by V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
Before the “Sanctus,” the celebrant lays his hands on the Eucharistic Gifts in the shape of a cross. He prays the preface to the Anaphora in silence.
There is a very special act in the Armenian Divine Liturgy that the faithful can barely see, but it has a deep spiritual meaning that I would like to share with this article.
Before the celebrant chants, “yev u’nt serovpes…,” he prays on the Holy Gifts in a low voice. While he prays, he forms his hands in the shape of a cross and lays them on the Holy Gifts until the choir sings “Surp, Surp…” When he starts singing “yev u’nt serovpes…,” he brings his hands down from the chalice. I have always wondered why the celebrant does this. I have searched in many books to find an explanation, but never found mention of it. One day, I was inspired to search out its parallel in the Old Testament. This helped me understand the spiritual meaning behind this beautiful act.
In the book of Leviticus, God explained to the Israelites how they should bring their offerings before the Tabernacle to sacrifice for their sins. When a person unintentionally sins, they would bring an offering to the Tabernacle, where an anointed priest would lay his hands on the offering before sacrificing it. In Hebrew, this act is called semicha, which literally means “laying.” This act “transmitted” the sins to the offering. In this way the sacrifice would shed its blood on behalf of the sinner. Because the anointed priest represents the people before God, he performs the semicha. (Leviticus 1-35)
Nature’s law is very simple: each individual bears the consequences of their mistakes. It seems totally fair. God gives us consciousness, rationality, and freedom of choice. Therefore, we are responsible of our actions. If we make a mistake, we must bear its consequences. God knew the terrible price that humans would pay as a consequence of sin, because it eventually leads to death. Sin opens a gap between humans and God. God is the source of life. Therefore, sin takes us away from life. God gave the Israelites the opportunity to cleanse their sins by transmitting their sins on an offering by laying their hands on it. This made an offering “bear the consequence” and cleanse the Israelites’ sins. This follows a pattern. In Exodus, for example, God redeemed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and from the death of their first-born, by the shedding of lambs’ blood. (Exodus 11) Only the sheding of blood can save us from the consequences of sins, in particular from death.
St. John the Baptist described Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God. He “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). God offered His Only-Begotten Son Jesus Christ as the Lamb who carries and bears the consequences of our sins. He was taken to the courts like a lamb to be slaughtered. Ultimately, He did nothing wrong, performing miracles and healing the sick. He came to earth not only to teach us the Truth, but He also offered Himself for our sins. He died on the Holy Cross and rose on the third day so that we see not death as a result of our sins, but resurrection. He made the greatest sacrifice in the humanity. Once and forever, He washes away our sins and redeems us through His blood.
During the Divine Liturgy we celebrate Jesus’s life. We also commemorate His sacrifice for us. We participate in our redemption through His sacrifice. Every time we celebrate the liturgy, we are cleansed of our sins. The moment when the celebrant lays his hands on the Holy Gifts of the Eucharist, we transmit our sins to Christ, the Lamb of God. He washes us of our sins by His body and blood. God is love, completely pure. God graces us with His great love.
What can I do, sitting in a pew, to feel the spirituality of this moment?
We should realize, at this point, how often we have sinned. We did not repent. We need the Liturgy to relieve us from the burden of sin. This understanding helps us value His salvation and His grace. At this moment, we should feel as if we are laying our hands, our hearts and our souls on the Holy Gifts, the body and blood of our Lord. We should entrust our sins to Him. We should confess our sins and lay them on the Lamb of God, and receive resurrected life in return. We should transmit our suffering, difficulties, weaknesses, addictions, past, present, and future to our Lord. We should lay our hearts on the Gifts with gratefulness and bitter-sweetness. Later, we will receive that body and blood physically. Feeling Christ’s great love, we cannot help but to repent for our sins, and love Him in return. Trusting our hearts to Christ changes our lives.
And then, we whole-heartedly sing and rejoice: “holy, holy, holy Lord of hosts; Heaven and earth are full of your glory…”