By V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
Vernadoon literally means “upper room” in Armenian. When someone uses Vernadoon in the church context, they refer to the upper room of an Armenian Church. The Vernadoon is situated above the entrance door, on the west side of a church. The church choir usually sings from the Vernadoon. Did you know that the real Vernadoon is exactly opposite from the entrance of the church? The real Vernadoon is located atop the bema, on the Holy Altar (Soorp Khoran-Սուրբ Խորան).
Over time, people’s understandings of terms shift from their original meanings. The Armenian Church is particularly susceptible to this shift, with centuries of ecclesiastic and cultural history.
The Armenian Church builds the Holy Altar, atop the bema, which resembles a stage. The bema elevates the Holy Altar above ground level. It is the holiest ground of the church. Accordingly, no one may ascend the stairs to the altar, unless they are ordained and wearing church slippers. This mirrors God’s instruction to Moses when Moses approached the burning bush. God told him to take off his sandals, to teach him about sacredness and holiness (Exodus 3:1-5).
Building the altar atop the bema is meant not only to make the Divine Liturgy easier to see, but also to symbolizes two beautiful meanings:
1) Holy Mountain. When the celebrant ascends the Holy Altar at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, the deacon blesses his steps by censing him with the thurible (Poorvar-Բուրվառ). While ascending the steps, the celebrant recites the following Psalm: “Send out, O Lord, your Light and your truth that they may lead me and bring me to your holy mountain and to your tabernacle” (Psalm 43). Noah’s ark rested on the mountains of Ararat, in the seventh month, after the great flood (Genesis 8:4). Moses the Prophet met God through the burning bush, on the Mountain of God, which was called Horeb (Genesis 3:1). Moses received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). Jesus taught the beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and the central tenets of Christian discipleship in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5,6,7). Jesus manifested His divine nature and the fulfillment of the Prophecies and the Law on the mountain at Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36). Jesus was crucified on the mountain of Golgotha (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19). While there are numerous examples and events on mountains, some of the holiest and the most significant biblical events occurred on mountains. The concept of a mountain, which represents the highest land on the earth, helped humanity to understand that God lives in the highest of heights. It reminds us to look up to the heights and elevates from our lowly, wicked natures. We climb the mountain to meet our Creator. Because we have to look up to the altar, we are reminded that we are on a journey up to the Light and Truth of our Lord. “I lift up my eyes to the mountains- where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121). The elevated altar also represents a challenge to the faithful. Climbing a mountain takes all of your energy. In a way, reaching up to Christ is the same, and requires all of our energy. However, unlike climbing a mountain, Christ guides us, even taking us on His shoulders.
2) The Upper Room. Our Lord Jesus Christ held His Last Supper, the cornerstone of the Divine Liturgy, in the Upper Room. This was followed by His betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion (Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:7-39, John 12:1-17:26). Jesus broke the bread and shared the cup of wine, His Body and Blood, with the Apostles, foreshadowing His sacrifice, with the Apostles. The Holiest of Holies took place in the Upper Room, so we may have the grace of Salvation, and freedom from the death of sin. Thus Jesus, the good Shepherd, carries us from the valley of sinfulness by His crucifixion and resurrection to the heights of salvation. Therefore, when we participate in the Divine Liturgy, we join Jesus at His Holy Table in the Upper Room, before He gives Himself on the holy mountain so that we may live forever. We prepare ourselves for the Agape banquet that will take place in the Kingdom of God at His Second Coming. When we pray, “Thy Kingdom Come,” we direct our eyes to the Holy Altar, the Upper Room. We see ourselves around the Holy Table, with the saints and the angels, praising God and sharing in the heavenly banquet.
Further, Pentecost took place in the Upper Room after the resurrection. (Acts 2:1-31) On Pentecost, the Apostles received the Holy Spirit while in the Upper Room. This marked the birth of the Christian church. That is why the Holy Altar is the central, founding, and holiest ground of the church.
Realizing that we are participating in the Divine Liturgy at the Holy Table shifts our perspective. The Divine Liturgy becomes more spiritual. We are seated with our Lord Jesus Christ, in the Presence of God and the Holy Spirit. We are receiving Him in our entire existence. Imagine that when we approach the Holy Altar to receive Holy Communion, we are approaching the Upper Room. The same room where Jesus sat with the Apostles, and receiving the same bread and wine that the Apostles ate. At the same time, Jesus reaches down to us from the Upper Room and gives us life and forgiveness. It makes me feel blessed, humbled in heart and renewed in spirit. What would it make you feel?
This also teaches us to change our perspective. We have been taught that the Vernadoon is in the West, which represents the world. In reality, the Vernadoon is in the East, where the sun rises and where our lives are renewed and sanctified. In effect, we are turning our attention to the Word of God, not to the world, when facing the Vernadoon. Therefore, may the faithful focus their attention on the Truth, to the real Vernadoon, the Holy Altar.
 The Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church, p 45.