Holy Week is the densest liturgical week in the Armenian Apostolic Church’s calendar. Beginning last Saturday with the Remembrance of the Raising of Lazarus, including today’s Remembrance of the Ten Virgins, and continuing straight to Easter Sunday, there are nearly one hundred separate Bible readings. These are spread out through celebrations of the Divine Liturgy, the խաւարում/Khavarum (Vigil) service conducted the night of Holy Thursday that is an extended Night Service, and services unique to Holy Week such as the Crucifixion Service on Holy Friday. Armenian Christians, in their conception of time, see all of these liturgical services not just as a commemoration of a historical event that happened once 2000 years ago or as a symbolic reenactment, but as actual participation in the eternal reality of the economy of salvation. The salvific work of Jesus Christ culminates in his betrayal, death, and resurrection during Holy Week. Therefore, Armenian Christians, along with all liturgically oriented Christian churches, have more liturgical services during Holy Week than any other time of the year.
This liturgical density affords us the opportunity to reflect on a two-way movement of sources central to the Armenian Christian experience. On the one hand, there are clear sources for all these liturgical services. Most obviously are the Gospel accounts themselves. However, as we have shown, Psalms and other early Christian writings and liturgies are sources for the Armenian liturgy. On the other hand, liturgical services serve as sources, not just for inspiration and renewal, but for theological thinking, commentaries, and further reflection and writing. Such a double movement between liturgy and life, between sources for liturgy and liturgy as a source, is at the heart of the Armenian Christian understanding of liturgy. As the Orthodox theological Alexander Schmemann put it, liturgy “is the action of the Church itself, or the Church in actu, it is the very expression of its life.”
First, we can speak of the sources for the Armenian liturgy, specifically the services of Holy Week. The narrative of the Passion is of course straight out of the Gospel accounts, and throughout Holy Week, we read not just one but each evangelist’s account of the specific events. Some, like the Washing of the Disciples’ Feet are found only in one Gospel (in this case, John 13). Others, like the burial, are found in all four of the Gospels. In addition to the Gospel accounts on which the services themselves are based—and these accounts are often read during those services as well—there are many other Biblical readings, from the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, which are read during these services. As with the Christian faith in general and Armenian liturgical services in particular, the ultimate source of the Holy Week services is the Bible itself.
Yet there are other important sources for the Holy Week services. We have written previously about the connection between the Jerusalem Lectionary and the development of the Armenian lectionary, as well as about the embedding of Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures into the Armenian daily readings for Lent. The services on Holy Friday—the Crucifixion and Burial, but also the end of the Khavarum—all include “the ancient ceremony of the veneration of the Cross.” This service includes the hymn Խաչի քո Քրիստոս/Khatchi Ko Krisdos, which is an Armenian translation/adaptation of the widespread and ancient hymn, Crucem tuam adoramus. As V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan has shown, this hymn, as well as other hymns associated with the Cross in the Armenian Church, are linked to the stational liturgy of Jerusalem, where services were offered at different important sites in the holy city, similar to the way one can follow the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem today. As another example of connections to the larger Christian world, the ceremony of the Washing of Feet is attributed to the great Syriac hymnographer, St. Ephrem the Syrian. Armenian Holy Week services have as sources the liturgy and hymns of Jerusalem and other ancient Christian centers, connecting us to the Universal Church.
|Liturgy and Tradition: Theological Reflections of Alexander Schmemann||A collection of essays by the great Orthodox theologian and former St. Vladmir’s professor, Alexandar Schmemann. It includes many of his most important insights on liturgy in the Orthodox tradition. At St. Nersess.|
|Avak Shapat: A Guide to the Holy Week Services of the Armenian Church||By our Primate, V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, a companion guide to the Avak Shapat liturgical book that contains all the Holy Week services of the Armenian Church. This book provides explanations, histories, and rubrics for the Holy Week services.|
|St. Nersess Theological Review||The academic journal of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary. Volume 11 contains, “Armenian Hymns of the Church and Cross,” by V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan. In that article, Fr. Daniel translates and explores the history of Armenian hymns for the cross, including Khatchi Ko Krisdos, sung several times on Holy Friday.|
For Armenian Christians, liturgy is not just something which has a source, but liturgy itself becomes a source. First and foremost, through the receiving of Holy Communion during Badarak, liturgy is the source of life, redemption, and renewal. Liturgy should also be a source of strength and renewal in our daily lives: for those who have had the opportunity to participate in the Sunrise, Peace, or Rest Hours of the Armenian Apostolic Church (which are often only offered during Lent), the spiritual nourishment available in those services leaps off the page. St. Nersess Shnorhali’s 24 prayers “for all Christians” each on their own are a powerful source of renewal and strength. In addition to being a source of life and spiritual nourishment, the Armenian liturgical services have long been sources for further theological and philosophical thought.
