Prior to my departure for Holy Etchmiadzin in order to fulfil my forty days of seclusion, there was a rather uneasy feeling within the borders of the Eastern Diocese. This uneasy feeling I describe has to do with the language of the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church. Having been out of the country and out of touch for a few weeks, I don’t even know if these thoughts of mine are still relevant.
As I have been studying the liturgy in preparation for the celebration of my first Divine Liturgy, I have come to the realization that a few questions need to be pondered before approaching any issue of language in regard to the Armenian Divine Liturgy. For example, what is one’s relationship with God? Does an individual who claims to be a follower of the triune God, i.e. a Christian, does he/she understand his/her relationship with the Almighty Creator? Is one’s relationship and understanding that, “I as a creation of the almighty owe my existence, family, material wealth, talents and very life to Him?” If the answer is no, then stop reading and don’t waste your time finishing this article – go back to your busy life and try to make time for God when you see fit. If you do have an understanding of your relationship with God, what does that mean to you, what do you understand it to be and what does the church tell you what it should be? In a perfect world the answers to all three of these questions would be of the same mind and understanding. We do however live in a fallen world and at times what the Church thinks and what I as an individual think are not always in concert with one-another. Given this premise, we must always ask ourselves, “What is the ideal?” (of course knowing that one can never attain the perfect, but must always strive for perfection in everything). Long before any of us sought out a relationship with God, a man asked Christ what he must do to have eternal life. We assume from the passage (Mt. 19: 16-22) that this man was a good abiding citizen who followed the religious laws, and yet when Christ asked him to go the extra distance by selling what he possessed, give to the poor and to follow Him in order to have that perfect relationship with God. That man walked away sorrowful because he was not willing to make the extra effort involved. He wanted a perfect eternal relationship with God at a discounted price.
For as long as history has been recorded, mankind, prompted by Satan, has always been looking for the easy way out. What drives us to attain what we cannot have or to have the desire to want something and to possess it? Why does one spend countless hours hitting a bucket of golf balls whenever he or she gets the opportunity? Of course he/she is trying to improve one’s golf game. There is a desire to, as they say, hit a perfect game or to get a hole in one. Why? Because playing golf well is of great importance to that person. Do avid golfers quit playing after a few rounds of golf just because it is the “same” game time and time again? Of course not, the experience (even on the same golf course) is different each time they go to play. It might be said that our experience and relationship with God is very similar. I realize that the connection between our faith experience and the game of golf is a bit unrealistic, however there are some similarities. We attend the same liturgy – with few variations, every week. We struggle each week to improve our relationship with God by trying to enter into that very communion with Him whereby we literally and figuratively taste the Kingdom of God, that which we desire. Does it happen always every week? For me not always, however I am not discouraged but become more determined to make a better effort. I try to always keep in mind that God is the Almighty and that I am a lowly and unworthy servant of His and that I owe everything to Him. This is why I have chosen to dedicate my life to the service of God. This is not to say that in order to show appreciation everyone must become a priest. However, what I am saying is that all individuals must first find their sense of realization as to how they are indebted to God and then and only then they must tell themselves it’s still not enough. It is when one has this realization of what their relationship is with the Almighty that they may approach the Divine Liturgy with a basic understanding of what a relationship with God can be.
This morning following Matins, I saw an older woman named Rouzan who was venerating one of the paintings in the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin with great piety. I approached her and asked if she understood the language of the Divine Liturgy or of Matins? She explained to me that the Divine Liturgy was the life of Christ and that the Jhamerkutiun (Matins) was exactly that, the singing and praising of the hour. I further asked if she understood the words, she said no but that her grandmother had been bringing her to church ever since she was a child and that her faith and understanding of God grew and developed over the years. Her faith development came over a long period of time. For this woman language was neither a barrier nor an excuse for her desire to worship God. If Rouzan is not using the seventy years of Soviet oppression as an excuse, then what is the excuse of us Americans living in a free land? It seems that our desire is not for the long haul. We are a product of the “Now” generation. We want to fully comprehend the mystery of the Armenian Divine Liturgy NOW! In my brief lifespan I conservatively have attended over 1,500 Divine Liturgies, and I am neither bored nor am I in a position to say that I fully comprehend this Divine Mystery. It is not enough to understand mere words; one must be able to understand the deep theological meaning behind them.
St. Gregory of Narek, one of the Armenian Church’s greatest Saints and Theologians gives us the mindset whereby we should approach the liturgy, “Almighty…we beseech you with outstretched arms, tears and prayer, as we appear before you, you, who strike terror in our hearts, judge as we approach with trembling and fear, presenting first this sacrificial offering of words to your power that is beyond understanding.” (Prayer #35f)
As best as I know, the Divine Liturgy is not meant to be totally understood, this is why our church fathers called it a mystery or “khorhoort”. The very first hymn of the liturgy begins, “O Mystery deep, inscrutable, without beginning…”. We are not meant, none of us – even the clergy, to fully understand and comprehend the deep theology and mysticism of our liturgy. When we claim that through a language (English) we can understand our rich liturgy, we are fooling ourselves and creating a false sense of understanding. Our liturgy is not meant to be fully understood and it is meant to be prayed in hopes that we may someday be worthy of what it promises for us.
As the past director of the ACYOA Armenia Service Program, I’ve had the honor of leading dozens of young Armenian American College students on pilgrimages to Armenia and specifically to Camp Siranoush. Often the ACYOA participants did not know much Armenian if any at all. I have often witnessed with my own eyes how non-Armenian speaking participants would go off with a small group of Armenian-only speaking campers – many times alone for hours at a time. Upon their return, the smiles, hugs and promises to see one-another at the next meal spoke volumes to me about what communication is all about. That special communication took place without many words, it took place with love, emotion, dedication, a willingness to be frustrated at not always understanding one-another and a lot of patience and sacrifice. These relationships transcended a flawed language and often would be life changing for those involved. Our bond with God is the same.
While in college and later in life, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel the world over. Whether in Paris, Syria, Jerusalem, England, Switzerland, or even South Africa,my experience has been one of “coming home” whenever I’ve had the privilege to participate in the Armenian Divine Liturgy. It has been the same no matter where in the world I’ve been. It serves as a common bond which ties us together as Armenian Christians.
As the pastor of a community, if members of my flock do not understand their basic relationship with God in relation to the Divine Liturgy, then it is my fault as their pastor. My ministry is to help people reach up to the heavenly gifts God offers, not to spoon-feed them and to allow them to think that they understand something which in reality they don’t. To this point, the fault lies with us, the clergy.
The process of our ancient and rich Divine Liturgy is not a two-hour process on Sunday mornings. The Divine Liturgy begins the moment we leave the liturgy the previous week and it continues during the week with prayer, the reading of scripture, fasting, studying the English translation of the liturgy, reading commentaries, doing good works and loving one-another in the same way God has shown his love for us. Then and only then can one begin to understand and approach the mystery of the liturgy. In this way we are at least attempting to respond to God’s infinite love for us rather than be arrogant. It is when we accept the tremendous yet sweet responsibility of being a Christian who lives in this fallen world that with trembling and with fear and faith that we can approach the mystery of the liturgy. As Armenians, when have we ever sought the easy way out? On the contrary, we have always stood up to accept the challenges which have been presented to us and many times we have chosen death over the easy way out.
Let us not walk away from our relationship with Christ in the same way that the man who sought eternal happiness did, being sorrowful because we’re too lazy to respond to God’s infinite love.