by V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
Have you ever wondered why Armenian clergy sit at the front of the church? They sit before the Holy Altar, backs turned to the faithful. The clergy sit in the Tas (Դաս). This raises some interesting cultural and biblical questions. Very rarely in Christian denominations do clergy turn their back to the faithful, even if sitting in the front.
Jesus criticized the Scribes and the Pharisees for sitting in the best seats at banquets and in the synagogues: “They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.” (Mt 23:6-7) Why, despite this criticism by our Lord Jesus Christ, has the Armenian Church reserved the front seats for the clergy? Further, turning your back to others is considered disrespectful in the Middle East. Rather than analyzing or interpreting Jesus’s words, I will focus on the spiritual meaning behind this practice.
Jesus expressed woe to the Pharisees because their practices were focused on their own glory. They used their positions of leadership for their own interests. They dishonored their privilege to guide Israel to God’s glory. It should not surprise us to see Jesus expressing disdain toward the Pharisees and Scribes of His time. This does not mean His words don’t apply to the clergy if we behave for our own glory. Accordingly, why must the clergy sit on front of the church during the liturgy?
Clergy are called to the priesthood and to lead the church. In the church context, becoming a leader means a life focused on prayer and living God’s graces. The priest renounces the world at his ordination service and dedicates his life to the service of God and His people, through the church. Therefore, sitting in front cannot be about glory.
The clergy are called to be servants of God after the example of the Lord of the lords, Jesus Christ. Jesus came to carry people’s physical and spiritual burdens. In the Armenian Church, clergy represent Jesus. Accordingly, service in the context of the church means to carry those in need. Carrying a physical burden means helping people in need, praying for the sick, and even protecting them with their lives. Carrying a spiritual burden means carrying people’s confessions, sins, and worries. The clergy stand in front because they represent the people before God. They do not let people carry their burdens alone. Sins weigh more than physical burdens. Sin causes eternal death, but physical burdens last no longer than our earthly lives. The clergy stand in front, carrying their own sins, and those of his entire flock. They have heard confessions, seen people’s spiritual lives, and carry them on their shoulders. As we learn in the New Testament, teachers will be judged more harshly. (James 3:1) As the teachers, members of the clergy sit in front to be judged and condemned, and to protect their flock from condemnation. Adam and Eve avoided standing before God, because of their nakedness. No one would want to bear their wrongs for others to see. No one wants to be known as guilty. Yet Jesus stood to be condemned into death for the world’s sin, without committing any sins of His own. The clergy are called to be like Jesus Christ and to stand before God on behalf of their flock.
The clergy don’t only bear this responsibility for people who attend church on Sunday. The clergy also bear responsibility for those who are outside of the church community, to pray for them, to carry their sins, and to ask for God’s mercy and love for them. The clergy are called to carry the lost sheep, after Jesus’s example.
Yet why do the clergy turn their back to the faithful? In the Armenian Church tradition, we turn to the east to pray to God. According to the Holy Bible, the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ will be from the east, just like the sun. We turn east, to show that we are ready to welcome Jesus at any time, and clergy are ready to present their flock. Even the clergy vestments cover the backs of their heads, to help them concentrate on the Lord.
Therefore, sitting at the front is a reminder to the clergy of the burden that we should carry. It reminds us of the lost sheep. And it reminds the faithful of the clergy’s calling, as they show their support by prayers.