has led to the belief that Mary was “assumed” or “assumpted” into heaven.
In the Church of the Armenians, we likewise commemorate Mary during the month of August. It is very important to note that while the commemoration is known by many different names, amongst the Armenians the day is commonly referred to as “Astowatzatzin / Asdvadzadzin”, which is simply “the Birthgiver-of-GOD”, without any specification as to what quality or aspect of her life we are commemorating. In the Calendars after the fifth century, the day is referred to as the Falling Asleep (“Nnjowmn / Nunchoomn”), and in more recent Calendars, we have adopted the term Assumption (“Veraphoxowmn / Verapokhoomn”)to describe the commemoration. Furthermore, the Church of the Armenians has elevated the solemnity of this day, transferring the liturgical celebration to the Sunday which is nearer to August 15 (that is, the Sunday which coincides between August 12 and August 18). In many parts of the northern hemisphere, the Blessing of the First-fruits of the Vineyard is also offered on the same day, and therefore, many Armenians associate the “Assumption of Mary” with the “Blessing of the Grapes”. Michel van Esbroeck has compiled an excellent study on the liturgical development of this feast-day throughout the early Church, with numerous citations from apocryphal and early patristic works, and devotes special attention to the observances in Armenia.
It is evident that the Church of the Armenians adopted the commemoration of the Falling Asleep/Assumption of Mary from another source (probably from a fourth-century Jerusalem tradition or a fifth-century Constantinople tradition, with later amendments drawn from the Crusader time period). The focus of this article is to determine whether a much earlier usage of a series of continuous reading cycles by the Church of the Armenians may have already established a festival in honor of Mary in mid-August prior to the fourth century.
It must be stated clearly that the falling asleep or death of Mary is not cited in the canonical New Testament. The last mention of Mary is on the day of the Ascension (Acts 1:14). Some traditions indicate that John, the beloved disciple, emigrated from Jerusalem to Ephesus, and because Mary had been entrusted to his care by Jesus (John 19:27), it is purported that Mary also traveled and stayed in Ephesus for some time. Apocryphal citations regarding the later life of Mary are known prior to the late fourth century. Following the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 AD, the title “Birthgiver-of-GOD” (Astowatzatzin / Asdvadzadzin)was formally ascribed to Mary, and certain efforts were made to indicate that Mary returned to Jerusalem and was buried in a tomb next to her parents, Joachim and Anna. It is important to mention that to this day, the Armenians share equal custody of the Tomb of the Virgin Mary located near Gethsemane, and every morning, it is the privilege and blessing for our Church to offer the Holy Eucharist (“Sowrb Patarag / Soorp Badarak”) at the altar-table which stands immediately in front of the emptied tomb of the Virgin Mary.
As Christianity developed both a universal and localized calendar of commemorations, many of the events in the life of Mary were elevated to the rank of feast-day; for example, her conception, her nativity, her presentation to the Temple, the Annunciation, etc. Many of these events were based upon citations found in various books of Scripture which circulated throughout parts of Christendom, though eventually, some of these books were marginalized and relegated to the category of “apocrypha”. I urge all of you to obtain a copy of an extraordinary translation of the “Gospel of the Infancy” which our dear mentor and esteemed professor, Dr. Abraham Terian, recently published in order to learn more about the details of the early life of Mary.
As all of my readers are aware, I have devoted most of my research to the study of the cycles of continuous Bible lections which may have been used by the Church of the Armenians prior to the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325 AD. After that time, both the Lectionary and the Calendar of the Church of the Armenians appear to have incorporated many stational commemorations, introduced primarily from the rapidly emerging liturgical observances in and around Jerusalem in the second part of the fourth century. The current Lectionary used in the Church of the Armenians includes substantial amendments which have been shown by the renowned lectionary scholar, Athanase Renoux, to be either influenced by or to have directly borrowed from fifth century Jerusalem practices. I wish to remind my kind readers that in our Church, Sunday is observed exclusively as the Day of the Lord, and that the commemoration of saints is therefore relegated during the regular course of the year to Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Saints, including Mary, are not commemorated for their witness (in Greek, “martys” or “martyria”) on Sundays in our Church. This fact must be borne in mind as we examine how the commemoration of Mary became intertwined with the regular observance of Sunday as the Day of the Lord (in Armenian, “Giurage”, from the Greek, “Kyriake”; in Latin, “Dominica”).
