By V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
When you look at the Holy Altar of any Armenian Orthodox Church, you will notice the Armenian letter Է, carved or painted on the center of the Holy Altar. Է is the seventh letter in the Armenian Alphabet.
The number seven appears throughout the Bible. It symbolizes perfection, completeness and wholeness. Jesus Christ used the number seven in His teachings several times. (Matthew 18:22, Luke 17:4, Luke 10:1)
However, the letter Է on the Holy Altar has a deeper meaning than a mere numerical value.
The Meaning Behind the Letter Է
God, the Father
Jesus broke bread and shared wine with His apostles in the upper room, the vernadoon. The bema, the Holy Altar, is the vernadoon within the church. It is the holiest ground in the Church, which only an ordained person with church slippers can set foot upon. The idea of a holy place originates in the Old Testament, when Moses meets with God. When Moses approached God in Horeb, God instructed him through the burning bush, “do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” God called Moses to speak to the Israelites, and to tell them that they would be freed from their slavery in Egypt. Moses asked Him, “indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses.
“I AM WHO I AM.” (Genesis 3)
«Ես եմ, որ Էն»։
“Yes em, vor En.”
God revealed his name to man as AM, Yah (אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה) in Hebrew, or Է in Armenian. Accordingly, Է is centered at the top of the Holy Altar. In addition to serving as a symbol of the Holy Table of the Last Supper, the Holy Altar symbolizes the burning bush of Exodus. The Holy Altar is a holy place, where God’s name is confessed, His works are glorified, salvation is proclaimed and His nature is preserved. The Է on the Holy Altar signifies God’s presence in the church, with the congregants.
Isaiah’s vision further ties the burning bush to the altar. In his vision, Isaiah saw God’s throne, lifted high. His house was filled with smoke, Isaiah said:
“woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Then one of the seraphim flew to him, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched it, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.” (Isaiah 6:1-7)
This is the second instance in the Old Testament where fire is used to announce holiness. The procession of the Gospel arises directly from Isaiah’s vision. Prior to the scripture readings, the deacon receives the Gospel from the celebrant. Led by a lit censer, the deacon processes around the Holy Altar, incense leading the way. The deacon lowers the Gospel to the person who will read the day’s scripture readings, who stands in the middle of Tas in front of the Holy Altar. The person who will read the day’s scripture readings kisses the Gospel as a sign of their faith and devotion.
The Holy Altar, similar to the burning bush, signals God’s holy presence among us. Further, the Gospel is kissed by the deacon and scripture readers during the Divine Liturgy, tying God’s word to Isaiah’s vision.
Jesus Christ, the Son
According to the book of Genesis, God created the world and everything in it in seven days. God’s creation fell out of communion with Him because of Adam’s disobedience to God’s commandments. Jesus Christ, the second Adam, was incarnated to restore the relationship between God and His creation. The Church is the earthly kingdom of God. Christ made the Church with His love, teachings, and salvation.
Who is Jesus Christ that we are His Church and we declare His presence on the Holy Altar, with the letter Է?
Jesus uses the words “I AM” several times in the Gospel of John. With this phrase, Jesus declares His divine nature. God first uttered “I AM who I AM” to Moses from the burning bush. Accordingly, Jesus is both perfect God and perfect Man. The Է on the Holy Altar reminds us of Jesus’s divine and human nature. Jesus taught us that He fills these important roles in our lives:
1. I am the Bread of Life (John 6:35,48),
2. I am the Light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5),
3. I am the Gate (John 10:7),
4. I am the Good Shepherd (John 10:11;14),
5. I am the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25),
6. I am the Way and the Truth and the Life (John 14:6),
7. I am the true Vine (John 15:1-5).
Finally, when Jesus was dying on the cross for our sins, He uttered seven phrases before breathing His final breath.
1. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do…” (Luke 23:34)
2. “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
3. “Woman, behold John.” (Luke 19:26-27)
4. “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?”, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46)
5. “I thirst.” (John 19:28)
6. “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
7. “Father, ‘into Your hands I commit My Spirit.’” (Luke 23:46)
Accordingly, in addition to His divine nature, the Է reminds us of Jesus’s sacrifice.
Jesus promised His Apostles that they would receive the Holy Spirit. On the Day of Pentecost, the Apostles were gathered in the upper room. The Holy Spirit appeared, and with tongues as of fire, sat upon each of them. (Acts 2:2) When Moses heard God, God said “I AM” from the burning bush. Similarly, God revealed himself to the apostles with tongues of fire, and did not burn the apostles. The Է reminds us of the presence of the Holy Spirit atop the Holy Altar. Moreover, the Holy Spirit makes known to the congregants His seven gifts that are considered the actual presence of God. These are enumerated by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 11:1-2):
6. Piety, and
7. Fear of the Lord.
We find these spiritual gifts explored throughout the New Testament, for example in Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 4:7-13; and 1 Peter 4:10-11.
Further, we live and witness the mysterious work and intercession of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives through the seven sacraments of the Armenian Church:
6. Matrimony, and
7. Anointing of the sick.
This one letter carries so much meaning. It serves as a reminder of God’s existence and of God’s presence. It reminds us that God lives among and within us. It is easy to notice the letter at church, but it symbolizes a connection between our whole existence and the Holy Trinity. If we want to understand and feel the Է fully, we need to dedicate, devote and give our own existence to God. Է is more than a letter, or a reminder. It is an image of God.