Worship In The Armenian Church

Themes: Biblical, Denomination, History, Liturgy, Scholar

The liturgy of the Armenian church reveals the influence of many sources, but is basically of Syrian origin. It expresses the theme of sacrifice more than other Eastern liturgies and has the flavor of a temple rite.

The church of Armenia was evangelized from Edessa, and later by missionaries from Cappadocia. Its early liturgy was thus both Syrian and Greek. Its evolution as the Armenian church, with its own distinctive liturgy, is due to Gregory the Illuminator, a late third/early fourth century aristocrat who was converted to Christianity in Caesarea (Cappadocia), and who returned to Armenia to convert the king (Tiridates II) who had been, up to then, persecuting the Christians. As a result, Christianity became the state religion in a.d. 301, and Gregory became the leader (Catholicos) of the Armenian church.

The Church

Gregory is not acclaimed as the “apostle of Armenia.” The legends which recount the origin of Christianity in Armenia attribute [early evangelization] to Jude, Thaddaeus, and Bartholomew. The Armenians thus claim apostolic roots. Gregory’s accomplishment was the conversion of the whole country and the establishment of the Armenian church.

Under Gregory, the church was more aristocratic than popular; the people had no access to the liturgy which was in Syriac and in Greek-revisions came only in the fifth century. These involved the creation of an Armenian alphabet and the translation of both Scripture and the liturgy into Armenian. The Armenian liturgy is certainly Antiochene in its roots, but, apparently for political reasons, the Armenian church sided with Alexandria after the Council of Chalcedon. Hence it recognizes only the first three councils. Today there are Armenian Catholics in union with Rome, and Armenians who remain an independent church. The preferred title for these latter is the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The liturgy of the Armenian church, called “The Liturgy of our Blessed Father Saint Gregory the Illuminator, revised and augmented by the Holy Patriarchs and Doctors, Sahag, Mesrob, Kud, and John Mandakuni,” is, as noted, rooted in the Antiochene tradition. Its evolution, however, reveals the influence of many sources: Coptic, Byzantine, and later (twelfth century) Latin. There is a substratum of the Syrian liturgy of St. James, which may have come via the liturgy of Basil (in use in Cappadocia). It was later embellished with texts from the Chrysostom (Byzantine) and Latin liturgies. It is not therefore simply an evolution of the Syrian/Antiochene tradition. Nonetheless it remains Syrian at its deepest level. The texts cited here are from the English translation published in The Armenian Liturgy (Venice: Armenian Monastery of St. Lazarus, 1862).

The Liturgy

Introductory Rites

The introductory rites consist of the vesting of the ministers in the sacristy, the entrance and absolution of the officiating priest, and the preparation of the gifts. The first two are carried out in rich ceremonial; the last is done without the elaborate ritual of the Byzantine proskomidia. When prepared and veiled, the gifts are honored with incense. Most significant in these rites is the focus on the priest.

Liturgy of the Word

The liturgy of the Word originally began with the chanting of the trisagion. It was later embellished with texts from the Byzantine liturgy. It begins now with the blessing (“Blessed be the reign of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost … ”), the Monogenes of the Byzantine liturgy (“O only-begotten Son and Word of God … ”), which may be replaced with a seasonal hymn, a blessing, and four prayers recited by the priest while the choir sings the psalm and hymn of the day. These four prayers are the three antiphon prayers from the Byzantine introductory rites and the prayer of the Byzantine “Little Entrance.”

The trisagion is then sung, while the priest prays the Byzantine prayer of the trisagion. This is followed by a litany, the Epistle and Gospel reading, the creed (to which is appended an anti-Arian anathema), another litany and blessing, and the dismissal of the catechumens.

Pre-anaphora

The pre-anaphora begins with a proclamation (“The body of our Lord, and the blood of our Redeemer are about to be here present … ”). There follows the hagiology of the day (a seasonal catechesis), while the celebrant, if a bishop, removes the vestments of honor, or, if a priest, removes his cap. The gifts are transferred to the altar while the choir sings the Cherubic Hymn and the priest prays the corresponding Byzantine prayer “humbled, before the altar.” The gifts are incensed, the deacon exhorts the assembly (“With faith and holiness, let us pray before the holy altar of God, filled with profound dread … ”), and the priest prays the prayer of oblation.