The questions before me are (1) How did the Church of the Armenians read Holy Scripture prior to the Council of Nicea, and a propos to this article, (2) How did the use of continuous readings foment a liturgical calendar? It would appear that prior to the Council of Nicea, the Church of the Armenians observed the Feast of the Resurrection (Easter) on a fixed date of April 6. It would also appear that our earliest calendar was calculated using April 6 as a base-date. It is my supposition that prior to the Council of Nicea (when there was a consensus with regard to the date upon which Easter ought to be celebrated universally) that the Church of the Armenians may have slightly adjusted the fixed date of April 6 to reflect the notion of the First Day of the Week, thus moving Easter to the nearer Sunday. Even in that situation, the early continuous reading cycles would have remained largely undisturbed, and therefore, we might be able to reconstruct the calendar year with a certain amount of exactitude.
Continuous Lection from Genesis
On Easter, the Church of the Armenians opens Genesis to page one. Long before the introduction of “chapter and verse”, Holy Scripture was read using an elaborate system of “pericope”, which is to say, sections of a text which expound a specific subject. Scholars often ascribe this form of division to the second century compiler Ammonius of Alexandria. By commencing Genesis at 1:1 on Easter (that is, on April 6 or on the nearer Sunday to April 6), we may assign specific sections of Genesis across the next 52 weeks. From Easter to mid-August accounts for approximately 20 weeks.
By reading the pericope in continuous order, as we reach the middle of August, we have arrived at the equivalent of chapter 23:1 – 20 in Genesis (Click here to see the text).
We read in Genesis 18 that three visitors appear to announce to Abraham and Sarah that even in their old age, they shall miraculously have a son. The annunciation to Abraham and Sarah is a typology of the Annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26 – 38) who is visited by the Archangel Gabriel, who is sent by GOD, to proclaim “For with GOD nothing shall be impossible.” Mary says in reply, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” Later, Mary shall refer to the fact that the Lord “spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever” (Luke 1:55). The matriarch Sarah is regarded as the “typos” for Mary, and therefore, the events of Sarah’s life – including her passing – are considered direct typology for the events in the life of Mary.
Continuous Lection from Isaiah
There is a high probability that the Church of the Armenians opened Isaiah to page one on Easter as well. It should be noted that elsewhere in Christendom, Easter was chosen as the date for baptisms. In Isaiah 1:16ff we read, “Wash ye and make yourselves clean”, and this may have been one of the contributing elements to that baptismal tradition.
Again, by following the pattern of continuous lections, by mid-August, we arrive at the pericope in Isaiah which consists of chapter 25:1 – 26:21(Click here to see the text).
This lengthy pericope in Isaiah includes numerous typologies and themes. The first section 25:1-5, and the new song in Chapter 26 foreshadow the sentiments in the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55). The reference to wine in 25:6 indicates a celebration of the first-fruits of the vine. The prophecy that “he shall swallow up death in victory” (25:8) is repeated in First Corinthians 15 (see below). And the analogy of being like a woman with child (26:17ff) is quoted by Jesus Christ in John 16:21, and indeed refers to the physical and emotional tribulations of motherhood.
Continuous Lection from First Corinthians
It is interesting to realize that in the compilation of the Armenian Version of the Holy Bible, the Acts of the Apostles is followed by the seven Catholic Epistles of James, Peter (1stand 2nd), John (1st, 2ndand 3rd), and Jude. After the Catholic Epistles follow the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the seven churches of the Romans, Corinthians (1stand 2nd, and uniquely to us, 3rd), Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Thessalonians (1stand 2nd). The Letter to the Hebrews (authorship debated) is followed by the Pastoral Epistles (authorship also debated) Timothy (1stand 2nd), Titus, and Philemon. The Revelation (which is addressed to the seven churches of Asia Minor) in the Armenian Version is followed by a section of the Acts of John which is called the Repose of John the Evangelist.
The Acts of the Apostles and the Catholic Epistles commence on Easter, and are read in continuous order. On Pentecost, we commence the Pauline Epistles, and likewise read them in continuous order so that by mid-August, we have arrived at the 15th chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Click here to see the text)
In First Corinthians 15:50 – 57, we are taught that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, and neither can corruption inherit incorruption. Furthermore, we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed, in the twinkling of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet. Recall the prophecy by Isaiah (25:8) that death shall be swallowed up in victory, which is quoted by Paul in 15:54.
Continuous Lection from the Gospel according to Mark
The four Gospels have been apportioned, rather equally, across the four seasons of the year. The ancient Armenian calendar is solar-based, and contains 12 months of 30 days each, with a concluding 13thmonth with 5 or 6 days to compensate for leap year. New Year, in ancient Armenia, commenced on the first day of the month of Navasart, which equates today to August 11.
