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From March of 2009 to January of 2010, Very Reverend Father, Simeon Odabashian, took a sabbatical from his duties as Pastor of Sts. Sahag and Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church to visit, work and minister in Holy Etchmiadzin, Armenia. Hayr Soorp shared his travels with the parishioners of the church through this "Etchmiadzin Journal.
March 4, 2009 | March 9, 2009 | March 13, 2009 | March 19, 2009 | March 26, 2009 | March 28, 2009 | April 6, 2009 | April 10, 2009 | April 14, 2009 | April 18, 2009 | April 24, 2009 | April 26, 2009 | May 08, 2009 | June 15, 2009 | August 2, 2009 | August 19, 2009 | September 13, 2009 | October 5, 2009 | October 14, 2009 | October 29, 2009 | November 5, 2009 | November 23, 2009 | November 25, 2009 | December 7, 2009 | December 10, 2009 | December 17, 2009 | December 23, 2009 | December 30, 2009 | January 12, 2010
Opening Gallery | Hayortyats Youth Centers | March 26, 2009 | March 28, 2009 | April 6, 2009 | April 10, 2009 | April 14, 2009 | April 18, 2009 | April 24, 2009 | April 26, 2009 | May 8, 2009 | June 15, 2009 | August 2, 2009 | September 13, 2009 | December 7, 2009 | December 10, 2009 | December 17, 2009 | December 23, 2009
Yesterday completed my second week in residence at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. Providentially, I arrived on the eve of the great feast of Sts. Vartanantz, which is celebrated with great solemnity here. (BTW - I did not realize it was the feast when I booked my flight). Presided over by his Holiness the Catholicos of All Armenians, the holy Badarak was celebrated by the dean of the Kevorkian Seminary, Bishop Sahag Mashalian. Being the Name Day of Karekin Vehapar, the pontifical prayer was offered. I've attached some photos of my participation. On my first day here I was humbled to be given the honor of reading the epistle during the Pontifical Prayer. I was given a similar honor to read the gospel during a special Hokekankist held on March 1 for the victims of the post election violence, which took place in Yerevan one year ago.
Life here is very hectic. I awake each day to the ringing of the cathedral bells. Worship begins at 7:30 until about 8:30 with the participation of all the clergy and students residing here. (Evening service is also prayed each day at 5:30). The singing is amazing and truly uplifting. Presently, I have been assigned to write articles on various programs of the Mother See and challenges facing the church here, which will be appearing in Armenian English papers in the US and elsewhere. I've also been asked to help out in the Kevorkian Seminary.
From time to time I will send you updates on my adventures here. Perhaps the biggest challenge is getting to know so many people - there are a few hundred people who live and/or work or study in the Mother See. It's a very well organized operation, which is most competently overseen be the Catholicos himself.
Since coming to Holy Etchmiadzin I have befriended a member of the Brotherhood named Fr. Mampre Tashjian. He was formally the abbot of St. Gayane Church/Monastery. He survived a terrible car accident in November 2007. He later wrote an article on the experience, which I translated and would like to share with you as a witness to the power of our holy Christian faith so that "many non-believers and many who have gone astray will convert and believe in Me."
“Marvel” is probably the best word to describe the impression one gets spending time at one of Armenia’s Hayortyats Dunner or Armenian Youth Centers. Though the experience clearly elicits other emotions as well. In Armenian the centers are referred to as “dunner” - homes and that’s exactly the atmosphere found there.
Hayortyats was the brainchild of Archbishop Karekin Nersessian of the Araratian Pontifical Diocese (now Karekin II Catholicos of All Armenians). The first centers were opened in 1993 in the Arabkir and Malatia districts of Yerevan in buildings formerly housing the Pioneers (Soviet Youth). At present there are five additional functioning centers located in Nork, Vanatsor, Ashtarak, Kanaker and Etchmiadzin. A youth center in Shirak is currently in the works and Etchmiadzin is eagerly looking forward to moving into it's own fully renovated “Hratch and Susan Toufayan” Youth Center.
Hayortyats has assembled an impressive cadre of high level masters in the arts and expert sportsmen to impart their skills to youth whose talents are subsequently blossoming. All this made possible under the auspices of the Armenian Apostolic Church and Armenian General Benevolent Union.
