by V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
Every facet of the Divine Liturgy bears spiritual meaning. The hymns, the vestments, the movements, as well as the physical church all bear spiritual meanings. In addition, the structure of the Liturgy carries its own spiritual meaning.
The Armenian Divine Liturgy is divided into four main parts:
1) Preparatory Service (Badrasdoutyoun-Պատրաստութիւն) is the first part of the liturgy. The celebrant prepares himself by vesting, confessing before the faithful, ascending the Holy Altar, preparing the gifts of the Holy Communion, and blessing the faithful by procession.
2) Liturgy of the Word or Midday Office/Synaxis (Jashou Bashdon/Pani Badarak - Ճաշու Պաշտօն-Բանի Պատարագ). This focuses on the Word of God, and teaching and proclaiming our faith in the Holy Trinity. During this part of the liturgy, there are three readings: a prophetic reading, an Epistle reading, and a Gospel reading. It concludes with the Nicaean Creed.
3) Liturgy of the Faithful (Havadatselots Badarak – Հաւատացելոց Պատարագ). This is the main part of the Liturgy, which is conducted over the gifts of the Holy Eucharist. The celebrant asks the Holy Spirit to descend upon the Holy Altar and transform the Eucharistic gifts into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. It concludes with the distribution of the Holy Communion.
4) Dismissal Service (Artsagoum - Արձակում). This is the last part of the Divine Liturgy. It starts with hymns of thanksgiving for the Holy Communion, followed by another Gospel reading and blessings of dismissal. Generally, the requiem service takes place here.
I will focus on the main body of the service, which consists of the Liturgy of Word and the Liturgy of the Faithful. Understanding the structure of the Divine Liturgy adds another level of spirituality, helping the faithful get in closer contact with God.
In the early church, the liturgy was bifurcated in two: one for the catechumen and one for the faithful. The faithful are those who have been baptized into the church, whereas the catechumens are learning about their faith in preparation of baptism. The Liturgy of Word was organized in a way for the catechumens to hear and learn God’s word, and eventually be baptized as Christians. At the end of the Liturgy of the Word, the catechumens would move to the rear of the sanctuary, and the Liturgy of the Faithful would begin. We no longer practice this movement, as most attendees are baptized members of the church. Why do we still have this structure and how can we use it to enhance our liturgical experience?
I once asked my theology teacher how to receive the “fruit of the Holy Spirit.” (Galatians 5:22-23) He answered, “through listening to and practicing God’s words.” If we want to allow the Holy Spirit to work within and through us, we must first listen to the Word of God. God’s word activates the Spirit’s presence in us. Through Baptism and Chrismation, we receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. It stays in us forever. Grace works through us when we open our hearts to God through listening to and accepting His words. Accordingly, the Liturgy of the Word focuses on the Word of God. It connects the human mind to the soul. The brain can control our entire body. The way we think can impact on both our physical and spiritual wellness. The liturgy builds our spirit, lifts us up, and connects us with God. The word creates space in our mind, and the liturgy, helps us focus on our spirit. The liturgy provides the faithful with intellectual nutrition and then spiritual nutrition. The Apostle Paul says: “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discern of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12). God’s words revive, redeem, and strengthen. They provide powerful nutrition for our path to the Holy Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
We have three opportunities to listen the Word of God: a prophetic reading, an epistle reading, and a Gospel reading. We use the intellectual power from the readings to prepare the ground for the Spirit to work within and through us.
The second part of the main liturgy, is called the Liturgy of the Faithful. The pace and the intensity of the liturgy change, particularly after the arrival of the Holy Gifts on the Holy Altar. At that moment, we ask the Holy Spirit to descend on the gifts and make them the true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The celebrant turns, chalice in hand, for the faithful to see the Holy Eucharist.
As we attend the Liturgy more often, we become more familiar with the hymns, the chants, and the flow of the service. It becomes easier to let our spirit feel the divine presence. We can close our eyes and let the living Spirit flow like a river within us. We are able to taste the fruit of the Holy Spirit through “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22) These show the Holy Spirit’s presence within us. It gradually grows and strengthens when we allow the liturgy to work through our intellect to our spirit. We need to concentrate and let our spirit connect with the divine presence. We must give our inner emotions, thoughts and feelings over to the Holy Spirit, who will show what we need at that moment.
The structure of the Armenian Divine Liturgy recalls another biblical fact. God dwells in creation. The Holy Bible begins with: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2) God prepared the ground, His Spirit hovering over the surface. God prepared that ground with His Word, followed by His Spirit was hovering on the waters. This parallels with the approach of the Armenian Divine Liturgy.
The Liturgy offers us a spiritual experience. In order to experience it fully, we need to dedicate time to understand it. It offers us an opportunity to slow down and focus, allowing God to dwell in us. Miracles can happen when we let the Spirit flow abundantly into and within us.