It would appear that the Gospel according to Mark commenced in conjunction with the new year. Specifically, the Gospel of Mark was opened at the beginning of the 13th month (which would equate on or about August 5), and was read into the Autumn.
By mid-August, we would arrive at chapter 3 of Mark (Click here to see the text).
In this episode, Mark reports that Jesus went into a house (3:19ff), and so many people crammed inside to be with Him that there was hardly any room to move, let alone to go in and out of the house. At one point, people in the group brought attention to the fact that the mother of Jesus, as well as His brothers, were standing outside of the house, and were trying to gain entrance. Jesus then asks the crowd, “Who is my mother, or who are my brothers?” And then looking around at everyone, Jesus answers His own question by giving a definition: “Whoever will do the Will of God, that same person is my brother and my sister and my mother.”
A mid-point summary
Using the cycle of continuous lections which appears to be the earliest form of Scripture readings in the Church of the Armenians and commences on Easter Sunday, by mid-August, the Church is proclaiming the following Holy Scripture on that Sunday:
Genesis 23:1 – 20
Isaiah 25:1 – 26:21
First Corinthians 15:50 – 57
Mark 3:31 – 35
Drawing from these readings, we can identify several themes:
the description of the passing of the matriarch Sarah
the over-turning of the social orders; the celebration with the first-fruits of the vineyard; the vanquishing of death; and the ultimate triumph over pain through motherhood
the sound of the trumpet; the change in a twinkling of an eye from mortality to immortality, and from corruption to incorruption
the definition of Who is a Mother – and specifically, Who is the Mother of Jesus
Eschatological Sunday and Stational Commemoration
We can see that based upon the sequential usage of continuous readings, Sunday after Sunday, commencing with Easter, that the Church of the Armenians has received a divinely inspired collection of Old and New Testament lections to be proclaimed on a Sunday in mid-August. The themes of both being a mother and of being victorious over death become the centerpieces of the homily on that Sunday.
We have also learned that starting in the late-fourth century, as Christianity expanded and as the liturgical calendar was embellished, that there was a nearly universal observance of the commemoration of the Falling Asleep of Mary. In Jerusalem, this commemoration became fixed on August 15, and from Jerusalem, this fixed date may have been introduced into Armenia some time in the fifth century.
In Jerusalem, on August 15, they read the following lections:
Psalms 132, 133, 134, 135: responsorial verse Psalm 132:8
Song of Songs 4:9 – 15 and 9:6
Isaiah 7:10 – 16a
Galatians 3:29 – 4:7
Alleluia, based upon Luke 1:35a
Luke 1:26 – 38
(In a later amendment, this canon of lections has been assigned at the conclusion of the Morning Hour of Prayer. Then, during the Midday Synaxis, all of the lections are repeated, except that the Gospel is changed to Luke 2:1 – 7. Later that day, in conjunction with the Ninth Hour of Prayer, they again repeat all of the lections, except that the Gospel is changed to Luke 1:39 – 56.)
Owing to the regular course of the years, every seventh year, August 15 coincides with Sunday. This raises an important liturgical question: is the Church to continue with the eschatological observance of “Sunday” (which would include the lections cited above from Genesis 23, Isaiah 25-26, First Corinthians 15, and Mark 3), OR should the Church encourage the stational observance of the Falling Asleep of Mary (that is, the liturgy specific to August 15), and read the lections cited immediately above?
The quandary may have been resolved in the Church of the Armenians for more than a millennium by maintaining a standard liturgical pattern when a stational commemoration coincides with a Sunday (which is universally observed as a weekly commemoration of the Glorious Resurrection of Jesus Christ).
When a stational commemoration coincides with a Sunday, the Church of the Armenians first observes the stational elements during the course of the Morning Hour of Prayer (and again during the Evening Hour of Prayer that same day), and maintains the Midday Synaxis as the eschatological celebration of the Resurrection. So, when the commemoration of Mary coincides with Sunday, during the Morning Hour of Prayer, the Church observes the stational commemoration of Mary, and proclaims the following lections:
Psalm 132, 133, 134, 135: responsorial verse Psalm 132:8
Song of Songs 4:9 – 15 and 9:6
Isaiah 7:10 – 16a
Galatians 3:29 – 4:7
Alleluia, based upon Luke 1:35a
Luke 1:26 – 38
Then, during the Midday Synaxis (called the “Jashou Jham”) which precedes the offering of the Holy Eucharist of the day, they shall proclaim the following lections:
Midday Psalm of Sunday, Psalm 65, 66, 67: responsorial verse Psalm 65:1
Genesis 23:1 – 20
Isaiah 25:1 – 26:21
First Corinthians 15:50 – 57
Alleluia Psalm of Sunday, according to the Tone of the day
Mark 3:31 – 35
Later Liturgical Adjustments
It is unclear as to When and Why the Church of the Armenians eventually superimposed the stational commemoration of Mary (and its later form as the Assumption) over the eschatological Sunday observance for that day in mid-August. The development of liturgical practices, the embellishment of the hymnal, and the proliferation of patristic homilies in which Mary is venerated may have all contributed to the shift in the style of observance. Certainly the regularity of August 15 coinciding with Sunday would have also required a form of standardization, and somewhere in the course of liturgical history, the stational commemoration of Mary superseded the eschatology of that Sunday.