Course offerings are impressive and include in part: karate, macramé, piano, dance, rug weaving, chorus, needlework, dhol (Armenian drum), drama, computer, journalism, sculpture, painting, miniature painting, dance and more. While there is overlap in courses offered in the various centers, each one understandably has its own forte, for example Nork excels with its circus arts, Malatia with its Karate, drama, drum corps and unique model plane class, and Arabkir with its Ayntab/Vaspuragan style needlepoint. Etchmiadzin is known for its wood carving, kanon, drum and violin classes.
The centers provide exceptional educational programming, which compliments the children’s public school classes. However, it’s not about learning for leaning’s sake, because all of the above is overarched by a well prepared and inspiring religious education program based on the sacred teachings of the Armenian Apostolic Church. A powerful Christian witness to the children is the presence of soup kitchens for the needy, which are attached to some of the centers. To further their understanding and experiencing of the Armenian faith, students participate in special programs based on major church feasts and go on pilgrimages to Armenia’s holy shrines. On Easter Sunday children from all the centers will converge on the city of Vagharshabad and conduct a procession parade led by the beat of the drum corps from the Monastery of St. Hripsime to the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin.
Accomplishments of the students have been most notable. For example, Arabkir’s Kantegh Choir produced a well received CD of liturgical, patriotic and German language songs. Students of the arts and sports have scored exceptionally in competitions both on the national and international levels.
Children who successfully complete the program are awarded a diploma. The directors and teachers proudly point out that many have gone on to the music conservatory and other areas of higher education and specialties. A few have entered seminary and several have returned as instructors at one of the centers.
Today Hayortyats provides after school education to over 2,600 students and much needed employment to almost 300 employees.
The success of such an endeavor is dependent on the ability and commitment of staff. To get a full picture of the Youth Centers, one need only to engage in conversation with Mrs. Aida Antreassian, Director of the Nork Center and assistant to the Spiritual Supervisor. She is one of the original movers and shakers, hand-picked by then Archbishop Karekin Nersessian.
Sharing her memories of the early days, in light of the dismal realities of life in Armenia in the early 1990’s, they “had little hope for the success of the endeavor. Nevertheless, thanks to the relentless encouragement of Karekin Srpazan and the most generous backing of Mrs. Louise Manoogian Simone of the AGBU, before long four centers, former Soviet youth palaces, were acquired, renovated and opened for use.”
Fr. Gomitas Hovnanian was appointed in October 2008 as Spiritual Supervisor of the entire Hayortyats Youth Center system. He came to his position with great enthusiasm and experience returning to serve the Mother See after pastoring churches in Germany and France for 27 years. The directors are thrilled with his spiritually charged leadership style. He also brings a solid musical education background.
When asked about his vision for Hayortyats, Fr. Gomitas expressed that, “Hayortyats is the place where we can offer formation to children in a few ways as it is under the umbrella of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Hayortyats forms them to be faithful Christians. It provides them the ability to think and to know the difference between right and wrong; and will create people, who not only know how to receive, but also more importantly how to give.”
Immediate plans concern attracting new students to the programs as numbers have declined because of economic challenges and fewer births in Armenia. In his role as spiritual supervisor, Fr. Gomitas is planning to personally visit along with some of his staff public schools local to each center to present concerts and exhibit the fruits of Hayortyats to parents and students. He is committed to building enthusiasm and is convinced that this enthusiasm will inspire more parents to enroll their children.
It goes without saying that Fr. Gomitas is the right person to usher in a new era of growth particularly in the spiritual realm for Hayortyats and that the Catholicos of All Armenians was wise to hand pick this appointment.
Fr. Gomitas is committed to promoting a genuine family spirit at Hayortyats. For him, “It’s one thing to teach a subject, it’s another thing to create an Armenian individual in the traditional Christian sense.”
It was also telling to hear from staff as to what makes Hayortyats so special. Hayortyats children have significant behavioral differences from their peers in school. They tend to be more focused and are higher achievers and exemplify a greater respect towards parents and teachers. It’s been observed that typically it takes a child three weeks to adapt to the Hayortyats environment and three years to be totally transformed.
