by V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
What do the east and west mean in the Armenian Church? The door into the church is located on the west, and the Holy Altar welcomes us from the east.
In the beginning of the Liturgy of Hours, there is a beautiful ritual that demonstrate the meaning of east and west in the church context.
The Liturgy begins with the “renunciation of Satan and his every deceit…” (Հրաժարիմք- Hrazharimk). The clergy, along with the faithful, turn to west. After repeating the renunciation three times, the officiant turns to the east and recites: “and we turn toward the light of the knowledge of God” (եւ ապա դառնամք ի Լոյս Աստուածգիտութեան). He reads the confession of faith “we confess and we believe…” (Խոստովանիմք եւ հաւատամք...). This ritual demonstrates that the west represents the world and darkness. In contrast, the east is literally and spiritually the sunrise, the source of Light and from where the Son of Man will come:
“As the lightning comes from the East… so shall the Son of Man appear.” (Matthew 24:27)
The church door stands at the west of the church. We come from the world, from our daily routine, where we sin and feel spiritually tired. Crossing the threshold into church gives us a special feeling, a feeling of being in a sacred space. It’s difficult for us, with our finite lives and in our finite worlds, to understand the infiniteness of God. Thesacred space inside the church creates a place where we can better understand God’s infinite nature. Further, beyond stepping into a sacred space, we are crossing into the body of Christ.
“I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture”. (John 10:8)
That special feeling is caused by being in contact with the body of Christ. By entering the church, our fallen nature comes into communication with our Creator, Lord, and Savior. It allows us to become one body.
When man fell from his original nature, he was “sent out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. So He (God) drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:23-24)
A cherub guarded the door, as our fallen nature no longer permitted us to enter into God’s presence. By His life, torture, crucifixion, death, and resurrection, our Lord Jesus Christ erased the prohibition. He became the door to the sanctuary. By Christ’s grace, we are now permitted to stand before God.
When we enter through the church door, we leave the worldly clock outside of the church and enter into the divine liturgical cycle. Time passes differently inside the church. Outside, one rotation of the Earth marks one day, and one complete revolution around the sun marks one year. However, the church calendar itself is different from the earth’s calendar. When entering the church, we enter into God’s time. By crossing the threshold into church, we leave our finite time on earth behind and step into eternity, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Further, when we enter the church, we are counted by Christ. The Good Shepherd is standing at the door and counting his flock. Every single person matters to Him. When He calls us to follow Him, He becomes the door and He becomes the Church. In this way, we are safe and protected. (John 10:7-11)
There is a special ritual to enter the door of the Armenian Church which has fallen out of practice. When we enter, we look down the aisle, straight at the Holy Altar. We make the sign of the cross and kiss of the church door. Then, we bow. During this practice, the faithful recite the following prayers:
«Որ ըստ ամենայն միտս անցանես, զխաղաղութիւն քո տուր մեզ հանապազ, զքեզ աղաչեմ»։
“You that examine all our thoughts, always give us your peace, we beseech you.”
«Տաճար Աստուծոյ բնակարան Սուրբ Հոգւոյն, ի քէն սուրբ աւազանաւն կոչեաց յորդեգրութիւն Հօրն երկնաւորի։ Այսօր ի քեզ կամեցաւ պատարագել գառն անարատ։ Եւ ես դիմեալ եկի առ դուրս քո եւ աղաչեմ զքեզ, մաքրեայ զիս վերստին լուացմամբ եւ սրբեւ ի մեղաց եւ արա արժանի մտանել առաջի սրբոյ սեղանոյդ»։
“God’s Temple and Holy Spirit’s, home that called (us) to adoption by the Heavenly Father through the Holy Font. Today, the immaculate Lamp willed to be celebrated (sacrificed) in you. And I came at your doors to beseech you, cleanse me again with water, forgive my sins and make me worthy to come forth before you holy Table, to worship you, Amen.
Saying a prayer when entering church reminds us that we are stepping into a sacred place to be spiritually renewed and cleansed of the brokenness of the world. Accordingly, The faithful may recite any prayer at the door of the church. The church door is a reminder that Christ makes us worthy to enter, and further not to be left out. We are entering into the womb of the church, to be protected by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and born again in the cleansing grace of the Holy Font.
Members of the Armenian Church also remember our patron saint, St. Gregory the Illuminator, who was imprisoned in the pit of Khor Virab, which literally translates to “deep pit.” . With his ascension from the pit, he illuminated Armenia with Christian faith. It is the same concept of coming out of darkness and into the light of Truth and Salvation.
Finally, the faithful exit the door with a prayer. When leaving, we again face the Holy Altar, make the sign of the Cross, kiss the door and leave. That symbolizes the seal of protection, wherein the faithful leave the church renewed with light, forgiveness and grace. Similarly, when one stops looking at the sun, the warmth and the light from the sun can still be felt and seen. The faithful look the Light, the picture of Christ, in order not to lose His Light and image in their hearts.
When we leave, we pray for the church with a short sentence:
«Թագաւոր Երկնաւոր, զեկեղեցի քո անշարժ պահեա, եւ զերկրպագուս անուանդ քում՝ պահեա ի խաղաղութեան»։
“O Heavenly King, Preserve your Church unshaken and keep in peace those who worship your name”.