by V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
After confessing his sins and asking for absolution, the celebrant, along with the altar servers ascends the stairs to the bema, while asking for God’s light and guidance.
At this point in the Divine Liturgy, the faithful have prayed for the celebrant in his prayers of confession. All of the faithful joined in the prayer, requesting God to forgive all of his sins and allow him to celebrate the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist filled with God’s spirit of grace. Only after confession and absolution can we truly turn to God. God gives us many chances to repent and get rid of our sins, because they prevent us from fulfilling our true nature, in communion with God. When we confess and ask for forgiveness, we restore the bridge joining us to our Creator, the source of our strength.
God is ready to forgive us as soon as we truly repent, but sometimes our nature does not lend itself to dissolving our sins. Some sins, like habits, take time and effort to cleanse from our lives. It is a process. God loves us through that process, because it helps us grow closer to God. The celebrant’s ascent up the steps to the Holy Altar illustrates this process. Further, the steps remind us that turning to God lifts us higher.
Let’s take a minute to think about the following: have you ever had a moment in your life when you turned away from God and took a different road? If you have, you are not alone. Many of us struggle at times, stop praying, stop going to church, even stop believing in God. Eventually, we may realize that we were wrong, or wake up feeling like we are drowning in a sea of sin. Even so, God does not stop loving us. He waits for us to turn back to Him. Sometimes, we are touched by a sermon, someone’s story, a book, or an incident in our life. At that moment, we feel that God is speaking directly to us.
Our Lord Jesus Christ shared a parable that illustrates God’s love and forgiveness, the parable of the Prodigal Son. The prodigal son wasted all of his father’s wealth that he was going to inherit. He left his father’s house. He lived without appreciating what he had, until finally he became homeless. He realized that he had been part of a wealthy family, but by wasting what he had been given, he had become nobody. He was reduced to eating the same slop that swine were eating. His father’s servants lived better than he did. He returned to his father with a repentant and broken heart. His father welcomed him back into his home and family with a warm heart. Moreover, his father threw a banquet to celebrate the return of the prodigal son.
Not only does God’s forgiveness erase our faults and mistakes, but it also elevates us. It enables us to transcend our fallen nature. He forgives us out of love, and raises us up to him from wherever we are. This is how we can see through the scene of celebrant’s ascending to the Holy Altar.
I invite you to contemplate a time in your life when God lifted you up. How did He change your life? How did His forgiveness and love make you a stronger person? These set the stage for the celebrant’s climb up the steps to the Holy Altar, where he dines at God’s banquet.
The celebrant recites Psalm 43 while climbing the stairs. The following verse encapsulates the spirit underlying this stage in the Divine Liturgy:
“Send out, O Lord, your light and your truth that they may lead me and bring me to your holy mountain and to your tabernacle.” (Psalm 43)
Confession and repentance differ from asking God for guidance. Confession is expressed once, but repentance is a process of change that takes place within us. It may be the hardest part of our lives, because we may need to make drastic changes to move forward. Climbing is always more difficult than walking. God has opened a road for us to climb, but our effort is key. We need His light to guide us. Those with experience hiking or climbing know that awareness of your surroundings is critical to safety. It’s important to be aware of where you are stepping, so you might not fall. Similarly, we need the God’s light to see where are walking, see our surroundings, and most importantly, have wisdom to guide us on our journey. What kind of things in your life stop you from becoming yourself? What takes your peace away? What drags you down? What sucks the joy out of your life? God’s light guides us peacefully and boldly.
How do you measure yourself? Where are you on this journey? Are you in the foothills, in the process of climbing or already atop the mountain? God has given you the grace to be with Him. God has given blessed us to surround His Holy Table and take part in His banquet. It can never be enough to thank and glorify Him for all of the love, forgiveness and guidance that He bestows upon us every second of every day.
After climbing the stairs and standing before the Holy Altar, the celebrant opens his hands wide and says: “Park Hor yev Vortvor yev Hokvuyn Srpo…” “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” He adores and bows down to the Holy Altar. God’s grace makes us worthy to stand at the Holy Altar with and through the celebrant.
(Armenian Divine Liturgy - Part 3)