Besides attracting new students, another issue to be tackled is the present condition of the facilities. Each center is more or less in need of some level of renovation, whether it be damaged and neglected roofs, ceilings, floors, or costly rebuilding of swimming pools and heating systems. As an example, a renovated aquatic center would be a great attraction and incentive to bring many new students to the Arabkir Center.
A constant challenge is attracting high caliber instructors with Christian commitment and connection to the Apostolic Church, who are willing to teach for considerably less salary than they would receive elsewhere.
Perhaps the most ominous threat to Hayortyants comes from religious movements, which are foreign to Armenia, but which come with abundant international funding and are aggressively proselytizing among uninformed desperate citizens and who have cleverly counterfeited the format of Hayortyats in everyway with one exception - their centers are well funded with updated facilities and well paid staff.
Hayortyats has a significant role to play in the strengthening of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Armenia. However, the challenges are formidable. If diasporan Armenians want to truly make a difference and assist the church in its mission, they need to step up and give their generous support to Hayortyats. They need to visit Armenia and make a point of visiting the centers, particularly those which are less frequented. They will be surprised at what they see. While today there are 7-8 centers (four of which are within Yerevan), with the help of generous contributors in Armenia and diaspora, there could be at least one youth center in every diocese in Armenia.
On another note, there’s no reason that the Hayortyats format could be not be adopted and implemented in dioceses and parishes throughout the world. It’s certainly a good alternative for communities unable to sustain accredited day schools, yet who want to provide meaningful programs for youth in addition to religious education.
Besides being absolutely impressed by the accomplishments of Hayortyats youth, one leaves with a genuine appreciation of the camaraderie among directors and faculty. It’s remarkable that despite their modest incomes, they have a high level of love, commitment, devotion and loyalty to the mission of Hayortyats, the Armenian Apostolic Church and the AGBU.
The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin and the Armenian General Benevolent Union are deserving of ceaseless praise for promoting and supporting the Hayortyats Youth Centers. The words of His Holiness Catholicos Karekin II thoughtfully summarize the mission of Hayortyats, “Every young boy or girl that walks through the doors of an Armenian Youth Center is given the opportunity to develop their God-given talents and abilities, surrounded by our sacred Christian values, the language of Mashtots, the spirit of Narek, the music of Gomitas and the steadfast faith of Vartan. Here they learn not only art, sculpture, song, dance, poetry and acrobatics, they also learn to serve with love their Church and their nation, inspired by the gospel of Jesus Christ and the examples of their sacred forebears.”
On March 18 I received a kind invitation to attend at special observance of “Michink” at the Etchmiadzin Hayortyats Doon. I arrived a little before 3:00 pm and was greeted by the director, Ms. Janetta Yeghiazarian, who escorted me to a large room which was filled to over capacity with children eager for the program to begin. It should be noted that this Hayortyatz is meeting in a temporary facility, which was at one time a kindergarten, but has since become very worn down. Nevertheless, in Hayortyats style, teachers are able to overcome all obstacles to nurture and develop children’s talents in exceptional ways.
I addressed a few words to the assembly, in which I reminded the children that Michink is the time when we recommit ourselves to true meaning of Lent, namely spiritual preparation leading us towards the joyous celebration of Christ’s resurrection, just 25 days away. After this Ms. Mariam Kirakosian, the religion teacher, gave an informative presentation regarding Michink and various folk customs surrounding this mid-day point of Great Lent. Of particularly interest was the tradition of baking pagharch (sweet bread) with a coin or button hidden within. The one who receives the piece containing the item will have a successful year. In the villages not only family members, but also animals were given a slice. Ms. Kirakosian, however, stressed that beyond these nice customs we must never lose sight of the true religious meaning of Michink, which is a reminder us of our Lenten commitments.
This led into a number of well-rehearsed musical and dance performances. The audience was treated to a rendition of Straus’ well known, “Blue Danube Waltz.,” played by the violin ensemble. The kanon class shared some American Ragtime music, a piece by Komitas and the popular Russian folksong, “Kalinka.” Dance classes offered a wide range of styles, from traditional Armenian folk style and Khachaturian’s “Mascarade Watlz” to Latin salsa. To keep everyone awake and alert the dhol boys presented a selection of their unique music.
