Fr. Mesrop Parsamyan
The First Lent
There is a dramatic story in the Apocrypha* of the Old Testament, according to which when Adam and Eve were driven out from Paradise and lost God’s presence and love (because they sinned and didn’t repent), they mourned and fasted during five days in front of the gates of the Paradise. Although for the first time they experienced cold, dark and loneliness, they didn’t feel so much regret for having lost the Garden and its beauty, but for losing the intimate fellowship in the presence of God.
This was the first Lent in human history.
According to the tradition, the First Lent in the Armenian Church was initiated by St. Gregory the Illuminator in memory of the above-mentioned story. In 301 A.D. coming out of the Pit of Khor Virab St. Gregory ordered King Trdat and the people of Armenia to fast during five days before baptism, which is called Aratchavorats Bahk – First Lent.
The First Lent is specific only to the Armenian Church. However, it should be noted that in the ancient Church there was a custom to fast for five days before baptism. That period was called the “Fasting of Catechumens.” "Catechumen," in the early Church, was the name applied to one who had not yet been initiated into the sacred mysteries but was undergoing a course of preparation for that purpose. The meaning of the fasting of Catechumens was the purification of the five human senses from pagan impurity before getting baptized.
In the Armenian Church, the First Lent begins three weeks before the Great Lent. In ancient times Armenians used to eat only bread and salt during this fast. On those days it was not allowed to celebrate Divine Liturgy, and there weren’t any scripture readings either. Our Church Fathers explain that the Church observe this fast without scripture readings because this fast was established and kept by the Patriarchs who preceded the Law, Books, and Prophets.
Thus, three are three explanations regarding the name of the Aratchavorats Bahk – First Lent:
a) As the Lent of the First Parents and Patriarchs (Adam, Able, Seth, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.)
b) As the First Armenian Lent established by St. Gregory the Illuminator.
c) As the precursor of the Great Lent, which is also the First Lent in the Liturgical Calendar year.
In the Armenian Tradition, the First Lent (February 6-10, 2017) is a five day period of sincerity, self-recognition, and reflection. Abstinence, moderation, and sacrifice free us for meditation and the realization of the darkness of our world without God.
"Even now, declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God." (Joel 2:12-13)
Every soul that meets God through The Holy Spirit and, after that loses the grace because of the sin is passing trough the torments of Adam and Eve. The soul is ill and experiences a painful repentance for upsetting the Lord.
As the prophet Joel advised, we must "turn towards the Lord...with all our heart"-with honesty and humility. In this way, we are able to create a bridge between God and us. Through prayer, we communicate with God, express our love, ask for forgiveness.
The true understanding of any Lent (First Lent, Great Lent) rests on a firm tripod of prayer, abstinence, and charity. Lent reminds us that man is always confronted with choices that lead us to two paths in life. The first path is one of darkness, evil and sin. The second is that of light, God, righteousness, and goodness. At the juncture of these two paths stands the fortress of prayer, abstinence and charity, which leads mankind forward to seek perfection, to regain the lost Paradise. This is the purpose of First Lent in the Armenian Church.
*The term "apocrypha" comes from the Greek word meaning "hidden" or "secret." Apocrypha are usually written works, that are of unknown authorship, or of doubtful authenticity, or spurious, or not considered to be within a particular Biblical canon. They are not held equal to the Sacred Scriptures, and nevertheless are useful and good to read.