by V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
I have long believed that nothing in the Armenian Orthodox Church is without spiritual meaning. From an individual letter to the church dome, everything carries a spiritual meaning. Understanding the spiritual significance of the liturgy and liturgical items shifts and enriches our approach to the church.
I have always wondered, why do Armenian Churches seem to have the same type of old-fashioned chandelier? It is not a liturgical item. It is neither blessed nor consecrated. Why don’t churches light the sanctuary using a more modern lighting system?
I have been looking for the spirituality found in every aspect of our church, from the liturgy, to every corner of the physical church. I would have never thought that even the chandeliers might have any special significance.
Chandelier translates to Chah or Jah in Armenian. The Armenian word also means torch. There can be multiple Chah in any Armenian Church, but there is always a bigger one which hangs from the center of the dome. Generally, it is in the shape of a circle, with many lights, decorated with crystals. In the past the chandeliers were made up of candles or oil lamps. They used to be made of metal, and were sometimes adorned with biblical themes or figures. Today’s church chandeliers are similar in shape to older ones, but less ornate.
According to some sources, the circle symbolizes heaven, and the candles symbolize the souls of righteous people and angels, enlightening us on earth.
"Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the world of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain."
They reflect heavenly joy for the faithful in Christ. “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost! I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:6-7, emphasis added) The lights in the chandelier also remind us of the stars in the sky, which reinforce God’s promise to Abraham and Isaac, “I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 26:4).
Some saints’ feast days begin with Nakhadonag (Նախատօնակ), which takes place the night before the feast day. The celebrant stands in the middle of the church with his staff and cross, under the biggest Chah. When the hymn of the day begins, the lights of the chandelier are turned on. I had always thought that it was only meant to add solemnity to the liturgy. In fact, it reminds us that the angels in heaven rejoice with the faithful on the feast day. The best known instance occurs on the Saturday evening when the church starts celebrating the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Greek Orthodox monasteries use chandeliers during certain ceremonies. Monasteries on Mount Athos, for example, light and swing the chandeliers on the day of Pascha and when Polyeleos psalms (134 and 135) are chanted. The swinging chandelier symbolizes the presence of angels that rejoice with the faithful. Polyeleos- Πολυέλεος in Greek translates to “of much mercy,” and is also used to refer to the church chandelier in the Greek Orthodox Church. It symbolizes that God’s mercy over the faithful is unending. Further, the swinging chandelier during Pascha symbolizes two things: that the earth is shaken by the resurrection of Christ, and God’s creation praising the Lord.
The tradition of swinging chandeliers in the Eastern Orthodox Church adds a spiritual dimension to the church chandelier. Specifically, it recalls the upper room on the day of Pentecost. The apostles were gathered in the upper room, praying, offering supplications, and waiting for the promised one. The book of Acts describes:
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:2-4)
No clearer image of this biblical event exists than the chandeliers above the faithful in church. The church chandeliers cover nearly the whole span of the church. This closely parallels Pentecost, with the light of the church chandelier resting upon all of those present. Chandeliers have no special rites or consecration in the Armenian Church, but I believe they are symbolic of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the church, upon the faithful. We do not practice the tradition of swinging the chandeliers, but sometimes we can see them sway on particularly windy days.
Discovering this parallel between Pentecost and the church chandeliers completely transformed my view on church chandeliers. The Holy Spirit not only fills the church with God’s light, but also places that light directly above us. God’s guiding Spirit accompanies us and enlightens our journey with God. It’s often difficult to find imagery that represents the Holy Spirit, but merely glancing up inside the church sanctuary provides that reminder in the form of the chandeliers.
While we prepare to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the feast of the Holy Spirit, I hope that we start to see the Chahs from a spiritual angle. This will help us to feel His merciful and encouraging Spirit, especially when we recall the words that Jesus read from the book of Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me…” (Luke 4:18)