Following the approximately 45 minute performances, Ms. Yeghiazarian and Ms. Kirakosian led me to various classrooms, where Michink “parties” were already in progress. A number of the parents had prepared “pagharch” and other treats for the children. I got to share one with the faculty members, however, I did not choose the lucky piece. Better luck next Michink.
Because of its proximity, I’ve been to this Hayortyats a number of times. I am so appreciative of the feeling of warmth and welcome each time I visit. I am convinced that when the move is made into their new facility in a few months, that this center will blossom, enrollment will sky-rocket, and this will be a shining star among the Hayortyats family.
Armenian Church’s Expanding Role in the Military
Some time ago through Catholic television in the United States I became aware of a high level ministry known as the Archdiocese of the Military. This archdiocese has no geographical boundaries, yet it has a diocesan structure with an archbishop based in Washington and priest chaplains stationed at every US military installation, base, warship, etc. in the world.
How pleased and proud I was to learn that Armenia has a quickly developing military chaplaincy program. In 1997 His Holiness Catholicos Karekin I appointed Father Vertanes Abrahamian as the first chaplain of the Armenian Army. Since then the program has grown to 30 chaplains, both priests and deacons, serving Armenia’s military forces. At the helm of this critical ministry is the since elevated Bishop Vertanes Abrahamian, himself as veteran of the Karabagh-Azeri conflict.
Last week I walked into a meeting of the chaplains and observed Bishop Vertanes at work strategically ordering the young clergy in his charge. My immediate thought was that here is a spiritual general at work. In some nations chaplains are granted military rank.
Like its American counterpart, the Armenian Diocese of the Armed Forces has a unique arrangement by which its religious jurisdiction encompasses all army bases and military institutes in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabagh.
According to a recent agreement between the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin and the Minister of Defense, His Excellency Mr. Seyran Ohanian, chaplains are to be a permanent presence and will be funded by the Ministry of Defense. In addition, plans have been approved for the erection of a cathedral for the military located close to the Ministry, where all official church/military events will be held. This church will also meet the spiritual needs of over 50,000 residents in the Avan section of Yerevan.
The Ministry of Defense, Armenia’s version of the Pentagon, is a sprawling, impressive structure, which was opened less than a year ago. With the approval of the Minister, Bishop Vertanes has been given an office within the Department of Human Resources. His office will eventually be equipped with an up to date computer system and teleconferencing capabilities, so that the Primate can be in frequent contact with chaplains.
In the words of Colonel Rafael Tatevosian, “Bishop Vertanes and the chaplaincy program’s work are closely related to the work of our department. That is why his office is located in our section. In our military, it is not enough to be physically fit and informed about tactical strategies, it is even more important to have a solid ideological, cultural, patriotic, and religious background. Since we are in Khorenatsi’s words, a ‘Pokr Adzoo-Small Nation’ and are easily outnumbered, our strength is in our ideological convictions. Part and parcel of this is the faith of the Apostolic Church, which is taught by the chaplains. Our soldiers need to be informed about historical events like the Battle of Avarayr, for example.”
While the Armenian Apostolic Church is the only religious presence allowed by law in military areas, to further strengthen the church’s presence, plans are in the works to build small chapels on every base and military school. Bishop Vertanes envisions “chapels built on all of the military bases, where a soldier will go to pray, receive a blessing and words of encouragement from the chaplain prior to his shift of duty. After completing his shift he will go again to the chapel to offer a prayer of thanks. This will help in relieving danger-related stress.”
While the Armenian border with Turkey is well guarded by Russian Federation forces, the critical eastern boarder with Azerbaijan is defended solely by Armenian troops. One of Bishop Vertanes’ serious challenges is to find qualified chaplains willing to serve in these most critical border areas in Karabagh.
So why is this religious presence so important? Chaplains offer prayer and encouragement to the soldiers. They also provide education on the Christian faith and Armenian Church sacred traditions. Further, they offer Christian education at seven military schools. Bishop Vertanes is proud of the fact that as of this year a new uniform curriculum was adopted for use by all chaplains, which covers the basic teachings and history of the Armenian Church, as well as questions of morality and spirituality. Next year the curriculum will be further refined and modified for use in various settings.
The primate of the military regularly inquires regarding the chaplains’ effectiveness. He enjoys the utmost respect of the minister of defense and thanks to this, generals are from time to time giving talks at the seminaries to familiarize future clergy with the spiritual needs of those serving in the military and to be enabled to minister to their families as well.
