of the Armenian Divine Liturgy
by V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
The celebrant, along with the altar servers, enters the church from the vestry (Avantadun) and stands before the Holy Altar. The choir chants “Khorhourt Khorhin.” The celebrant washes his hands, then blesses the faithful with the sign of cross and confesses his sins, before ascending the steps of the bema.
Every single part of the liturgy has a special meaning and role in the journey of the church. Accordingly, it is important to participate in the entire Badarak, from the beginning to the end. Understanding every part of the Badarak helps us understand what role we, the faithful, play in the holy sacrament of communion. Even though we sit in the pews, sometimes silent and sometimes murmuring prayers, the faithful bring balance to the sacrament.
The first thing that the faithful witness at the beginning of the liturgy is the procession of the celebrant, vested in liturgical garb, into the church, along with a group of altar servers. The celebrant and altar servers are accompanied by the choir singing the hym “Khorhoort Khorhin” (O Mystery deep), which was written by Khatchadur Daronatsi.
To our eyes, the celebrant and altar servers are simply people walking down the aisle. The procession into the sanctuary by the priest and deacons has a profound spiritual meaning. It represents God’s manifestation to humanity through the life of Jesus Christ. God was born of St. Mary in the person of Jesus Christ, fully human and fully God, to restore God’s communion with man. Christ’s birth bestowed a new beginning for humanity, changing the our destiny from death to everlasting life. We celebrate the Divine Liturgy to change our lives, both collectively and individually, through the grace of life-giving Christ’s resurrection.
Let us see how.
John chronicles an encounter that Christ had with a group of Pharisees and Scribes who had caught a woman in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11)? They wanted to kill her because she committed a deadly sin, punishable by stoning according to the Law. Jesus challenged them, saying, “[h]e who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” (John 8:7) No one did. Jesus protected her with His grace and holiness. The same sinless person, Christ, who saved this woman and many others, was publicly executed. Once a year, the Israelites would lay their hands on lambs, symbolically putting their sins on the lambs, then sacrifice the lambs to cleanse sin. For this reason, Christ is referred to as the Lamb of God. Christ was condemned to death for our sins, carried our sins to the Holy Cross, died, and rose on the third day. The blameless Lamb of God was sacrificed for our sins.
In the liturgical context, the celebrant assumes the role of carrying the congregants’ sins. He emerges from the Avantadun to carry his flock’s sins to the Holy Altar for redemption. Why the priest? He is called to preach the Gospel and lead the flock to Christ. Whether he has completed his other duties, he will carry the sins of his flock to the altar.
The celebrant cannot carry the sins of many on his own. It is a heavy burden, and he is not Christ. The first words that the celebrant recites before the Holy Altar are for the intercession of the Mother of God. “Yev Vasu’n Srpohvo Asdvadzadznin parekhosutyann Der…”.
What is the first word that an infant pronounces? In most cases, that word is “Mama.” When we need help as children, we often call our mothers. The celebrant’s first words are to beseech help from the Holy Mother of God. He also asks for the intercession of all the saints, the present clergy, and the faithful. The faithful play an important role: they pray with and for the celebrant, so that he may have the strength to carry the sins of his flock and deliver the Holy Communion that will be celebrated at the Holy Altar.
If a soldier is going to battle to defend you, your home and your land, what would you say to that soldier? In the liturgical context, what would you say to the celebrant, or to God on the celebrant’s behalf? While the celebrant stands in for us, we join him with our prayers. That bridge connects the faithful to the Holy Altar. This connection is an important aspect of the Divine Liturgy. The spirit of the faithful moves from the sanctuary to the Holy Altar, and from the Holy Altar to the Kingdom of God.
The celebrant cannot ascend the steps to the bema, or approach the Holy Altar, without being physically and spiritually clean. Accordingly, the celebrant washes his hands, confesses his sins, and asks forgiveness and absolution for his sins. Everyone is called to be cleansed through the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, including the clergy. Without repentance, we cannot see the Kingdom of God. In addition, without confession and absolution, we cannot ascend the steps to the bema and celebrate the liturgy at Holy Altar. Therefore, when the celebrant ascends to stand at the Holy Altar, we also need to let worldly thoughts leave our mind, and free our spirit to receive the heavenly gifts.
During the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, we have the opportunity to spiritually lay our hands on the celebrant. This serves two purposes: a) to put our sins and worries on the celebrant, who will carry them to the Holy Altar, similar to the Israelite tradition of putting sins on the lamb; and b) to support his journey to meet the Body and the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.