At Armenian Churches, a distinct observance today
Today the Armenian Church, one of the most ancient branches of Christianity, celebrates the birth of Jesus. One wonders, admittedly a bit fancifully, if there is a lesson in the Armenian practice for the many Christians who desperately wish that the religious meaning of Jesus’ birth could be rescued from angry culture wars and commercial frenzy.
For the Armenian Church, today’s holy day is the Feast of the Theophany. Other Christians will also be celebrating Theophany as a major religious feast today or, in some of the Western churches, where the day is commonly known as Epiphany, tomorrow. But over the centuries the focus of the day has come to differ within the different strands of Christianity.
What is common to all of them in its celebration is captured in the derivation of the feast’s name from Greek, combining “theos” or “god” with “phainein” meaning “to show forth”. Thus “Theophany” means “divine manifestation”. [“Epiphany” is simply “manifestation”].
In the East, the Orthodox churches, which do not include the Armenian, place their focus on the manifestation of Jesus as God’s son when, as related in three of the four Gospels, he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. In the West, the focus has come to be the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles symbolized by the visit of the gift-bearing Magi.
In the early centuries of Christianity, the many manifestations of Jesus, from the Annunciation to Mary right through his first miracle, at the wedding feast in Cana, and of course including his birth, were celebrated together, at least in some parts of the East, and especially on January 6. In the absence of any scriptural basis for precisely dating these events, that day emerged for symbolic reasons, probably related to the Egyptian calendar that placed the winter solstice at this time.
In the fourth century, however, the birth of Jesus was increasingly celebrated separately on December 25, first in Rome and later in the East. Again, most scholars attribute this to a Christian effort either to appropriate or to supplant the religious themes of the imperial Roman cult of the sun, which was in turn related to the dating of the solstice by the Roman, or Julian, calendar.
Only the Armenians, who were not part of the Roman Empire and therefore not faced with a competing imperial cult, never accepted December 25 or in fact any separate date for celebrating Jesus’ birth.
Instead, the Armenian Church maintained in the one Feast of Theophany the linkage of Jesus’ birth, which will be emphasized in today’s services, and his baptism, to be emphasized tomorrow, when a cross will be immersed in water. Indeed, the liturgy retains echoes of the whole series of “theophanies,” or divine manifestations.
Please Note > The story of dates for celebrating Jesus’ birth is further confused by the fact that some parts of Eastern Orthodox Christianity still follow the Julian calendar in their Church life rather than the 16th-century reformed Gregorian calendar. By the Julian calendar, December 25 falls on the modern calendar’s January 7 and its Eve on January 6, while Theophany comes 12 days later, on the modern January 19. In any event, these Orthodox Churches celebrate the two feasts, marking birth and baptism, on separate days.
Do Armenian Christians in the United States celebrate the December 25 holiday with gifts, Christmas trees and all the rest? Yes, they do, especially those here for generations, said the Very Rev. Vahan Hovhanessian, pastor of Holy Martyrs Armenian Church in Bayside, Queens, although there is also a custom, carried over from the Middle East, of exchanging gifts on New Year’s Eve.
But Armenians maintain a clear mental distinction between the American culture’s Christmas, Father Vahan said, and the Armenian Church’s religious celebration of Christ’s birth on Theophany. Armenians churches will be packed today, he said, people will be lined up on the sidewalk outside Holy Martyrs.
Other Christian leaders may observe this distinction with a degree of envy. Many say that they feel trapped and wearied not only by the commercialization of Christmas but also by the culture warriors who are eager to embrace that commercialization in a strangely conceived campaign to keep the culture Christian or, as Stephen Colbert might say, “Christianish.”
“Instead of putting the Christ back in Christmas, maybe we should just take him out,” the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer before Christmas. “In the battle between the Christians and the marketers,” he wrote, “the marketers have won, decisively.”
Father Martin’s “modest proposal” was to “give Christmas to the corporations” and find a new date for a “New Christmas”, “a nice, quiet, shopping-free, religiously grounded holiday.” His suggestion? “Around, say, June,” when Flag Day would be its only serious competition.
But maybe the Armenian celebration of Theophany is more promising. Tied as the feast is to the whole panoply of what Christians hold as divine manifestations, it might prove easier to keep the “theos” in Theophany than to keep Christ in Christmas.
Not that anyone should ever underestimate the power of the marketers. How long would it be, after all, before advertisements began appearing on January 7: “Only 364 shopping days till Theophany”?