By V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
On April 22 each year, people around the world celebrate Earth Day. First held in 1970, Earth Day centers around environmental protection and awareness. Would you believe that the Armenian Orthodox Church has been celebrating Earth Day for centuries? Our liturgical calendar features Askharamadran Giragi (Աշխարհամատրան Կիրակի) or Ganatch Giragi (Կանաչ Կիրակի) – Green Sunday. It takes place on the third Sunday of Easter, and is a day focused on celebrating God’s creation on earth. This year, we have the fortune of having both events within a week of one another, with Green Sunday taking place on April 26.
Ashkharhamadur-Աշխարհամատուռ combines the words of world (Ashkharh) and chapel (Madur). It is the commemoration of the establishment of the first Church in the Upper Room, in Jerusalem. The apostles gathered in the Upper Room to pray with the faithful. (Acts 1:12-14) This is how Christ’s church started on earth, after His glorious resurrection, and from where the Armenian Orthodox Church draws its origin.
The connection between humans and the earth was born from the moment of creation, when God created humans from soil (Genesis 2:7). Man has earth in his nature. The very first commandment given to Adam and Eve was to “[b]e fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on earth.” (Genesis 1:28) God gifted humans the earth as their kingdom, calling man to exercise stewardship over His creation. As children of the Creator, man owned the earth.
Humans were created sinless, but fell from our original nature when Adam and Eve failed to keep God’s commandments. The sin that caused mankind’s fall impacted all of creation, causing natural disasters as well. All of humanity was left out of the garden of Eden, and from direct communion with God. The Holy Bible says, “at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24) Disobeying God’s word reflected that the first humans did not appreciate nature. We lost the Garden of Eden, and dominion over the earth.
Accordingly, our Lord Jesus Christ came down from heaven to save His children and the whole of creation from our broken and sinful nature. The parable of the prodigal son beautifully illustrates this point, as well as the extent of God’s forgiveness. At the conclusion of the parable, the father asked the servants to put a ring on his son’s finger. The ring is a symbol that the son again became the inheritor of his father’s domain. This parable illustrates that Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection restored humans to our place as inheritors of His creation. With His sacrifice on the Holy Cross, Jesus opened the gates to the real garden of Eden, His kingdom in heaven. The church represents God’s kingdom both physically and spiritually, where all of His children are called to partake in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When we enter the church door, we enter His kingdom.
When we celebrate the feast of the first church, we celebrate that the relationship between humans and the earth was renewed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus died for all of God’s creation, including the earth that we live on. Christ’s resurrection restored to humans our first calling, to have dominion over the earth. Dominion does not mean to dominate, but to take care of it as one’s own, to protect it and fill it. Moreover, dominion in this sense is synonymous with stewardship. Christ reminds us that we are the salt of the earth. (Matthew 5:13) He uses the word “earth,” not “world,” which is significant. Jesus taught us to be good stewards of our earth with His parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13).. Accordingly, God gave us our original calling of caring for the earth, and Jesus’s resurrection restored that calling.
Our history, specifically the late Ottoman massacres and genocide, prevented us from preserving all of our church practices. The church calendar, however, was not lost. We still celebrate Green Sunday. Traces of its origins can still be found in the Armenian Liturgy today. Specifically, the Armenian Orthodox Church celebrates a beautiful ceremony called Antasdan (Անդաստան-Field-Land). Specifically, the congregation prays for the earth and all living things on earth. The officiating priest and altar servers turn toward each ordinal direction and bless the earth with the Holy Cross and the Gospel, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Big feast days include Antasdan as part of the service. On Ashkharamadran Sunday, our church fathers included an Antasdan service in the morning service. It used to be celebrated in people’s vineyards and gardens, and is still celebrated today.
The church calendar contains many other occasions for blessing the fruits of the earth: blessing of grapes, blessing of pomegranate, blessing of olive branches, blessing of water, and many others. These days are all small parts of the spirit that weaves its way through Green Sunday. Green Sunday should remind us all that we are called to be good stewards of the earth. This makes it all the more important to teach and preach about protecting our environment, with abuse of the earth for business and profit so commonplace.
God blessed this soil, and inundated the church with His sacred presence. The church is called to keep His creation as holy as it was created. As children of the new Eden, we are called to be salt, and to be good stewards of the earth. Ashkharamadran Giragi marks a beautiful occasion to reevaluate our relationship with God’s creation, and plan to be better stewards.
With that, I would like to say Pari Ganatch Giragi, which means Happy Earth Day or Happy Green Sunday!