Sharagans are themselves sophisticated theological sources. As we have discussed before, the genre of hymn known as the sharagan usually begins with a source text from the Bible, often from the Psalms. Each sharagan then is a reflection on that source text relevant to the particular day. They take a Biblical source and “do theology,” providing those who sing and hear the sharagan with a dense Bible study. It is within the liturgy itself, then, that we first see liturgy as a source of theology. Armenian liturgy is living, singing, theology.
Further afield from the actual services, Armenian liturgy has been a creative source of theology and writing by Armenian theologians through the ages. We can see this in the beautiful writings St. Gregory of Narek. His Book of Lamentations, while not directly “liturgical,” often evinces a liturgical sensibility, a life lived through and shaped by liturgy. Images taken directly from liturgical services (Prayers 93B and 93T make reference to baptism and anointing) or sensory appeal to incense (75C makes reference to “this incense of words” among other sensory invocations), among other liturgical inspirations, can be found throughout this most beloved of Armenian prayer books. More directly, Armenian theologians commented directly on the Badarak and other liturgical services in excess of their peers in other Christian traditions. Commentaries on the Badarak were written by several important theologians, including the father of Gregory of Narek, Khosrov Antsevatsi! These commentaries demonstrate how directly liturgy served as a source for further theological reflection by Armenians.
Finally, we will end with a brief discussion of a fascinating fragment of Biblical exegesis—commentary—from Vanagan Vartabed, a major intellectual figure of the late 12th and early 13th centuries (1181-1251). This prominent teacher, a vartabed of the church, was a student of the great Mkhitar Gosh, taught at the monastery of Nor Gedik, and founded the Khoranashat monastery. According to Dr. Roberta Ervine, his Book of Questions, surviving only in a couple manuscripts, was most likely a set of class notes for a very advanced class for future vartabeds and teachers. In the manuscripts, the first entry, and therefore the first class—the first day of the “new semester”—began on Holy Tuesday, today! This eminent vartabed naturally used the readings from Matthew 24, the source text for the Remembrance of the Ten Virgins, as well as several other parables, as the starting point for his class on exegesis. Teaching by example and through the liturgical reading for the day, Vanagan Vartabed introduced the class topic and suggested the difficult and demanding nature of the topic. Significantly, he did all of this by taking as his source the liturgy and the Biblical source of the liturgy. During this Holy Week, we can take Vanagan Vartabed’s example, meditating on the sources for liturgy and using liturgy as a source for further spiritual mediation!
|Sharakan||Here translated into modern (Eastern) Armenian, making it more accessible, the complete book of sharagan hymns both uses Biblical source texts as the starting for sophisticated theology and also provides a further source for theological reflection.|
|Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart||St. Gregory of Narek’s spiritual classic, the Book of Lamentations. Translated by Thomas J. Samuelian with facing classical Armenian. One of the great treasures of Armenian spirituality.|
|Commentary on the Divine Liturgy||Translated by Peter Cowe, this commentary on the Divine Liturgy by Khosrov Antsevatsi, Gregory of Narek’s father, is an excellent example of the Armenian genre of commentaries on the Divine Liturgy. This genre demonstrates how liturgy itself can serve as a source for further theological reflection.|
Follow the Zohrab Information Center on Instagram @zohrabcenter to see pictures from the liturgical services of the Armenian Apostolic Holy Week around the world. Tag us in Holy Week liturgical services! Don’t forget to like us on Facebook!