Lazarus Saturday

In the Armenian Church, Holy Week (Աւագ Շաբաթ) begins not on Palm Sunday, but on Lazarus Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday. It is not a fasting day or a saints’ day, even though Lazarus is a saint in the Armenian Church. It is a dominical day on which daily services, including Badarak, are celebrated. St. Gregory of Narek shows us how the story of Lazarus, the last event prior to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, properly initiates Holy Week and sets the theme of Zadeeg (Easter), and it is Zadeeg that sets the theme for our lives. From his Ode for the Raising of Lazarus, translated by Abraham Terian, St. Gregory writes:

The Gift able to transform the speechless, dead body,
The dead body wrapped in burial clothes, to be clothed and sealed with breath again by the Caller to Life.
The seal of death was broken as were the torments of hell,
The torments by the (evil) one who cannot harm the blessed assembly.
The great Hebrew assembly, a galaxy of thousands, praises in song the glory,
The glory of the One who bestows light, now and eternally. Amen.

Although the subject of the ode is the raising of Lazarus, St. Gregory is able to link that event with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday and ground the entire theme in the divinity of Christ. This ode affirms that it is not the story of the person of Lazarus that draws the attention for Armenian Christians, rather what it tells us about Jesus Christ, the Caller to Life, and the temporary chapter that is death. Jesus has conquered death, and shares with us his resurrection life (see Romans 8:11, I Peter 1:3). We read from the story of Lazarus in the gospel of John:

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:23-26)

Do we live as though Jesus has conquered death, transforming it from something to fear into something not to be feared, no longer a mystery to be explained, but a victory, a proclamation of the Lord’s victory over death. Has dying become our way of life? As St. Paul writes,

For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (see II Corinthians 4:11)

In other words, do we only wear the Cross around our necks, but ignore the suffering that it represents? Jesus doesn’t always remove our trials and suffering, but fills them with his presence, transforming them into something victorious, the catalyst by which we enter into the Kingdom of God and share in the resurrected and eternal life of Christ.

Palm Sunday

Gospel Reading: Matthew 20:29-21:17
See also: Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, John 12:12-19

Palm Sunday, referred to as Ծաղկազարդ (adorned with flowers), is liturgically known as “Canon for the Coming of Christ our God to Jerusalem on a Donkey.” The coming of Christ operates on two levels: Jesus’ coming into Jerusalem, the capital city in the final days of his earthly life, and his coming into the heavenly Jerusalem, his Kingdom. Even the Trisagion for the day expresses this dual meaning: «որ եկիր եւ գալոց ես» “You came and you will come again!” The two comings in dialogue with each other result in our theology of Ծաղկազարդ. Living between these two advents is the goal of every Christian, the hope that compels us to commune with the Church, the Body of Christ, and share his love with the world.

In the Gospel reading for Palm Sunday, Jesus tells two of his disciples to bring him a donkey and a colt in order to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem declared the establishment of the Kingdom of God, which is not an earthly kingdom with a political Messiah, as was expected by many during the time of Jesus, but God’s eternal kingdom revealed through the humble servant, Jesus Christ. Christ is not the earthly king they demanded and he is not the king or ruler we often demand him to be today. But he is the perfect, heavenly King who leads us to his Kingdom with a crown of thorns, a purple robe of mockery, and the Cross as his throne.

Humility and love is what marks the Kingdom of God, and sets it apart from our earthly values, paradigms, and institutions. Today, our humble king comes to us through the Church, and he calls us to follow him on the road of suffering and persecution, one that he promises brings blessing (երանութիւն) and the Kingdom of Heaven. And today his followers, the Church, join the voices of those who sang on that day in Jerusalem, “Hosanna in the highest!” because the one who humbly rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and was put to death on a cross reigns triumphant and victorious. Death could not hold our King.

Following Badarak, during Երեկոյեան Ժամ, the special service Դռնբացէք (Opening of the Doors) is celebrated, which directly connects Palm Sunday to the Church:

With a triumphant song, we praise your coming today in Jerusalem, the new, holy Church, O Christ.

