On the Monday after all five of the cardinal or tabernacle feasts of the Armenian Apostolic Church (in Armenian known as տաղաւար/daghavar) there is an official remembrance of the dead (Arm. Յիշատակ Մեռելոց/Hishadag Merelots). Patriarch Torkom Koushagian writes that, “According to tradition, Divine Liturgy is celebrated with Hokehankisd for all souls and for those who have specific requests, then the clergy and faithful proceed to the cemeteries where the graves of the departed faithful are individually blessed” (61). This beautiful tradition, listed under a heading Patriach Koushagian calls “Pious Customs of the Armenian Faithful,” increasingly celebrated anew in our Diocese and an important and active custom throughout the Armenian Christian world, is one of many important liturgical commemorations for those who have departed in Christ Jesus. After last Sunday’s celebration of the Feast of the Assumption of St. Mary, the Mother of God, known in Armenian as Վերափոխումն/Verapokhumn, also called directly after “The Mother of God” or Theotokos, Աստուատծածին/Asdvadzadzin, this Monday we will perform this Remembrance of the Dead.
Why, though, do we as a Church remember the dead? Previously, we have discussed saints and especially martyrs as sources of strength and examples of faith for us, the living Church. We have discussed intercession and relics, aspects of the veneration of saints and those faithful who have died before us and whose lives serve as brilliant examples and icons, as types of Christ. Yet prayer for the dead is something quite different and seems even more counterintuitive than asking saints to intercede for us. What can we, living sinners, do for the dead? With all requiem services of the Armenian Apostolic Church, all the liturgical services where we pray for the dead, again in the words Patriarch Koushagian, “we are praying for our departed as a matter of love and respect,” because “we cannot alter their state or final judgement. What we do request through prayer is that the Lord remember our loved ones and judge them mercifully and with compassion” (61). In other words, we pray to God to be merciful and to show compassion on our departed loved ones. Whereas in intercession, departed saints are a source of prayer and strength for us, with the remembrance of the dead, we are sources of prayer and intercession for our dearly departed.
Together, we all make up the entirety of the ecclesia, the Church as the Body of Christ that includes, as the older translation of an Armenian prayer has it, “the quick and the dead,” both those of living (the “quick”) and those who have fallen asleep in Christ. Ideas about the Church not only as a building but as the complete Body of Christ gathered together, as in the meaning of the Greek ecclesia (which gives us the Armenian եկեղեցի/yegeghetsi), trace back to early Christian authors such as Eusebius of Caesarea. That the Church as Body of Christ included those who had already passed away was seen in the writings of St. Paul, especially the passage from 1 Thessalonians 4 which is read during the Funeral Service of the Armenian Church. Thus, practices, customs, and traditions related to the remembrance of the dead, from the Funeral Service of the Armenian Church, to the Hokehankisd performed for individual deceased, to visitations to gravesites at cemeteries, are all ways of gathering together the entire Church of Christ and are opportunities for us, the living, to serve as source of prayer and remembrance for those who have already passed away.
