In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God; 3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. 11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. 15 (John bore witness to him, and cried, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’”) 16 And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Eighth Day of Zadeeg: New Sunday), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Union with God the Word
What do we mean by the “Word of God?” Why do we refer to God as “The Word?” In Greek, the word is λόγος (logos), in Armenian, բան (pan). In contrast to pagan ideas about the λόγος, the Word in the Christian sense is not an abstract idea, principle, or philosophy. The notion of «Բան» is one of expression and communication. So what does God as «Բան» mean? It means God wants to communicate with us, that is, he wants to commune, to be with us, to share his divine life with us.
And so Christians refer to the Bible as the Word of God in its truest sense, not as a book, or the ink on the pages of a book, but the Incarnate Son God, the person of Jesus Christ who wants to communicate to us, share himself with us as the creative Word (John 1:1), the breath of God – Asdvadzashoonch. As such, the Church asserts that all written words in the Bible, including the Old Testament, can only be properly interpreted and understood in light of our knowledge and experience of the person, Jesus Christ.
Many times we refer to having a “relationship with God,” but that is not what the Scriptures teach (in fact, one would be hard-pressed to even find the word “relationship” in the Bible), nor is it taught throughout the ancient Church. Even more, it’s not a relationship that we should be after. Inherent in “relationship” is the notion of distance, and as sinful beings, we require more than a relationship. In the sacrament of marriage, the husband and wife are not in a relationship, simply because the two are one. Likewise, there is no relationship between us and God when we are in union with him. Again, there can be no relationship when the two become one. And so what God desires for us, that which he created us for is communion, unity with our Healer, with God as «Բան,» a self-giving, self-expressing, self-communicating Lord who shares himself with us. That is the heart of the Christian faith and it is with what John opens and further reveals throughout his Gospel.
To be a child of God (John 1:12) is not about moral behavior, or moral betterment, although moral behavior is an outcome of a life in union with God. In other words, the starting point of our life of faith is not morality or behavior modification. Again, it is communion. As St. Athanasius wrote,
For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.
Christianity is about Jesus infusing us, the cosmos, with his resurrection life. As St. Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” (I Corinthians 15:17) Morality, liturgy, theology, the life of the Church flows from the conviction and reality that Jesus is the resurrected Lord and Savior of the world.
And so Jesus became what we are so that we could become what he is, partakers in his divine nature. By sharing our humanity, he has opened the way for us to share his divinity:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. (II Peter 1:3-4)
Through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, this grand act of salvation, our nature is sanctified, redeemed, divinized, made holy. So that we could live like him, see and love others as he sees and loves them. So that we could forgive like he forgives. How else could we love and forgive our enemies if not united with God who is love? We are not children of God, or belong to his Body, the Church, by name only, but because he joined his nature to ours. The 10th century Bishop, Khosrov Antsevatsi, the father of St. Gregory of Narek, in his commentary on the Holy Badarak writes about our union with God:
So intense was your love towards us that You could not be content with having one Son of Your own nature and us who were adopted by grace. Instead, overcome by Your love for humanity, You wished to unite Him to us to become our head and we His body and limbs and thus to become one through Christ’s body and blood, joined and conformed to Him. (adapted from trans. by S. Peter Cowe).
In the Beginning
New Sunday (Նոր Կիրակի, Կրկնազատիկ) reminds us of beginnings, the newness of life, a fresh start. The Gospel reading for the day opens with the words, “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1), which of course is meant to recall the same words that open the Scriptures, “In the beginning, God…” (Genesis 1:1). While the account in Genesis speaks of God as Creator, the account in John’s Gospel speaks of God as the Word, in the person of Jesus Christ, and even speaks of Jesus as Creator (vv. 2-3) when he writes, “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (see also John 17:5, Colossians 1:16, I Corinthians 8:6).
While Genesis is about the creation of the world (the cosmos) and climaxes in the creation of Adam and Eve (humanity), John’s “creation account” is about the renewal of creation in Christ. The Gospel is the story of God and the world, the Creator-God in the world as flesh and blood, a human being like us. In his opening lines John already lays the foundation, hinting at the resurrection of Christ and how it directly involves human beings when he writes of the Word, “In him was life and the life was the light of men.” (v. 4)
The same Light that overcame the darkness in the beginning of creation overcomes a different kind of darkness. In the third chapter of his Gospel, John writes, “the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” When we lack love, when we cut ourselves off from the Author of life, our deeds reflect such a turning away from God. St. John Chrysostom commenting on John’s Gospel writes,
He enlightens all who live in him. But if some, willfully closing the eyes of their mind, would not receive the rays of that light, their darkness arises not from the nature of the light but from their own wickedness as they willfully deprive themselves of the gift.