One of the themes of this service is the parable of the Ten Virgins, a theme that will show up again on Great and Holy Tuesday. Why this parable? It’s about going through a door! During the service we beg and plead for God to open the door of the Church to us, as this service traditionally took place on either side of the Church door (and is not liturgically or theologically connected to the opening of the curtain). The heart of the Church is to want to be where God is, in the bridal chamber where we unite and commune with our Bridegroom! The words from Դռնբացէք makes plain as to what we find inside the doors of the Church:

For this is the door to heaven and the valley of sorrow that God pledged to Jacob; rest for the righteous, a place of expiation for sinners, Christ’s palace, a dwelling of angels, an assembly hall of the saints, a place of refuge and the house of God…for she is for us an immaculate mother and of her we are born sons and daughters of light and of truth. And she is for us the hope of life. And through her we find salvation for our souls. She is for us the path to righteousness and through her we ascend to Christ and to our heavenly Father.

Look at your lamp. Do we live as one the wise virgins or as one of the foolish virgins? Is it filled with the oil of preparation because we want to be where God is, to follow him, to walk with him no matter the cost, or will we be caught unprepared when Jesus comes to meet us because other things were more important than what we were created to be, in communion with our Bridegroom? What distracts or diverts us from preparing our lamps? How do we spend our time, money, and talents? With what temporary diversions do we try to fill our spiritual void? Where do we seek refuge if not the Church and the community within?

This parable sets the tone for the rest of Holy Week, and of course the urgency of our faith for the rest of our lives. Stay awake! Be prepared! Jesus is calling us to keep not only a reserve, but an abundance of oil in our lamps. How? If oil has any connection to mercy «ողորմութիւն», which traditionally and etymologically it does, then we stay awake and prepared with works of mercy, charity, and compassion, by bringing the light and healing of Christ to others. Love your neighbor just as the Good Samaritan who seeing a hurting stranger in need “went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine…and took care of him.” (Luke 10:34)

Palm Sunday, including Դռնբացէք, is about the most joyful and greatest entrance of all time, the entrance of God into our world and into our lives, the deepest longing of the human heart. As Great Lent began by recalling the Garden of Eden where the doors to Paradise and the Tree of Life were blocked, Դռնբացէք prepares us to recall the words of Christ,

I am the door; if any one enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.

Great and Holy Monday

Among this day’s readings is the parable of the wedding banquet. Guests thoughtlessly ignore a king’s invitation to a banquet and so the king throws open the invitation to others. Our baptism constitutes an invitation from Christ to belong to his Church and share his banquet every Sunday at Holy Badarak. But baptism should not be thought of as just a ticket to the banquet. At Baptism we are called and the promises made at our baptism are to be lived out on a daily basis, as individuals, as part of a community, the Church. It is what unites us as the corporate Body of Christ and grants us the privilege to sit at the table of the Lord to commune, to share life, and experience God’s forgiveness and healing as a family. Therefore, we should live a life worthy of our calling!

As a Church family, how are we keeping each other accountable to fulfill our baptismal vows? Are we regularly confessing our sins to each other or privately to a priest? Do we refrain from enjoying the banquet of Christ’s Body and Blood either by not regularly attending and participating in Badarak, or by convincing ourselves, many times with false pride, that we are unworthy to share Holy Communion? Jesus, who makes us worthy through him, invites all baptized believers to approach his banquet in which he offers himself as “gyank, hooys, harootyoon, kavootyoon, yev toghootyoon meghats” (“life, hope, resurrection, purification, and remission of sins”).

Great and Holy Tuesday

This day is the “Remembrance of the Ten Virgins.” During the Evening Service, ten youths are vested in choir robes, and each is given a lighted candle “following the example of the ten maidens” (Matthew 25:1-13). From the hymn sung during this service, how can we “prepare spiritual oil so that we may enter the bridal chamber of the immortal Bridegroom with burning lamps?” This preparation is the entire life and faith journey of any Christian. Arakel Bagheeshetsi of the 15th century tells us the importance of charity, mercy, and almsgiving (ողորմութիւն) as preparation for our Bridegroom:

But they didn’t show charity. The light of their holiness’ lamp went out, the door of the bridal chamber was shut, and they did not see the immortal Groom. The wise, however, who had brought oil, a symbol of charity, opened the door of the bridal chamber, and entering, they did see the ineffable King.

