by V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
It is impossible to miss the Gospel reading during an Armenian Church liturgy. Even though it may not be understood by the faithful, everyone knows that the Gospel is being read.
The Gospel reading is part of almost every service, sacrament and the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church. What is the spiritual tie between the Gospel and the Armenian Church?
What does the Gospel represent?
The Gospel book that we use during services is called Avedaran (Աւետարան). It only contains readings from the four synoptic Gospels. The Avedaran is covered with metal crosses, images of the Gospel writers, and angelic motifs. Sometimes, it is completely covered in metal. Every Armenian church has at least two: one on the Holy Altar, which is called Avedaran Jashu and one on the bema, Avedaran Adeni, each on a book stand.
Clergy and faithful adore and honor the Avedaran Adeni by kissing it and making the sign of the cross. The conclusion of each service is conducted from the chancel, at ground level. After the final prayer, a deacon or clergymember holds the Avedaran and the faithful may approach the altar and kiss the Avedaran prior to exiting the church. The Armenian Church also has a practice in which the faithful kiss the Avedaran Adeni which is on the bema after taking holy communion.
Adoring and honoring the Gospel is not only an expression of love and faith. This practice contains a much deeper mystery and meaning.
Jesus is represented as the Word of God in the Gospel of John. He said: “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Jesus is the incarnation of the Word of God. The Word is not made of tangible material; It cannot be touched. When Jesus became flesh, we could touch Him, and be touched by Him. The four Gospels record the life and the ministry of the Word of God. They paint for us the image of Christ. We do not know what He looked like, but thanks to the Gospel writers, we know about His nature and His being. Therefore, the Gospels are akin to the image of Christ, painted with words. Further, they contain the Christ’s life-giving words. Accordingly, the Avedaran is more than a holy book. It is the image of Christ, the incarnation of the Word, described by words. When we touch the Avedaran, we touch the image of the Word and receive His blessing.
Jesus did not heal people merely by touching them, but also with His words, without touching them at all. The Gospels record three occasions when Jesus healed people without touching at all;
1. The Centurion’s Servant (Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10),
2. The Canaanite Woman’s Daughter (Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30), and
3. The Ten Lepers (Luke 17:11-19).
Jesus’ words bestow grace and heal those who believe in Him. The Gospel is a manifestation of that grace. We receive blessing by touching and kissing it, if we do so with faith and with His image in our hearts.
Each Avedaran found in the church is placed it its respective location for a different reason. The Avedaran Jashuplaced on the Holy Altar reminds us that the Word of God is the center of the church teaching. The Avedaran Adeniplaced on the bema reminds the faithful that that the Word of God was incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ, and lived among us.
The Gospel Reading During the Divine Liturgy
During the Divine Liturgy, the Gospel is always read following a ritual between the censing deacon, the priest, and the choir. When the Gospel is read by one who is carrying it in his hands, he covers his mouth with the Avedaran during the reading. The meaning behind this is that the Gospel text being read consists of God’s words, not the readers. It is meant to evoke the imagery that God is speaking, not the reader.
The ritual follows:
Deacon - Ալէլուիա, Օրթի։ - Aleluia, Orti (Greek Word). – Alleluia. Stand up!
Priest - Խաղաղութիւն Ամենեցուն։ - Khaghaghutyun Amenetsun – Peace to All.
Choir - Եւ ընդ հոգւոյդ քում։ - Yev Unt Hokvuyt Kum – And with your spirit.
Deacon - Երկիւղածութեամբ Լւարուք։ - Yergughadzutyamp Lvaruk – Listen attentively.
Priest - Սրբոյ Աւետարանիս Յիսուսի Քրիստոսի։ - Srpo Avedaranis Hisousi Krisdosi Vor usd … - To the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to ….
Choir - Փառք քեզ Տէր Աստուած մեր - Park kez Der Asdvadz Mer – Glory to you, o Lord our God.
Deacon - Պրոսխումէ – Broskhoume (Greek Word) – Be attentive.
Choir - Ասէ Աստուած - Ase Asdvadz - God is speaking.
This portion of the liturgy draws from several sources. The earliest is the book of Exodus, when God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai. People witnessed God speaking to Moses for the first time from the foot of the mountain:
“On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled … Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently.”
St. Gregory of Datev explains the ritual in the following way:
1) The book stand (Kragal) symbolizes Mount Sinai,
2) The deacon’s exclamation of Orti and Broskhume symbolize the thunder and lightning that snapped the Hebrews’ attention,
3) The Gospel is the Voice and the Word of God,
4) The sound of the censer (Purvar) symbolizes the sound of trumpets,
5) The charcoal in the purvar symbolizes the fiery presence of God on Mount Sinai,
6) The clouds of incense represent the thick clouds around the mountain.
The Gospel readings contain Jesus’ teachings. One of His central moral teachings, is known as the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5,6 and 7) The Sermon on the Mount is often connected to Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Law. In the same way that Moses proclaimed God’s Law from Mount Sinai, Christ gave His listeners the beatitudes, expanding our understanding of God’s Law.
Spiritual Reflections on the Gospel Reading
I suggest the following spiritual reflections during the service’s Gospel reading:
1) We are on the mountain with God. We are not at the foot of the mountain, among the thunder, lightning, and smoke. We are in His sanctuary, in His presence.
2) God is speaking directly to us. The Gospel consists of His words and His voice, all of which were stated while He walked among us.
3) God’s image is painted in front of us. Jesus is the incarnation of the Word. The words of the Gospel paint His spiritual image for our souls to embrace.
4) We have direct physical contact with Jesus Christ by touching a book, the Gospel.
In doing so, the words will come alive in our hearts and our lives. This encapsulates why the deacon and the choir exhort the faithful to “be attentive!” We engage with the Gospel with four of our five senses: we see the Avedaran, the smoke, the censer, the choir, and the altar servers; we hear the Gospel reading, the choir’s voices, and the clanging of the censer; we smell the incense; and we touch the Avedaran. Drawing our attention to these features, we can more fully take in and engage with the Gospel reading, and better understand why we need to be attentive.