|Saints and Feasts of the Armenian Church||This little book by Patriarch Torkom Koushagian is a wonderful introduction to the most important feasts of the Armenian Apostolic Church and to many saints of the Church. He provides short and clear discussions of Armenian practices such as the Remembrance of the Dead and Madagh.|
|Ewsebiosi Kesarats‘woy Patmut‘iwn Ekeghets‘woy||An Armenian translation of Eusebius’ classic Ecclesiastical History or History of the Church, an important early Christian work that help solidify an idea of the Church as both Body of Christ and institution and that serves as a model for all Christian historical work. This is an important early Armenian printing by the Venice Mkhitarist Fathers, one of the valuable older sources in the Zohrab Collection.|
|Patmutʿiwn Halēpi azgayin gerezmanatantsʿ ew ardzanagir hayerēn tapanakʿareru||This book details the Armenian cemeteries of Aleppo. By custom, after Hokehankisd at the church on the day following a daghavar feast, clergy and faithful would go to the cemeteries to pray for individual deceased. Cemeteries, sites to remember the dead, have also been major sources of information about Armenian history. In Armenian.|
Of all the customs and traditions surrounding the remembrance of the dead, perhaps the most unnerving Armenian custom is that of the blessing of madagh, or the ritual slaughter of an animal. This is an official liturgical and sacramental service of the Armenian Apostolic Church, with the text and prayers of the service being found in the Մաշտոց/Mashdots, the Ritual Book of the Armenian Church. Still a common practice in the Republic of Armenia, many Armenian-Americans have encountered the Blessing of the Madagh when a lamb is sacrificed in Armenia upon the arrival of a visiting family member. Today, as Bishop Daniel Findikyan wrote about madagh several years ago, the “ritual is very common in Armenia, where people offer a madagh sacrifice as a pious gesture on various occasions: upon the baptism or wedding of a child, on a birthday, to honor a special guest, or as a memorial to a loved one on the anniversary of his death.” While the practice of madagh is more widespread than a remembrance for the dead, one of the main times a madagh is offered is for the remembrance of a loved one who has passed away. Over time, the madagh has been particularly associated with the Hishadag Merelots following the daghavar feasts: in Istanbul, today, for instance, many parishes have a special Badarak on the day following daghavar feasts where little packets of a sandwich are passed out.
Bishop Daniel and others who have written about madagh are clear that the practice is neither gruesome—it only appears so to us, Bishop Daniel writes, because “our sterile modern culture insulates us from the vivid details of what is, for most of the world, a daily and rather mundane task”—nor somehow pagan or anti-Christian. Even in the prayers of the Blessing of the Madagh (the main prayer is made available in translation by Bishop Daniel), it is clear that the Armenian practice of madagh is not a return to the sacrifices of the Old Testament which the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ has made unnecessary, but rather a beautiful fulfillment of the double injunction to love neighbor and to love God. As Bishop Daniel writes, the two “essential elements of the ceremony” are “personal sacrifice and charity.” The entire idea of the madagh is that the offering comes at some level of personal sacrifice, that it is a meaningful offering that therefore combines “a confession of the power of sacrifice to please God with the acknowledgment that salvation comes only from Christ.” At the same time, since the madagh is intended to be distributed to all those who attend the service, it is meant to be a mode of charitable giving, of supporting the poor and needy in a given community. Madagh, then, is a chance to demonstrate both love of God and love of neighbor.
As with many of the rituals, customs, and traditions of the Armenian Apostolic Church, with a little bit of understanding, something confusing or archaic becomes a powerful and beautiful expression of love of God. Madagh and other practices related to the commemoration of the dead do not easily translate into our twenty-first century lives in America. Such practices have also long been misunderstood: in St. Nersess Shnorhali’s eleventh century general epistle to all the Armenian faithful includes a defense of madagh against those who saw it as an unnecessary Old Testament throwback. If, alongside our great teachers and vartabeds like St. Nersess, we seek for the praiseworthy and meaningful reasons for such practices, we can see practices such as those surrounding the remembrance of the dead as a source of vitality for our faith—and we can also learn to be ourselves sources of sustenance for the entirety of the Church as the Body of Christ!
|The Window||A publication of the “Armenian Church Research and Analysis Group,” founded in 1989 by Fr. Vazken Movsesian and Hratch Tchilingarian, The Window was a major voice of constructive thinking in the Armenian Apostolic Church in the early 1990’s. Bishop Daniel’s early reflections on the practice of madagh can be found in Volume 2.|
|Liturgical Documents and Modern Studies on Madagh||The Zohrab Information Center contains many unpublished documents and letters that are a treasure-trove of information on Armenian history and Armenian Christian theology. This unpublished letter by Fr. Krikor Maksoudian on madagh is available from the collection of the Zohrab Center.|
|General Epistle||An English translation of St. Nersess Shnorhali’s General Epistle. Among other things, it includes a defense of the practice of madagh.|
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