The parable of ten virgins makes it clear that we cannot borrow oil from others. The holy muron with which the priest anoints each baptized person is required for everyone to receive salvation from God. We cannot borrow someone’s baptism, nor can we borrow their works of compassion. Each person is responsible to share in the death and resurrection of Christ through baptism and accountable to live out and fulfill our baptismal pledge, preparing for Christ’s return. This, of course, is not a solo act, but lived out communally within a family, the Body of Christ. Every baptized individual has a special role to play in the Body of Christ, with unique gifts to share.

Great and Holy Wednesday

This day’s readings recall the woman who anointed Jesus with costly oil and is scolded by the apostles for its waste (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:1-11). Jesus defends her loving gesture, telling them that she has prepared his body for burial and that wherever the Gospel is preached in the world, “what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Are we captivated with love for Jesus Christ and a willingness to be broken? In other words, are we prepared and willing to give everything we have, to sacrifice those things and ideas that are most valuable to us, our very lives, our egos, our personal agendas, as an expression of our devotion to Christ? What connections to oil (mercy, compassion, almsgiving) does this story have in our everyday lives?

Great and Holy Thursday

Our entire faith journey is a journey back to the Garden, a restoration and renewal of our communion with God as a new creation (II Corinthians 5:17). Great Lent happens to be a microcosm of that journey, one that leads us to Զատիկ (Zadeeg), the return to the Garden where we, through Christ, can feast with our resurrected Lord at his banquet table. The Tree of Life can be understood as the Cross, and the life-giving fruit of that tree as the Body and Blood of Christ, the meal we share in Holy Badarak. On this day the Armenian Church recalls and celebrates the Last Supper.

We also recall Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. In first-century Palestine, as everyone wore sandals and the streets were hot and dusty, it was a simple custom of hospitality for the lowest-ranking servant to wash the feet of those gathered for a meal. In the Armenian Church, we remember Jesus’ example of humble service and the Church’s response to his divine mandate, “You also ought to wash one another’s feet,” (John 13:14) by celebrating Ոտնլուայ, the service of the Washing of the Feet. Because the ceremony has strong baptismal overtones, it functions as a general renewal of baptism. And once again, oil emerges with its theme of compassion, charity, and mercy as the priest anoints each person’s feet using oil. Separate vials of blessed oil (or butter) are then passed out to those in attendance to bring home and share with family and friends.

Just as Jesus gave thanks at the Last Supper before he distributed the bread and the wine, as we share Holy Communion, let us give thanks to God for showing us true hospitality by redeeming the waters of baptism, by providing the food that heals, saves, and restores communion with him and with one another. Give thanks and bless God with acts of gratitude, adoration, and mercy. We join the priest in his prayer during Badarak:

We give thanks to you, Lord, who have fed us at your table of immortal life; distributing your Body and your Blood for the salvation of the world and for life to our souls.

Why have Christians, for centuries, made the celebration of the Eucharistic meal a part of their lives? How have we, as individuals, as a parish community, taken this celebration for granted, especially during times when we are unable to attend? How have we missed the point of Badarak, focusing more on its inconvenient length rather than its prayerful, confessional, and saving content? How have we offered excuses to not attend Badarak rather than offered ourselves to God during Badarak? How else do we expect to be nourished to wash one another’s feet, if we are not regularly in the presence of our humble Master together with our family, the Body of Christ?

Great and Holy Friday

The hauntingly beautiful Խաւարում (Khavaroom) vigil recalls the last night of Jesus’ life in the Garden of Gethsemane, his agony and prayer, his arrest, and Judas’ blatant betrayal (Matthew 26:36-43, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46). (Note: Although this all-night vigil begins on the evening of Holy Thursday, it concludes with the Morning Service on Friday, and so it is liturgically considered the first service of Holy Friday). The Lord asked his disciples to “wait” for him while he went away to pray, but instead of being “vigilant” and prepared for the Lord’s return, the disciples fell asleep. This seemingly insignificant incident is actually a representation of our own lives. Like the disciples, Jesus, although still present, has (physically) left us too for a time and has commanded us to wait for him, and so the ancient ceremony of Խաւարում is a liturgical response to the Lord’s mandate to remain prayerful and vigilant throughout our earthly lives, always prepared for his imminent return.