But the same Holy Spirit who hovered over the chaotic waters in the creation account of Genesis (1:2), through baptism brings order and Light to the chaos and darkness in our lives. As John writes (1:5), “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Just as St. Gregory became known as “the Illuminator” or “the Enlightener” according to the biblical image of baptism as receiving the light of Christ, we too are illumined with faith and enlightened with the knowledge of God at baptism. Through baptism we vow to take up the mission of Jesus Christ in our lives, to bring the Light of Jesus Christ to the darkness of this world, and order to the chaos of the human heart.
Again, Jesus is the means by which God comes to dwell with his people, as John writes (1:14),
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory.
We have seen God in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, to know God is to know Jesus Christ, and to know Jesus Christ we listen to the “man sent from God whose name was John (the Baptist, the Forerunner),” who preached baptism, who came “to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.” (vv. 6-8) Recall often the prayer of baptism recited by the priest, which is all about renewal:
You who have called this your servant, O Lord, to the holiness and the enlightenment of baptism…put off him/her the old garment of sins and renew him/her unto a new life. Fill him/her with the renewal of the glory of Christ.
How can our baptism continue to draw us into deeper knowledge of God? As many of our liturgical services recall our baptism (references to water, death and resurrection), look for opportunities to renew your baptismal vow. Does our daily life as individuals, as a community, reflect the promises made at our baptism – “in the beginning” of our faith journey? Every day we arise is an opportunity for renewal. And so daily we should pray that the Lord help us to live a life worthy of the name Christian to which we have been called at Baptism and help us to fulfill our baptismal vows and to lean into the promises he made to us.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is thy faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)
The Incarnation and Badarak
In the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel (vv. 53-56), Jesus delivers a controversial discourse in which he asserts,
Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
Badarak, a celebration of the resurrection of Christ, which Jesus explicitly connects with his incarnation, is rooted and grounded in flesh and blood. It is interpreted in terms of the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, the mystery of God-With-Us in the person of Jesus Christ who came to us in the flesh of the Virgin Mary. This is why Armenian Christians chose John 1:1-14 as the last Gospel read during Badarak, a custom borrowed from the medieval Roman Mass, and also why we customarily place an image of Mary and the Christ Child over the altar table where Holy Communion is celebrated.
As we all face eastward to pray, including the priest, the image of Christ with the Mother of God is the focus of our attention. Why do we prefer this image and not something else, such as an image of the cross, the crucifixion of Christ, or even his resurrection? Because the image of the Virgin with her infant Son celebrates the incarnation of Christ, when the Virgin Mary became the living temple of the incarnate Lord. Mary is the source of Christ’s humanity, the portal by which God himself entered the world as a human being. It is through Mary that salvation was brought into the world in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. What better image to place above the table upon which the chalice containing the gifts of the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ? Hence, the image of the Mother of God and the Christ Child is an image of the Incarnation, the mystery of God-With-Us in Body and Blood.
Embedded within the Badarak and spanning several pages is what is referred to as the Eucharistic Prayer, the entirety of which is an understanding of the Incarnation and its direct connection to our salvation, to Holy Communion. The celebrant prays,
For having become man truly and without illusion, and having become incarnate, through union without confusion, through the Mother of God, the holy virgin Mary, he journeyed through all the passions of our human life without sin and came willingly to the world-saving cross, which was the occasion of our redemption. Taking the bread…Likewise taking the cup, he blessed it, gave thanks, drank and gave it to his chosen…for the purification and remission of sins.
It is in the sacred meal of Badarak that Christ established and continues to renew a new communion of love and fellowship between God and humanity, opened up and made possible by way of his incarnation.
When we celebrate Badarak and share Holy Communion, do we take seriously its significance? As we are filled with the incarnate flesh and blood of Christ, do we live as though God has elevated us, divinized us, made us truly holy, sharing his divine Life? As Jesus unites with us, do we unite with one another? If God became man, what does that mean for us? How should we view and treat each other? A significant element of the Incarnation, St. Paul tells us, is that Jesus not only took on the likeness of men, but emptied himself and took on the form of a servant (Philippians 2:6-7). Do our lives reflect the Incarnation in this way? Do we empty ourselves, show humility, sacrifice our ego and personal attachments, serve and put others first?
If Badarak is the source of our faith and spirituality, do we live what it demands? If during Badarak and at our Baptism, we participate in the birth, death, life, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, does our life as a community reflect such communion with such profound divinity? Do we even realize our divine status, the glory to which we have been returned? In what areas of our lives does God’s holiness not permeate?
