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Answering the “Why” of Christmas

“Be patient; keep your heart stable. For the Lord is coming, and he is at hand.” (Epistle of St. James 5:8)

Most Christian churches lead up to Christmas with a period called Advent. Advent means “coming,” and refers to the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

In Armenian we call this lead-up period Hisnag—from the word for “fifty”—referring to the 50-day period of preparation anticipating the Nativity and Theophany of Christ (celebrated on January 6 in the Armenian Church).

Hisnag is a time to think about the why of Christmas: Why do we send greeting cards? Why do we beautify our homes with decorations? Why do we devote such attention to giving gifts, and to family gatherings? Against the hectic seasonal commercialism that can leave us exhausted and dispirited, it offers us a long period of time to search within our hearts, in order to seek out and overcome the obstacles standing between us and the miracle of Jesus’ birth.

The Armenian Church has some notable traditions that help us to experience Hisnag in its fullest sense.

Fasts

Advent in the Armenian Church endures about two weeks longer than in the Western churches. That’s why it’s called Hisnag: “The Fifty Days.” Three fasting periods, each a week long, are associated with this period.

First, Hisnag is introduced by a week of fasting, officially known as “The Fast to Begin Hisnag.”

Second, the fast following the third Sunday of Hisnag is known as “The Fast of St. James, Bishop of Nisibis.” The commemoration of that saint takes place on the concluding Saturday of the fast.

The third and final fast precedes “Armenian Christmas”: the Feast of the Nativity and Theophany of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s called “The Fast of the Nativity.”

For the remaining part of Hisnag (that is, between the formal week-long fasts), Wednesdays and Fridays are still observed as fasting days.

Feasts

Alongside the fasting days, the Armenian Church observes a number of feast days during the 50 days of Hisnag.

The Feast of the Presentation of the Holy Virgin to the Temple is celebrated on a fixed date, November 21—even if that date falls within a prescribed week of fasting. When that happens, the feast is celebrated liturgically, but fasting prevails in personal dietary matters.

The same goes for the Feast of the Conception of the Holy Virgin by St. Anna, which is always celebrated on December 9.

Hisnag is also a time for honoring some major Christian saints. These include:

  • St. Gregory the Wonderworker and St. Basil of Caesarea, the 4th-century founders of Christian theology
  • Sts. Thaddeus and Bartholomew, Holy Apostles of Christ and the First Enlighteners of Armenia
  • The Egyptian church fathers
  • Early bishops of the church like St. Clemens, St. Ignatius, St. Polycarpus, and St. Nicholas
  • St. James of Nisibis
  • King David, the royal ancestor of Jesus, who is commemorated as the prophetic author of the Book of Psalms
  • St. James the Apostle, known as the “Brother of the Lord”
  • St. Stephen, the church’s first deacon and its first martyr (or “Protomartyr”)
  • Sts. Peter and Paul, the Holy Apostles
  • Sts. James and John, known together as the “Sons of Thunder,” likewise Holy Apostles of Christ

Remembering these saintly figures, drawing lessons from their lives, is another way to “stabilize your heart” (as the Epistle of St. James puts it), and make ready for the imminent arrival of Jesus.

Your Gift to God

Most of all, when you embrace Hisnag, and try to live it in a meaningful way, it can open your heart to the gifts of God that surround us—and to the greatest gift of all: His Son. This Advent, re-dedicate yourself to Christ in action, thought, and prayer; improve your habits and give yourself back to God, as a sign of gratitude to Him.

—Paul V. Surenian adapted this post from various sources.

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