One of the many beautiful traditions of the Armenian Church is Թաղում (Taghoom), the Service of Burial, when we prepare and place a decorated tomb in the tas. But what is it that we are really doing when we celebrate this service? Is it a sentimental reliving of the past in order to re-mourn the death of Jesus Christ? As with any liturgical celebration, the Church is not participating in nostalgia. Rather than reenacting the drama of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, the Թաղում service is a recalling of our Baptism, something that has real presence in our lives. Remember, it is not the memory of Jesus’ death and burial into which we are baptized, rather when we are immersed in the waters of baptism, we are truly and mystically united to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5).

Much of this has to do with the Church’s perception of time. When Jesus, who is God, was born with human flesh and blood, eternity broke into time and space, divinity and humanity became one, and heaven and earth were united. Thus, the Church’s perception of time is not linear, but eternal, and so when we honor the crucifixion and death of Jesus, we are commemorating an historical event, something that, of course, took place in our perception of time, but it is not something that is fully or truly past, not just a date on the calendar. In fact, we share in the one, eternal sacrifice of our Lord every time we share the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. Again, we don’t go back in time to share this meal, but as the priest prays while the people sing Soorp Soorp,

You gave us the only-begotten Son…for he is distributor and he himself is distributed always in our midst without ever being consumed.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t approach our services on Holy Friday without solemnity, in fact, we are instructed to sing with a special solemn melody. But as Christians, we know how the story of the crucifixion ends. In fact, we give praise for the crucifixion! Listen to the words we sing during the Crucifixion Service (Կարգ խաչելութեան) which do not necessarily sound mournful:

We bow to your Cross, Christ
And we exalt your sacred sufferings
And we glorify your holy crucifixion…
Glory to your holy Cross, Alleluia
Glory to your sufferings, Alleluia
Glory to your crucifixion, Alleluia…
The life-giving Cross which became our salvation
Through this, we all praise you…

Again, we participate in the one sacrifice of Christ every Badarak, so rather than mourning all over again for the crucifixion and death of Jesus, our heart and approach should be one of celebration. As we sing the final hymn, Խաչն կենարար, reflect on the Cross and look to Jesus Christ who gives us eternal life now, in every moment.

Great and Holy Saturday

Before Badarak is celebrated, on the bema in front of the closed curtain, a deacon or cantor reads Daniel 3:1-90 (deuterocanonical version), which is the last Scripture of the Ճռագալոյց (Jrakalooyts) Paschal Vigil, the text of which includes “The Song of the Three Youths in the Furnace.” The story of the three youths in the furnace anticipates Զատիկ (Zadeeg) having been interpreted by the early Church as an allusion to Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the flames of hell.

Just as Holy Week began with Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, demonstrating the temporality of death, Holy Week ends with Great and Holy Saturday on which we sing the Introit (Ժամամուտ) for Badarak proclaiming the central message of our Christian faith:

Christ is risen from the dead! By dying he trampled on death and by his resurrection he has given us the gift of life. To him be glory forever. Amen.

When we find ourselves in the furnace, that is, various trials and sufferings, do we respond like the three youth, “walking about in the midst of the flames, singing hymns to God and blessing the Lord?” Or do we panic, do we doubt and criticize, asking where is God? There will be times when we respond in such a way, and such doubt can be a sign of a healthy, working faith, but God is calling us to a place in which his grace enables us to respond like the three youth, able to see God filling our furnace with his healing presence. If Jesus resurrected from the dead, then what can hurt us? If, as St. Paul writes, “Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (I Corinthians 15:17) But Jesus did raise from the dead, and so, again as St. Paul writes,

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (II Corinthians 4:8-10)

If “death is swallowed up in victory” (I Corinthians 15:54), then it is true, no furnace, no trial, no pandemic, no disease, no hopeless situation or circumstance that can defeat the love, healing, and resurrected life of Christ, just as he has shown us in the story of the three youth:

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He said to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” He answered, “But I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”

By Dn. Eric Vozzy