(A Reflection on liturgical modes in the Armenian Church during Great Lent)
V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Sherneizan
Great Lent in the Armenian Orthodox Church is a very special liturgical period that plays a significant role among the faithful. Directly or indirectly, one can feel the differences between the Lenten and “non-Lenten” seasons. Some changes during Great Lent are very noticeable in the church for anyone who visits or attend any church. For instance, the curtains of the Holy Altar are closed all the time, Christ’s Crucifixion painting or icon is displayed in the middle of bema of the Holy Altar, and the Gospels are covered with black or darkened colors. In addition, kissing the Gospel is not allowed and Holy Communion is not delivered. These changes may sound strange, but they help the faithful to better understand the season of abstinence.
Why does the Church make these temporal changes during Great Lent?
Adam and Eve fell from their human perfectness, because of their disobedience to God. They lost their righteousness by exercising their free will and choosing to obey evil. Because of their act of disobedience, they lost God’s immediate presence and were cast out of the perfect world; the garden of Eden. Therefore, the liturgical changes represent the disabling of direct communication from God, which was the situation before our Lord Jesus Christ.
Although there are meaningful details about every single liturgical change, we reflect here on a very minor change that has a very beautiful and significant theological meaning.
The Armenian Orthodox Church liturgy has eight tones, also known as “liturgical modes” for hymns and sometimes for prayers -Աձ, Ակ, Բձ, Բկ, Գձ, Գկ, Դձ, Դկ– Mode I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII. These liturgical modes follow a certain order: The cycle of these modes repeats at the end of the last mode.
The day before Great Lent, on the feast of Poon Paregentan (Eve of Great Lent), whatever is the liturgical mode of the day, turns into Mode VIII (ԴԿ), which is the last mode. Interestingly and naturally, the Mode I (ԱՁ) falls on the feast day of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ (Easter). Moreover, from the first Sunday of Great Lent to the Sunday of the Resurrection of our Lord, the liturgical modes ascend from the last mode (Mode VIII ԴԿ) to the first one (Mode I ԱՁ). This is not simply liturgical mode changes, but there is a spiritual and theological meaning.
First, before reflecting on theological meaning of this little change in the beginning of Great Lent, it gives you a pause from your daily routine, because you are welcoming a spiritually renovating season. Besides changing your dietary or habitual routine, the melody of the entire liturgy changes. Those who chant, participate in, or attend the liturgy, especially during the hours prayer, can notice this change.
This symbolizes the Fall of the first human being, Adam and Eve, who were created by God and lived with a perfect, righteous and holy human being, but because of their disobedience they lost their perfectness. In another word, they fell from perfect nature to square one and now had to work to earn the righteousness.
It [Mode VIII ԴԿ] symbolizes the fall of Adam, when God spoke to Him for the last [time] and exiled him from Paradise. - St. Gregory of Datev (Book of Questions – Keerk Hartsmants, p. 642)
The Holy Bible shows us how God guided His children from their fallen nature to the grace of righteousness through centuries of human history. There was a wrong side beginning for man after his fall from the Garden of Eden, which we can understand as ԴԿ,and there was a new beginning after the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is why the mode of the liturgy naturally is practiced by ԱՁ.
Behind this little detail of liturgical change, we find a beautiful message. Our Lord Jesus Christ reminds us with these simple but very meaningful word: “The last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). In order to receive the grace of the Resurrection, which makes us new and justified human beings, we should begin Great Lent with humbled hearts. In the same chapter of Matthew, Jesus says: “whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). This means, Great Lent, through the plagal tone, teaches us to be servants of God by serving the church/each other, so that we can receive the grace of a New Life. In order to appreciate and understand the New Adam (Jesus Christ), who made us new through the grace of Salvation (ԱՁ), we must go back to the “last” (ԴԿ), like Adam, and humbly recognize and accept our sinful nature.
As one can notice, the core of Great Lent and reason of all gracious goodness, is the virtue of humility. Any rich or wealthy person would never want to go back to poverty and start everything from nothing. No one would love to feel again that s/he is nothing, because s/he has nothing. But, it is also a fact that when we have everything, we take it for granted and forget to appreciate what we have. The spiritual method of Great Lent is to take us back to the place where our forefathers started and to appreciate what a graceful life we have, because of our Lord’s holy sacrifice on the Holy Cross. That is the reason of the practice of changing liturgical or hymnal modes from upside to down.
Ezra Taft Benson, an American farmer, government official and religious leader has a beautiful word that reflects best, what it means bringing us down to the last: “He who kneels before God can stand before anyone”.Therefore, “Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Ps 95:6), so we can stand on our feet and celebrate the feast of Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.