by V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
On this Good Friday morning, at our breakfast in our monastery refectory, bishops and priests started to discuss why we tie hitch knots on the night of Maundy Thursday. It was a very interesting conversation. Each one shared what he thought to be the origin and purpose of tying the knots. I did not know the exact meaning of it either. To everyone’s surprise, we came up with a very rich and diverse meaning of this ritual. Accordingly, I decided to collect these origins in a single paper.
Maundy Thursday is referred to in Armenian as Khavarman Kisher (Խաւարման Գիշեր). It is one of the most touching Holy Week services, but especially so for the Armenian Orthodox Church. The service is centered around seven Gospel readings recalling the last days of Jesus’s life. The readings detail Christ’s final teachings, betrayal, suffering, torture, and condemnation. The service starts with thirteen candles: one large central candle, with eleven smaller lit candles, and one smaller candle unlit. The unlit candle symbolizes Judas Iscariot, who would betray Christ that evening. Six candles sit on either side of the central candle. The thirteen candles are placed before either a cross or a painting of the Crucifixion at the center of the altar. During the service, the candles are gradually extinguished, leaving only the large candle lit. The large candle symbolizes Christ, and remains the only candle lit to symbolize that Jesus was left alone to die on the cross.
The faithful listen to each Gospel reading, usually on their feet. In some Armenian Church communities, the faithful tie seven hitch knots on a white thread, one for each Gospel reading. After the service, they tie it on their wrist and keep them tied for forty days until Christ’s ascension. In Middle Eastern Armenian communities, people often stop at seven different churches during Khavarman Kisher, one for each Gospel reading, and tie one knot per church. This is a piety ritual that is not officially adopted by the church.
Some faithful believe that one must make a covenant with God when tying the knotted string onto their wrists. The covenant is kept until the Feast of Christ’s Ascension into Heaven (Hampartsum-Համբարձում). If the string is still on the faithful’s wrist on Hampartsum, it is removed and burned.
Many of those who tie the hitch knots do not know the meaning behind it. They have adopted the tradition from their families. It is beautiful to see faithful in church on this holiday every year, praying, thinking of their loved ones, and demonstrating their love by tying several strings for those that they love.
Visiting Seven Churches
Why do some faithful visit seven churches and listen to each Gospel reading in a different “church station?”
Jesus’s path to the crucifixion is venerated station by station and is known in Latin as the Via Dolorosa. Not being able to visit Jerusalem, the Armenian faithful in the Middle East developed a tradition of visiting seven churches on Maundy Thursday. Each of the seven churches corresponds to one of the seven steps of Christ’s journey from the His betrayal to His crucifixion. His death on the cross and entombment are commemorated on Friday, so not included in the Maundy Thursday service. The readings contain, in the following order, the events of Christ’s last night as follows:
1. Jesus’ betrayal by Judas Iscariot, and Jesus’ arrest
2. Jesus stands before Anas
3. Jesus stands before Chiapas
4. Jesus stands before Pilate
5. Jesus stands before Herod
6. Jesus stand appearance before Pilate a second time
7. Jesus’s condemnation to death
By walking from church to church, the faithful are walking in solidarity with Christ. Jesus endured a long and exhausting night before His suffering and crucifixion. The faithful, by journeying from church to church, feel the tiring and uncomfortable journey that our Lord Jesus Christ endured.
What is the spiritual meaning behind the Yot Gab?
Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, and Judaism all make use of strings meant to remind the wearer of his or her engagement with the Word of God through prayer. In the book of Exodus, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, God said:
“ It shall be as a sign to you on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the Lord’s law may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand the Lord has brought you out of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:9)
Although it is not mentioned in the Holy Bible, our Lord Jesus Christ practiced this ritual of prayer. If He did not practice it, the Gospels would have chronicled criticism by the Pharisees and the teachers of law for breaking the law of prayers.
Further, binding or wrapping thread around one’s arm or hand serves as a reminder of God’s commandment of love. During Maundy Thursday, the faithful tie one hitch knot for each Gospel reading. In this case, the Gospel readings detail Christ’s betrayal and suffering. Accordingly, it reminds us that Christ’s ascension would not have been possible without His suffering and crucifixion. In other words, it bridges the holy sufferings of Christ with the glorious salvation through His resurrection.
Hitching knots at every Gospel reading helps the faithful focus on God’s image. By listening to the Gospel, we witness Christ’s betrayal, suffering, and crucifixion on our behalf. We become witnesses to salvation (Vgayk Krisdosi-Վկայք Քրիստոսի-Քրիստոսի Վկաները). The Yot Gab is a physical sign that we were there. We witnessed our Lord’s final path. We followed him during his betrayal, trial, and crucifixion, and we will follow him to His ascension into heaven. Even while His apostles left, the faithful follow Him to his arrest and trial. This tiny thread is a tangible reminder not only of our covenant to remember His sufferings and crucifixion, but also to celebrate His resurrection. You promise God to spread His love.
The tradition of tying knots is also thought to come from the Bible. Binding in the Biblical context refers to confining, or forbidding, evil. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19) Therefore, tying, or binding, knots with the thread reminds the faithful of Christ’s victory over death and sin by His resurrection. They join in the prayers of binding evil by reading the Gospels proclaiming Christ’s triumphant victory over death. In another words, the evil one is bound again through the power of the Gospel.
Khavarman Kisher marks the climax of evil’s aggression against our Lord Jesus Christ. The faithful’s tying of the hitch knots, accordingly, means the following:
1. Becoming witnesses of Christ’s betrayal, suffering, and crucifixion,
2. Reinforcing that the evil one, sin, and death are bound by the crucifixion of Christ,
3. Remembering His suffering and appreciating His resurrection,
4. Promising to keep following Him, and
5. Committing to keep Christ’s commandment to love.
The Yot Gab is a beautiful spiritual tradition, rich in meaning, that tangibly ties the faithful to our Christian faith. It enriches the faithful’s experience in our faith and serves as a daily reminder of Christ’s sacrifice. Due to the global pandemic, Maundy Thursday was commemorated in churches without faithful filling the pews. However, this year, the faithful were able to watch from home as the clergy also participated in this beautiful tradition.