by V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
The Holy Sacrament of the ordination continues on Sunday during the Divine Liturgy. This is the day when the candidate for the priesthood becomes a new person and the servant of God. However, with this part, I will reflect on how the candidate becomes a new person and how the Armenian Church conducts the ordination.
It goes without saying that the ceremony of ordination is a sacrament, which means the Holy Spirit comes down upon the Church to mysteriously transform us for our salvation. In a nutshell, the sacrament serves for our salvation collectively and individually and not for our own personal desires.
If I were to summarize the spiritual meanings behind the sacrament of the priestly ordination, it would be as follows: a) coming forward with repentance and renouncing the worldly life, b) receiving the new vestment and a new name for becoming a new person, c) receiving the authority to bless people and conducting the holy sacraments, d) vowing in the monastic life.
a) Coming Forward with Repentance and Renouncing the Worldly Life. One of the essential factors of the priesthood is to leave the world behind and follow Christ. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself commanded His holy apostles that: whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple. (Luke 14:33). What does that mean for a priest? This means that any priest cannot be guided by earthly or physical desires, but by God’s words and spiritual life. All his life he shall see what others need and not what he needs. Moreover, his lifestyle should be completely different than any lay person.
Earthly desires do not leave room for spiritual and divine presence in one’s life. Earthly desires lead the person only to earthly things, but the spiritual desires elevate one to higher realities. Furthermore, the earthly desires capture us in narrow spaces, but the spiritual life and God’s grace free us from an imprisoning situation, so we can fly higher and seek God’s glory on earth. This is why during the ordination we witness how the candidate approaches the Holy Altar on his knees and during the hymn of “Asdvadzayin…” that is chanted three times, he turns to the people or to the west (which symbolizes the opposite the “darkness;” the opposite of the east) and renounces the world.
The translation of the chant:
The divine and heavenly gift, that ever fulfills the holy necessities of the Apostolic Church, now calls (the name) from the Diaconate to the Priesthood, for the service of the Holy Church; according to his own and to all this people’s testimony.
b) Receiving the New Vestment and A New Name. During the ordination, the ordaining bishop grants the authority to take on the new cloth (which is the vestment of priesthood for the holy sacraments), which means receiving the grace of representing Christ on earth. In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus described how the father brings out the best robe to cover his son with a new cloth, which means the renewal of a person.
After granting the authority of wearing the priestly vestments, the ordaining bishop calls the candidate to receive a new name, which is the most interesting part of the ordination. (Generally, the candidate will not know his new name, until this moment. Moreover, he does not choose it either). The bishop anoints the devoted one’s forehead and his both hands, by calling him by a new name, which reminds us of the holy baptism as a sacrament of being born again.
We learn from the Bible that some of Jesu's apostles were called by a new name, such as Simon as Peter, Nathanael as Bartolomeo or Jude as Thaddeus (with the Armenian history record), and even after the resurrection: Saul as Paul the apostle.
It goes without saying that receiving a new name or new vestments is not enough for becoming a new person. However, only God’s grace and a humble heart can allow a person to enter into the process of becoming new. As a matter of fact, God’s grace, which is the gift of God’s love has no other option than changing one’s heart to the better.
c) Receiving the Authority to Bless People and Conducting the Holy Sacraments. The Holy Sacraments are the holiest services in the Church that call the Holy Spirit to transform us for our salvation. That means no one can conduct a holy service with a nature that will be disrupted by death. That is why the ordaining bishop anoints the candidate’s hands with the sign of the cross, so he can conduct the holy sacraments. Moreover, he gives the gifts of the Holy Eucharist in the chalice to the candidate to receive the right of celebrating the Divine Liturgy.
Furthermore, conducting the holy sacraments is not simply celebrating or performing the liturgies, but it is receiving the grace and spreading it through people. It is the mission and the ministry of bringing God’s grace over people, make them disciples and working for God’s kingdom. In another word, conducting the holy sacraments means to have that kind of spiritual life and inner world that can carry God’s grace and spread it in the meantime.
d) Vowing in the Monastic Life. Before concluding the Divine Liturgy, if the candidate vowed to be a celibate priest, then an additional part is added to the ordination, which is the granting of the cowl of celibacy (Veghar in Armenian). Although, the Armenian Church has not the same dynamics of monastic life, because people in Armenia and the Diaspora are in need of spiritual nourishment. Nevertheless, the celibate priests are considered semi-monastic clergy, who might serve in parishes or in priestly brotherhood community. Therefore, those who are going to stay celibate, then by a special service receive the Veghar as a sign of his vow in monastic life.
The cowl of celibacy is a reminder to the priest that he is called to live all his life under God’s providence and commandment. He is called to keep his head (his entire existence) under God’s glory. Additionally, it symbolizes the prayer life as well.
The interesting spiritual fact behind the sacrament of priestly ordination is that the faithful witness the transformation of a person, who is called to serve God. As if, the Holy Church is giving a birth to a new child and people are present there. Naturally, any “birth” brings joy, love and togetherness, which one can experience it throughout the service. Moreover, when a new servant is called to be ordained as a priest, it is a sign of the Church’s growth and as believers, and members of the Church, we cannot be entangled in that circle without praying and enjoying the God’s grace.
After the ordination, the newly ordained priest will be isolated in a monastery for forty days to pray, meditate, and be prepared for the ministry. He will be disconnected from people and the world, so he can focus on himself and bestow God’s grace for his new journey. Only after 40 days, he will be able to celebrate his first Diving Liturgy and serve people. This period of time is founded by the Church Fathers in the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, when He was driven to the wilderness before His earthly ministry, right after His baptism.