In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. 2 This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. 7 And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Feast of the Assumption of the Mother of God), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Every year, on the Sunday nearest August 15, the Armenian Church celebrates one of the five major feasts and the oldest of the seven Marian feasts, the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God (Վերափոխումն Սուրբ Աստուածածնի), a feast lasting nine days. According to tradition, St. Bartholomew, who was absent at the time of Mary’s funeral, returned to Jerusalem to visit her tomb one last time only to find that her body was not there. The empty tomb along with singing angels for three days and nights confirmed that Jesus had assumed (taken up) his mother to be with him. The Armenian Church celebrates her assumption as she is now with her Son as Protector and Intercessor for the Church.
Offering Our First Fruits
On this feast day, following Badarak, we celebrate a ceremony of blessing grapes called Khaghoghorhnek. Traditionally, our ancestors conducted this blessing whenever grapes were ripe and harvested in Armenia, and so it is not originally or directly associated with the veneration of the Mother of God. It echoes the ancient Law of Moses which required the people to sacrificially offer the finest portion of their first fruits as thanksgiving to God from whom all gifts are given.
Just as grapes were the most precious of crops in Armenia, we offer what is most precious to us – our lives. The love of Christ knew no limits. His death on the Cross was because of our own sin and ugliness, and so we don’t offer just a portion of our lives, but our lives in their entirety, our very being. As we bring to God abundant clusters of grapes, we give thanks and acknowledge our dependence on God for everything, knowing that “all good gifts and all perfect bounties come down from above” (p. 53) as we sing together at the end of Badarak, itself a “Eucharist,” a thanksgiving offering.
In another way, grapes remind us of the Holy Communion we share with God by way of his Body and Blood, the flesh of humanity that Jesus took on through the Virgin Mary. Just as we offer grapes to God and receive them back as blessed, the gifts of the bread and wine are brought to the holy altar, offered to God on behalf of the people so that he will bless them and give them back to us as his own Body and Blood. As a community, we essentially bring to God our selves, our most basic needs to sustain our lives (symbolized by wheat and grapes), and ask him to take us, change us, to bless us by giving himself back to his people for forgiveness, healing, and salvation.
On this feast day, the Church also gives thanks to God for the gift of his Mother and her gift to the Church and to the world. She set aside her agenda and aspirations for her own life, and instead offered herself fully to God for his will and work in the world, as should we. Mary gave her best and so should we, not only because the Virgin Mary is a good model to follow, but because what she demonstrated is authentic Christian faith. Who or what is first in our lives? To whom or what do we offer our best time, talent, and resources? If it is not God, then it is something or someone else. And let’s not take for granted or just flippantly assume we place God first. None of us are immune to being distracted from what matters most.
One of the lectionary readings for this feast day comes from the book of Proverbs:
Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce. (Proverbs 3:9)
Like the grapes, like the bread and wine, we too are gifts offered to God, and so we offer ourselves as disciples for doing his will and work in the world. Let us remember the example of the Virgin Mary, not just through our beautiful ancestral customs, but through authentic Christ-infused living. On this day, let us remember the Mother of God as did St. Gregory of Narek when he referred to her as a “blessed cluster of grapes from ancient days.”
The Mother of God in the Armenian Church
It’s not easy to miss Mary in the Armenian Church. Her presence, as well as in other ancient church traditions, is anything but subtle. To this day in Jerusalem, the Armenian Church celebrates Badarak at the Mother of God’s empty tomb every morning. Her name and status as Mother of God, Mother of the Church, Ever-Virgin, Immaculate, All-Holy, among so many other names, are mentioned in all of our services and her intercession is sought in most of our prayers. In fact, Mary is the first person audibly mentioned in Badarak! The opening prayer of the priest following his entrance into the church asks, “By the intercession of the holy Mother of God, O Lord, receive our supplications and save us.”
Mary’s status as Mother of God proclaims to the Church what the evangelist St. John wrote in his Gospel, that Mary’s Son is none other than the eternal Word of God:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:1, 14)
As a result, the two titles accorded to Mary are “Mother of God” (Asdvadzamayr / Աստուածամայր) and “Birth-Giver of God” (Asdvadzadzeen / Աստուածածին). To call her anything less is to deny that Jesus is God and to diminish the mystery of Christ. And so our understanding of who Jesus Christ is begins with the affirmation that the child born of the Virgin is the eternal Word of God who became flesh of Mary in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, Mary, as Mother of God, is not only a definitive part of the Creed, our statement of faith, but also Holy Communion where God comes to his people by way of his life-giving Body and Blood.
The Mother of God conceived and held in her arms the eternal God without beginning, and so we rightfully venerate her and love her for who she is and what she has done. That paradoxical, poignant image of Mary, human like us, holding in her arms the One who cannot be embraced, is depicted in the Introit sung on the Feast of the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God as an expression of faith inviting prayerful engagement into the joint mystery of Christ and the Mother of God:
O unwed Mother of God, you conceived the Word who has no beginning, and incomprehensibly you gave birth to God. You held in your arms the One who cannot be embraced. Intercede with him unceasingly for our souls.
The Son of God: Augustus Caesar or Jesus Christ?