God has come into our world in the person of Jesus Christ so that by sharing in our life we might share in his life. The Sacraments of the Church are not just rituals and traditions to please God and wipe the slate clean. They are not visible signs to dispense an invisible grace, not according to the Armenian Church’s understanding, anyway. Neither do we celebrate them as fits of nostalgia, allegorically, superstitiously, or to preserve the traditions of the Armenian Church. They are not dramatic reenactments of the Gospel or the life of Christ. Rather, through the Sacraments we are reoriented toward our Savior, who is the Gospel. They empower us, the Church, to bring peace and healing to the world, and so through them the Church becomes ever more what it is and is meant to be–the Body of Christ. Through our baptism, Badarak, and the sacramental life of the Church, we come to know God, we unite with him, we are given his resurrected life so that we can love as God loves, forgive as God forgives, and see the world and one another with his eyes, because through the Church he comes to dwell in us (John 1:14) and compels us to share his love in and with the world.
So what do we do with all of this if we cannot physically attend Badarak nor share Holy Communion?
To say that our current situation is less than ideal is an understatement, but for many, the deprivation of sharing Holy Communion isn’t necessarily new. Geographical, practical, or physical limitations often prevent one’s access to an Armenian Church, and so the regular sharing of Holy Communion is not regular for many. And keep in mind, not every Church that offers the Body and Blood of Christ, and may be accessible, is in full communion with the Armenian Church and so may not allow our faithful to partake. The point being, the picture right now is grim and we long to for the opportunity and freedom to celebrate Badarak in person.
Taking Things for Granted
Speaking of longing, it would perhaps be a good exercise to recall the last time we have longed, yearned, experienced a real hunger for the Body and Blood of Christ. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s possible we have taken for granted the regularity of sharing the Cup. If so, it would do us well to turn from such a casual and routine approach to a mystery that is so utterly profound, so life-giving, and see it as the divine gift and privilege that it is. Such a privilege requires a truly repentant heart, and there is no government restriction or limitation as to our repentance, to allow the active life of Christ to quicken us and make us more like him, especially in these dark days. So this is an invitation to ponder the seriousness and awesomeness of the Sacraments as we look forward to the time when we hear the deacon call the family of God forward to chalice to taste salvation: “In fear and in faith draw near and communicate in holiness.” And then, after much yearning, we will share together that which is holy, healing, and essential to our lives with the deepest gratitude. As the Psalmist sang:
«Ճաշակեցէք եւ տեսէք` զի քաղցր է Տէր…» Relish, eat, taste, experience, and see that the Lord is gentle and sweet… (Psalm 33/34:8)
Of course we experience communion «հաղորդութիւն» (haghortootyoon) with God and with one another whenever we share the Body and Blood of Christ in the Mystery or Sacrament of Holy Communion, but that is just the beginning. Holy Communion is more than the bread and wine. Holy Communion takes place as soon as we exit the doors of the Church, in the place we find ourselves in right now – home, isolated, in the world. Holy Communion is the divine life God shares with us, the union with God we experience as we live with him, for him, and in him. In this moment, Jesus Christ is active in our lives as much as we allow his eternal life to permeate every corner of our being.
Jesus understands our suffering and deprivation, but he was never for a moment deprived of communion with his Father. St. Paul talking about Holy Communion writes, “We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (I Corinthians 10:17) During this pandemic, we are still one body, joined through baptism, joined by our Head, Jesus Christ. This doesn’t mean sharing the Body and Blood of Christ isn’t necessary. It is necessary and we are all deprived of something when we don’t share it. The point is, Holy Communion is not limited by geographical distance or isolation.
Furthermore, the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the Body and Blood that we have already shared does not expire. It sustains. This is not to say that we should only approach the chalice twice a year, if that, but to make the point that Holy Communion, the Mystery we celebrate as the Church during Badarak, isn’t magic, and it isn’t temporary. There are stories of desert monks who shared Holy Communion only a few times in their lives, still being nourished by God’s Word and resurrected life as they experienced it in their own.
And so we look forward to the time when we will once again gather as a community, with the family of God we have missed and perhaps have taken for granted, but for now, this is an opportunity to gain some perspective and take seriously what it means to have the privilege to regularly approach the cup of salvation with a truly repentant heart and to allow the reality and significance of the Mystery of Holy Communion to become a part of our being – that reality being the Creator of the Universe took on flesh and blood in person of Jesus Christ, was crucified and is resurrected, and now gives himself back to us, sharing his divine life in the gifts we offer him, the bread and wine, so that we can become one with the eternal him, the eternal Word.