For many people, the sermon is their favorite part of the Badarak, the Divine Liturgy. Delivered in the vernacular—the language spoken by the average person—it is often the only portion of the service in English (or modern Armenian, or whichever language is spoken in the country). Sermons are also popular because they change from week to week. While the Badarak itself is a rich source of praise of God and theology, many of us in America have difficulty with the krapar/գրաբար, the Classical Armenian, as well as with the dense theology expressed there, especially in the hymns. The sermon digests this theology for us. In fact, one of the images used for vartabeds, the monk-scholars of the Armenian Apostolic Church is the jaw or the mandible: it is the work of the vartabed to ruminate on the words of Scripture and help make them more digestible for the rest of us. A good sermon brings us closer to Jesus Christ by helping us to understand better His words and to bring the message of the Gospel into our lives.
While we recognize a good sermon based on its oratory, the way it is delivered, or based on its contents, most churchgoers contemplate the sermon of the week and move on. The sermon is an oral medium. We listen to it and try to apply some of it to our lives. This is perhaps why it might be difficult to consider sermons as some of the most important sources in the Armenian Christian tradition. Sermons, though, were often written down. Most priests today prepare at least some notes before they deliver a sermon. The same has been true since antiquity: one of the most famous musings on the written word comes from Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus. When the young Phaedrus meets with Socrates, he is actually carrying a copy of a speech that had recently been delivered. So, the practice of writing down orally delivered messages—like sermons—is an old one. We have in written form sermons from some of the most important Christian thinkers and teachers. These are either their own prepared texts or a transcription that someone wrote down while listening to the sermons. In the case of some of them, for instance the so-called Catechetical Lectures by St. Cyril of Jerusalem, we even know when they were delivered. In Cyril’s case, these sermons were given during Lent as preparation for Baptism in time for Easter, perhaps in 348 or 350 AD. Written down, homilies by these great Christian thinkers continue to be a source of inspiration and learning centuries later.
Among the great Christian orators, St. John Chrysostom stands apart. His epithet, “Chrysostom” (Ոսկեբերան/Voskeperan in Armenian), means “the golden-mouthed” and refers to his incredible skills as a public speaker. As an essay introducing one of his sets of sermons puts it, “no voice has been raised against the popular verdict, repeated in every age, that awards to him the first place among pulpit orators in the Eastern Church” (Riddle 1894:xvii). Last year, we provided a longer biography of St. John Chrysostom, whom the Armenian Apostolic Church commemorates this Thursday. This year, we will focus more closely on his specialty, sermons! St. John Chrysostom, both in Antioch, where he was educated, and later in Constantinople (Istanbul), where he was the Patriarch, gave sermons on all kinds of topics. The Popular Patristics series published by St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary has printed several of these topical sermons. He preached on issues ranging from the veneration of saints, marriage, and wealth and poverty, just to name the few that have been printed by St. Vladimir’s. These sermons, addressing important issues of his day, continue to speak to the dedicated Christian.
Yet Chrysostom’s sermons were often more than “one-off” topics. Chrysostom was an incredible exegete, someone who interpreted Scripture. As we have described before, Armenian Christianity is full of exegetical and hermeneutical works, commentaries on the books of the Bible, as well as commentaries on liturgical services. Some of these commentaries were clearly intended for use by a vartabed who would be teaching other future vartabeds how to interpret Scripture. However, another version of scriptural commentary and exegesis comes in the form of sermons. Just as our knowledge of some of Jesus’ most well-known parables comes from the sermons we have heard preached during the season of Lent—on the Prodigal Son, or his older brother, or the unjust steward—many of our received commentaries on Scripture are actually in the form of a series of homilies. Chrysostom, in particular, is a master of this genre. Extant are sermons on nearly all the books of the Bible. While these are often labeled as “commentaries” on the books of the Bible, these commentaries are nearly all a series of sermons. Chrysostom walks his congregation through a book of the Bible, Sunday after Sunday, digesting the Scripture for their edification.
|The Nicene and Post-Nicene Christian Fathers||A multi-volume collection of important patristic texts in English. Volume 10 contains St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew.|
|Hovhan Voskeberan ev ir “Mattei meknutyune”||Dedicated solely to a study of St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew (“Commentary on Matthew”), this book demonstrates how important these sermons have been to Armenian Christian thinking. In Armenian at St. Nersess.|
|La version arménienne ancienne des Homélies sur les Actes des apôtres de Jean Chrysostome||In addition to the highly influential Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, many other of St. John Chrysostom’s exegetical sermons were translated into Armenian. Some of these either survive only in Armenian or their Armenian versions differ in interesting ways from other received versions of the texts. This study, in French, presents the Armenian version of his homilies on the book of the Acts of the Apostles.|
Of these exegetical sermon series, perhaps the most important in the Armenian Christian tradition is the series of sermons on the Gospel of Matthew. Others were translated in Armenian, including homilies on the book of the Acts of the Apostles and on the Book of Isaiah. Both of these are important textual sources, because there are variations from other extant versions. Many of Chrysostom’s commentaries were translated into Armenian very early, in the first wave of translation after the invention of the alphabet. The commentary on Isaiah is certainly included in this early wave. The Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew were also translated very early: Robert Thomson, looking at the Seal of Faith, an important early collection of patristic sources in Armenian, suggests that “there were already two different Armenian versions of this commentary [on the Gospel of Matthew] before the 7th century.” Translated early and cited often, Chrysostom’s commentary/sermons on the Gospel of Matthew is one of the most important sources in the Armenian Christian tradition. It profoundly shaped all subsequent Armenian commentaries, was used as a model for the sermon genre, and was crucial to the development of Armenian theology.
Indeed, Dr. Roberta Ervine has suggested that Armenian commentators on the Gospel of Matthew would not have dared to write a commentary without a thorough knowledge of Chrysostom’s sermons. The sermons were probably delivered in Antioch, well before he became Patriarch of Constantinople. Like most of Chrysostom’s sermons, they also seem to be transcribed, rather than based on his own notes. As with his topical sermons, we see immediately that the main concern of the Golden-Mouthed preacher is ethical. While he is keen to prove the concordance of the four Gospel accounts and the value of the Old Testament, ultimately, his goal is to help people to live ethical lives as Christians. He tells his congregants that “we are on the point of entering into a city (if God permit) of gold, and more precious than any gold.” To do this, “we have in Matthew an excellent guide. For through his gate we shall now enter in, and much diligence is required on our part.” In other words, the point of the sermons, and the point of commenting on Scripture in general, is to draw the listener closer to God and to help her enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Through careful exegesis of Scripture, St. John Chrysostom hopes to shepherd his flock.
This practical, ethical comportment and method of interpreting Scripture left an indelible mark on Armenian Christianity. Much of subsequent Armenian Christian literature focuses on edification and practical value. Sometimes this is for a student or a monk, sometimes for lay Christians. There are plenty of sophisticated theological arguments in Armenian, but over and over again, sermons, letters, commentaries, and other genres focus on how to be good, loving Christians. Famous collections of sermons by Armenian authors bear the trace of this emphasis and of St. John Chrysostom’s homilies more broadly: the sermons of St. Gregory the Illuminator, Hovhannes Mandakuni, Hovhannes Mayragometsi, and the famous “sermon prompts” in two volumes of St. Gregory of Datev are just some of the important collections of sermons by Armenian Christians. Many can be found in the invaluable series Armenian Manuscripts, printed in Antelias. Often we can see the influence of St. John Chrysostom’s sermons, especially his Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew—a paramount source for style, content, and method—in these later Armenian homilies.
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