by V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
Atop the Holy Altar of every Armenian Church hangs an oil lamp. This lamp is called a Gantegh (Կանթեղ), and is part of one of the most beautiful traditions in the Armenian Church: the Gantegh is refilled and lit every morning by a deacon or a priest.
When I was a seminarian, an archbishop noticed that the lamp was not lit at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. He asked the servers to light the lamp during celebration of the Liturgy. I remember his words: “aren’t you scared of God’s wrath on us? This is the Illuminator’s oil-lamp that should never be extinguished.”
As young seminarians, we loved refilling the Gantegh. At first, it was very scary to ascend the stairs, hold the oil lamp steady, fill it with oil, and then light the lamp. We sometimes wondered, why do we still use oil lamps when we have electricity? Why should we fill it every morning and evening?
In fact, I did not think about the depth of meaning contained in this simple ritual until reading Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s thoughts about the concept of time in the liturgical context:
“The Church announces every morning that God is the Lord, and she begins to organize life around God. In the Church the first lights of Matins are candles, as foretaste of the sun. then the sun itself rises, dispelling the darkness of the world, and in this Church sees the rising of the true Light of the world, Son of God.”
Morning Prayer Hours
The morning contains three prayer services: the Night Hour, the Morning Hour and the Sunrise Hour. These three prayer services traditionally take place before the sunrise, during the sunrise, and after the sunrise, respectively. Cathedrals typically perform one prayer service prior to celebrating the Divine Liturgy, with the Sunrise Hour reserved for the Lenten season. Before the service starts, the sextons (Lusarar or Jamgotch) have the responsibility to refill and light the Gantegh. Today, we usually start the morning service around 7:00 am, when the sun has already risen. Before seeing the sun’s light, however, it is essential to see the light of this lamp, which declares Christ’s presence in our midst.“I am the Light of the World. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life”. (John 8:12)
We cannot start our day, as Christians, before seeing this true Light of our life. That light remains at the center of our life, even as the world rotates unceasingly around the sun. The world not only receives the sun’s light, but also reflects it. Therefore, we light the Gantegh in the morning, not just to remind us that Christ is the Light of our world and life, but also, to reflect His light by our thoughts, words and deeds.
How does the Gantegh symbolize Christ? What do we see along with the presence of Christ?
In the Orthodox tradition, the burning light both symbolizes and defines the Holy Trinity: “God of God, Light of Light” (Nicene Creed). Light stays Light. It does not waver.
The burning light also defines life. In the creation story, God said “Let there be Light” (Genesis 1:3). Life began with His light. Despite this beginning, humankind fell into sin and death, before again being granted a new Light: resurrection.
The three morning hours correspond to three specific passages of the Bible, making the parallel between light and resurrection clearer. The Night Hour represents and reminds us of the Fall of man into the darkness of sin and death. Afterwards, humanity lived in darkness and starved for the true Light. Accordingly, this service is conducted before the sunrise, when it is still dark. Our Lord Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection transformed life. He restored our true, everlasting, life.
The Morning Hour reminds us not only of His resurrection, but also of Mary, referred to in the Gospel as “the other Mary.” Mary arrived ready to anoint Christ’s body, yet became the first witness of resurrection. She witnessed the first light of new life from the empty tomb, and first met the resurrected Christ with Mary Magdalene. Anyone who has gone into nature to see the sunrise can easily understand how special the moment is that the first rays of the sun strike the Earth. It resembles the first rays of the new life of resurrection striking humankind. Likewise, the Sunrise Hour represents the first meeting between the resurrected Christ and the Apostles. Jesus manifested himself as the resurrected Lord and God to His disciples, which served as the first moment of the church.
With the example of oil-bearer women we light the oil lamp, to be witness of His resurrection once again, every day and to reflect his glory in our lives. Therefore, before living and experiencing the resurrection through the morning hours, we light the hope and the light of resurrection that we live for. The resurrected Christ rises and shines new life upon us. Before sunrise, Christ makes clear that death no longer has any authority on us. We light the joy of our life. No matter our present circumstances, our lives will be crowned with the new life of resurrection. Furthering the symbolism of the Light, Christ’s resurrection is the light around which our daily lives revolve. The resurrection comforts us, guiding us through our challenges. “And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty” (1 Corinthians 15:14). If Christ is not risen, then our existence is meaningless, as St. Paul the Apostle continues: “If the dead do not rise, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!’” (15:32).
The Gantegh in Our Personal Lives
When darkness covers the earth, the lit Gantegh grabs our attention. It forces us to focus on the light, even while being tested by the darkness around. Likewise, in our spiritual life, we must focus on Christ’s light, and ignore the temptations around us. St. Paul reminds us: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that our labor is not vain in the Lord” (15:58).
Furthermore, the use of an oil lamp, as opposed to a candle, bears additional meaning. If we are willing to carry the light of Christ’s resurrection, we must hold it with repentance, prayers and work. We need to renew our faith and our spirituality, as we maintain the oil of the lamp. Only prayers, a kind spirit, and worship keep the light over our heads and lives lit.
We may not have the chance to experience this deeply beautiful church ritual, but we can start a practice in our homes. We can create a corner in our home, and place Christ’s picture or icon in it. We can light a lamp before starting each day. In that way, we can remind ourselves that Christ’s Light is the center of our lives. In so doing, we may fill our hearts with hope, and comfort us in the face of life’s challenges.
 Schmemann, Alexander, “For the life of the world”, St. Vladimir Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 1973.