Anaphora

The anaphora proper begins with a benediction and peace greeting. The deacon kisses the altar and the arms [sic] of the priest, and then brings the greeting to the others. The eucharistic prayer, after the customary dialogue, again follows the classic West Syrian structure: thanksgiving narrative for creation and redemption, including the “Holy, holy,” and leading into the institution account, anamn?sis, epikl?sis, intercessions and doxology. This prayer is interspersed with other prayers, blessings, greetings and gestures (incense, signing with cross, etc.), and it includes seasonal commemorations as well.

Post-anaphora

The Lord’s Prayer and incensing of the people begins the Communion or post-anaphora. This is followed by a prayer of penitence addressed to the Holy Spirit. The gifts are presented to the people in rather elaborate fashion: a Trinitarian benediction oft repeated by deacon, choir, and people. The priest then invites all to Communion: “Let us partake holily of the holy, holy and precious body and blood of our Lord and Redeemer Jesus Christ, who, descended from heaven, is distributed among us. He is life, the hope of the resurrection, the expiation and pardon of sins. Sing to the Lord our God … ” This last part is echoed by the deacon. Then, with curtain drawn, the priest prepares to take Communion with a series of prayers and gestures, the longest prayer being that of John Chrysostom (“I give thee thanks, I exalt thee, I glorify thee, O Lord my God, thou hast rendered me worthy on this day to partake of thy divine and fearful sacrament … ”).

After Communion of the faithful, the priest blesses all (“Lord, save thy people, and bless thine inheritance … ”). The bishop, if presiding, puts on his episcopal robes. There are prayers of thanksgiving, a prayer for a blessing, the prologue of John read as the “last gospel,” a prayer for peace, and the final blessing. As is customary among the Byzantines, the Armenians too distribute blessed bread as the people leave.

Theology and Spirit

The tone of the Armenian liturgy is that of a “temple” liturgy, and throughout the text it stresses the notion of sacrifice more than any other Eastern liturgy. References to the temple are clear and abundant. The hymn sung during the vesting proclaims that “holiness becomes thy dwelling, since thou alone art enveloped in splendor.” After the confession and absolution of the priest, he prays: “Within the precincts of this temple … we adore with trembling.” And again: “In the tabernacle of holiness, and in the place of praise … we adore with trembling.” During the preparation of the offerings, the priest incenses and prays: “In the Lord’s temple, open to our offerings and our vows, united as we are to accomplish in obedience and in prayer the mystery of this approaching and august sacrifice, let us together march in triumph round the tribune of the holy temple … ” And he is clearly a temple priest who prays: “Thou hast confided to us the priesthood for this holy ministry and for thine unbloody sacrifice.”

References to the sacrifice are likewise clear and abundant. A prayer during the vesting reads: “Full of fear and awe we approach thee, to offer the sacrifice due to thine Omnipotence.” The deacon proclaims just before the eucharistic prayer: “Christ, the immaculate Lamb of God, offers himself as victim.” The intercessions of the same prayer are introduced by: “Grant by virtue of this sacrifice … ”; and a thanksgiving prayer chanted by the deacon mentions sacrifice no less than four times.

The way the liturgy views the priest is consistent with both temple and sacrifice. In contrast to the Byzantine proskomidia, with its elaborate focus on the bread and wine as Christ, the Armenian introductory rites come to focus much more strongly on the priest. He confesses his sins (“I confess in the presence of God … all the sins I have committed”) and receives absolution (“May the all-powerful God have mercy on you, and grant you the pardon of all your sins … ”) before going ahead with his service. Prayers of purification are numerous.

In addition, the texts of the liturgy put a strong accent on the majesty of God. They are more than generous in speaking of God as profound, incomprehensible, boundless, infinite, inscrutable, etc., and thus worthy of glory power, worship, honor, praise.

Finally, note should be made of the place of the Holy Spirit in the Armenian liturgy. While it is common in both East and West to address the Spirit in the mode of invocation (epikl?sis, Veni Sancte Spiritus), the Armenian text addresses the Spirit in other forms of prayer as well. To give but one example, the blessing after the Lord’s prayer: “O Holy Spirit! Thou who are the source of life and of mercy, have pity on this people who, kneeling, adores thy Divinity … ,” with its adjoining doxology: “Through Jesus Christ our Lord, to who, as to thee, O Holy Spirit, and to the Almighty Father, belong glory … ”

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