There are some interesting points which I would like to discuss in this regard.
I would suspect that when August 15 was adopted into the stational calendar by the Church of the Armenians, it was observed as a fixed date without much adjustment. In those years when August 15 coincided with Sunday, the usual policy would have been to relegate the stational observance to the Morning Hour of Prayer so that the eschatological observance of the Resurrection on Sunday would not be compromised.
Somehow, and at some time, the stational aspects of August 15 were superimposed upon the Midday Synaxis of the day, and consequently, the cycle of continuous lections and the eschatological liturgy dependent upon those lections were displaced.
It is important to note that today, the First Corinthians 15 and Mark 3 lections have been awkwardly shifted back from Sunday to the preceding Friday. At least both of these lections continue to be associated with a preparation for the commemoration of the Falling Asleep and Assumption of Mary. Sadly, neither the Genesis 23 nor the Isaiah 25-26 were accorded the same shift, and have been lost in the pages of liturgical history.
A Summary of Thoughts
The Church of the Armenians is a Bible-based church. In the proverbial “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” debates in liturgy, I am evermore convinced that the oldest layer of liturgical development in our Church is fundamentally based upon the meticulous and continuous reading of the Holy Bible. The reading cycles may be measured in weeks or in years, but regardless of the duration, the cycles of continuous lections evince the solid theology of our Church. The celebrations of motherhood, of the first-fruits, of the victory of the incorruptible Resurrection over corruptible death – all of these Biblical themes have been synthesized through nothing less than Divine Inspiration on a particular Sunday in mid-August. And so we join together to celebrate Who Mary is and What Mary fulfills according to the Will of GOD, and we repeat the joyous refrain: “Blessed are thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb!” (Luke 1:42).
G. Bayan. Le Synaxaire Armenien de Ter Israel; mois de Navasard (in Classical Armenian and translated into French). Patrologia Orientalis, Tome 5, Fascicule 3, No. 23. Turnhout, Belgique: Brepols, 2003; pp. 375-389.
Michel van Esbroeck. Aux origins de la Dormition de la Vierge: Etudes historiques sur les tradition orientales. Brookfield, Vermont: Variorum-Ashgate Publishing Company, 1995.
In Luke 2:35, Simeon the Aged prophesies that “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,” but it is unclear whether he was prophesying how Mary might die. Most scholars interpret it as a prophecy that Mary would be grieved, and indeed she was at the foot of the Cross. There is no indication that Mary passed away except by natural cause.
In the Armenian Version of the Bible, the name of the Virgin Mary appears only once outside of the Synoptic Gospels, in Acts 1:14. None of the Catholic Epistles or Pauline Epistles cites her name, and her name is not cited in the Fourth Gospel or in any of the other writings ascribed to John. The events of Pentecost in Acts 2 do not specifically indicate that Mary was present, though many pictures portray her sitting with the Apostles on that day.
In Greek, the term ascribed to Mary is “Theotokos”, the bearer of GOD; in an interesting variation, the Armenians employ the term “Theogenes”, the birth-giver of GOD.
Abraham Terian. The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy, with three early versions of the Protevangelium of James. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Athanase Renoux. Le Codex Armenien Jerusalem 121. Vol. 1: Introduction aux origins de la litrugie Hierosolymitaine lumieres nouvelles; et Vol. II: Edition compare du texte et de deux autres manuscrits. In Patrologia Orientalis, Tome XXXV, No. 163 et Tome XXXVI, No. 168. Turnhout, Belgique: Brepols; 1969 et 1971.
Thomas J. Talley. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. Second, emended edition. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; pp. 5 – 13.
Among various references, see the Directorium “Tawnacoyc / Donatsooyts” or Calendar of Feast-days, fasting-days, lections, and services of the Church of Armenia (in Armenian).5thedition. Jerusalem: Saints James Press, pp. 202-206 (Canon for the Assumption of the Holy Birthgiver-of-GOD).
See theDirectorium, ibid., p. 200.