By V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
Many people practice yoga for physical and spiritual meditation. Many of the faithful, however, do not realize that the Armenian liturgy includes physical prayer practices as well. These physical practices help us encounter God with our bodies, as well as our spirits. The liturgy helps us dwell with God and feel His salvation.
At many points in the liturgy, the deacon calls for the faithful to bow down, chanting Asdoudzo Yergirbakestsouk (Աստուծոյ Երկիրպագեսցուք). Some people kneel on one knee, some bow their heads, while some bow down to their knees. In each case, the faithful makes the sign of the Holy Cross. Why do we bow down? What does it mean? What should bowing remind us of?
We generally bow before people as an act of honor. Throughout history, people used to bow before kings and queens. In addition to honoring a king or queen, bowing showed obedience of the subjugated.
In Armenian, yergirbakestsouk means “let us kiss the ground.” The faithful do not literally kiss the ground, but this liturgical act carries a spiritual meaning.
With what spirituality and what thought should we bow down on our knees in response to “Asdoudzo Yergirbakestsouk?”
1. “Asdoudzo Yergirbakestsouk” means let us worship God. When God tested Abraham, He instructed him to take his only son Isaac to sacrifice. On the road, Abraham asked his servant, “stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you.” The Armenian Church fathers translate “worship” to “yergirbakel,” which also means to bow down on one’s knees. While Abraham meant to sacrifice his son for God, this act is “translated” as worship. The faithful should keep this in mind while standing before God during the Divine Liturgy. We leave everything at home and come to church to worship God by sacrificing something for Him. God gave Himself up as a sacrifice for our salvation. We should, therefore, bow down on our knees when we participate in worship. We should bring ourselves down to the ground and ask for His grace and mercy. We should bow down on our knees during the Divine Liturgy, as we participate in the sacrifice of God’s Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
2. “You are dust…” When humanity fell because of their sin, God told Adam, “in the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) We should always remember that we are made of dust. If God had not given us His breath, His image and likeness, we would simply be dirt. Our fallen nature makes it difficult for us to stay humble. We forget that we are dust, and many of us strive to become godlike, but outside of God’s image and likeness. When we bow down on our knees, we remind ourselves where we come from. We remember who honors us more than the angels. Bowing down on our knees helps to practice humility. Without humility, we lose our identity in God and everlasting life. God calls us to keep ourselves humble and enjoy His grace. Mother Theresa summarizes the Christian approach to humility: “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” When we know ourselves, and where we come from, we build our lives on the foundation of God’s grace. This washes away our fallen nature.
3. Bowing down on our knees in the name of the Holy Trinity. We worship God for our salvation. God wants to redeem us from the darkness of sin. He wants to give us life. For that sake He sacrificed His only Son, saving us with His blood. Participation in God’s salvation starts with the holy baptism. According to St. Paul, “therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4) The baptismal font cleanses us of sin and prepares us to receive God’s grace of salvation. The officiant dips the child in the font in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. At that moment, we receive God’s salvific grace in the name of the Holy Trinity. After our baptism, we worship God as newly born Christians. We bow down on our knees, putting our sins on the ground, and being raised anew by the grace of God. Every time that we bow, we remember Christ’s burial and resurrection. We physically and spiritually participate in God’s salvation.
Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, exemplifies humility and love. He brought Himself down to earth and was buried in the dirt, in order to save us from our sinful nature. He showed His love by His sacrifice. “Many people wanted to become god and made people worship them, but only Jesus Christ, who was God, wanted to become man to serve man.” God calls us to follow His example of humility. He wants us to enjoy the presence of His grace in our hearts. Bowing down on our knees is a small act with which we pray, worship, love, and honor God. It reminds us that Christ raises us from death with His grace. This spirituality underpins bowing down on our knees in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.