What does the mention of a decree from Caesar Augustus “that all the world should be enrolled” tell us about Jesus, the “first-born” and what he came to do? Born with the name Octavianus, Caesar Augustus was the adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar, who was posthumously declared as divine, a god of the Roman state. Following a military success, Ocatavianus turned the Roman republic into an empire with himself as sole ruler, titling himself “Imperator Caesar Divi Filius,” which translates as “Commander Caesar, son of the deified one” or “Commander Caesar, Son of the God.” With this divine title, Caesar Augustus brought what he believed to be justice and peace not just to Rome, but to the whole world.
When Jesus Christ, the Son of God who is without genealogy, enrolled in humanity by being counted among us, he enabled us to be enrolled in the name of God, sharing his divinity. In other words, by taking human nature upon himself, Jesus, who is God, shared with us his divine nature. Christianity is not about correct doctrine, nor being the most true of all world religions, nor the religion I happened to be born into, nor the religion Armenians happened to adopt as a nation. It’s not even about being a good person. It’s about encountering Truth as a person, Jesus Christ, and intimately uniting with him, becoming partakers of his divine nature for salvation, hope, and healing. In one of the lectionary readings for Sunday (Galatians 4:4-6) we read about our adoption as sons of God by the Son of God:
But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.
Augustus was adopted and primary heir to the title Caesar, a “son of a god,” and held primacy over the Roman world, and in his mind that is the whole world. Jesus, the true Son of God, the first-born over all of creation, adopts us as his sons and daughters, shares with us his divine blessings, and makes us heirs to the whole world (Romans 4:13), to his Kingdom, heirs in hope of eternal life (Titus 3:7). Through the Mysteries (Sacraments) of the Church, through baptism and Holy Communion, we partake and share in the divinity of Christ himself (Hebrews 3:14, II Peter 1:4), we obtain new birth in Christ, and adoption by he who has no genealogy (see Hebrews 7:1-3 from Sunday’s lectionary), by the One who was born of the Virgin Mary (Isaiah 7:14), so that we can be ancestors of Jesus, as divine sons of God (see Luke 3:23-38 – “Jesus, the son of Joseph, the son of Heli…the son of Adam, the son of God”).
Caesar Augustus was viewed by his people as the savior of the world, he was king and lord and was worshipped by some as a god. And so Augustus Caesar’s birth is a confrontation between the Kingdom of God and all other kingdoms in this world. Jesus is the first-born among us, over the whole world, all of creation (Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:15, 18), which means that each one of us, our parish community, the global Armenian Church, is subject to him. As the Son of God, Jesus is preeminent and holds primacy. Do we choose Jesus as the true Son of God? What else do we worship as gods, set up as idols? Do we knowingly or unknowingly title ourselves as ruler over our lives, or like our offering of grapes, do we offer our best, our worst, our fears, sin, egos, good deeds, the first fruits of our lives to Jesus Christ? What do we allow to compete with the primacy of Jesus Christ, breaking our communion with God and with one another? Do we live out the promises of our baptism, as adopted sons of God?
Worthy and Fragrant
Mary was the first person to say yes to Jesus Christ. Declaring herself as handmaid of the Lord, she was a devoted, model disciple to the end. We see in her the full journey of faith, our own journey, where a life of genuine faith leads. The holiness of the Mother of God marks the path we all must follow, every Christian, even looking forward to the same reward in death. But do we live as though we have been touched and influenced by the Mother of God? Do we live “fragrant lives” in memory of her? Like the Mother of God, are we “worthy residents in the land of the living?” In his Encomium on the Holy Virgin, St. Gregory of Narek writes:
The (true) riches of greatness culminated today in a tangible way in you, who soared to the heights of heaven in a body that is incapable of corruption and disintegration, in the presence of which the indebtedness to death shamefully dissipated. And you were deemed a worthy resident in the land of the living, a cohabitant with your Lord, O holy Mother of the Lord. Plead for mercy always for those who sojourn in this deep abyss. (trans. Abraham Terian)
We do not mourn the death of the Mother of God. The Feast of Assumption is a proclamation of the resurrection that awaits us. Through her assumption, the mystery of death is revealed. The Mother of God was welcomed into the arms of the Son of God where she is alive, eternally united with him. In the same encomium, St. Gregory writes,
Rejoice and be exulted, O indescribable dwelling of the uncreated God born of you; for upon death you were raised like light to the heavens above, with marvelous glory, by this very Child of your caring. And with the light wings of the Spirit you soared to the comprehensible stations (of heaven), flying high to your eternal resting place. (trans. Abraham Terian)
The Feast of Assumption tells us that Jesus fills even death with his eternal life. The unnatural rupture caused by death has been transformed into life and union with God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those who have died are said to rest “in the shadow of the Church.” In other words, though they are dead, they do not cease to exist, nor are they detached from the Church, the Body of Christ. This includes Mary, the Mother of the Church. And so we ask her to intercede for us and to protect us. To her Son, Jesus Christ we pray the words of St. Gregory of Narek from his Litany for the Assumption of the Most Blessed Holy Bearer of God,
Grant us that earnest desire for love and good works, we pray. To establish us firmly in living fragrant lives in memory of your Mother and Bearer, O God, we plead. (trans. by Abraham Terian)
May the fragrant grapes we offer on the Feast of the Assumption of the Mother of God remind us of the lives we are called to offer God on a daily, a momentary basis, lives that emulate the pure and immaculate Virgin, a life that the reflects an unceasing “yes” to the will and blessings of the Son of God.