This ministry is not taking place in a vacuum. There is on-going contact with chaplaincy organizations in other countries. For example, Bishop Vertanes will be attending a meeting in England and in the near future groups will be visiting from Greece and Russia. Though he is quick to point out that the Armenian Church has her own unique spiritual and cultural traditions that must be carefully adhered to.
Historically, the Armenian Church has been the spiritual backbone of the nation’s defense. The role of clergy led by St. Ghevont Yerets at the battle of Avarayr in 451 is the most familiar. In the days of the First Armenian Republic priests eagerly volunteered to join the laity in arms. In October 1918 Archbishop Khoren Mouradbekian (later Catholicos Khoren I) proposed a pastoral guideline for “priest soldiers.” Priests were to serve side by side with the soldiers, wearing their clerical garb, but never taking up arms. Like the chaplains of today they were called to be a spiritual presence among their flock and were “required with the colonel’s arrangement to lecture soldiers during free time regarding the Bible and national-church history, keeping alive the knowledge of their responsibility and love toward the nation and national sacred treasures.” They were also charged with teaching prayer, conducting worship and providing opportunities for soldiers to attend the Divine Liturgy.
Duties of today’s chaplains are not so different. They have a significant presence on the base, engaging the soldiers and officers in conversation of a spiritual nature, teaching classes, visiting and praying for those in the infirmary and solitary confinement. Soldiers are personally invited to attend the Divine Liturgy in a local church.
In terms of vision, the primate would like to see the Armenian Church be represented on the highest level in the military and that the clergy chaplains truly make a difference in the military by assisting in the moral and religious formation of every soldier, and also that we have an ongoing presence at the Ministry of Defense. To assist in this mission the primate has published a small prayer book, which will be distributed to every soldier.
Bishop Vertanes also pointed out that cults and other religious movements are on-going challenges, however, the Armenian Church is the only religious presence, which enjoys official recognition. No other group is permitted to proselytize in military facilities and Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to serve. Members of other faiths are certainly free to follow their religious convictions and chaplains do not discriminate against members of other churches.
After getting an overall picture of this program from Bishop Vertanes, I wanted to see with my own eyes our chaplains in action. Deep down I wanted to see if their presence made a difference or not and what sort of reception they received.
So I visited a military base located next to the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, where the chaplain is Deacon Sahak Sahakian. Regarding Deacon Sahak’s presence, Major Karen Beglarian said, “It is of great help and there is much need among the soldiers. The chaplain offers classes regarding the Apostolic Faith. Each successive generation needs to be informed regarding our culture and faith so they won’t enter the cults. It’s very bad when our people join other religious movements. Thus it’s very good to have Deacon Sahak here. On the occasion of Sparabed Vasken Sargsyan’s 50th anniversary the deacon led a group of our soldiers to the Mother See to pray in the cathedral and tour the museums. The army is improving day by day. Being close to the cathedral keeps the religion alive among the soldiers. Psychologically this has been of benefit.”
Deacon Sahak pointed out that soldiers also went to the Mother See for the annual observance of Military Day on January 28. They attended the Divine Liturgy with high-ranking clergy, members of the Brotherhood and the Minister of Defense. Soldiers are taught to pray before meals and at the beginning of classes. There are also prayerful observances on special holidays. Deacon Sahak was also proud of the fact that because of the proximity of the Mother See, his soldiers have the highest attendance rate at Divine Liturgy.
It was clear that Deacon Sahak is greatly respected on the base. His routine includes daily classes on the faith and traditions of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Examples of topics are the practices of Great Lent and Easter, how to fight against sin and profanity and the practice of forgiveness. During Holy Week he will escort a group of soldiers to the Mother See to take part in the Washing of Feet Service.
The soldiers in his class had many questions about the faith and the essential difference between the Armenian Church and other religious movements. There is great concern about cults whose followers refuse to serve in the army and in the defense of the nation. Some felt that these movements are set on infiltrating the nation and may have certain connections with foreign governments.
To the question does having a chaplain make a difference, one soldier, Razmik Astryan, responded, “His presence changes a soldier’s life. Attending church is very positive. We are helped to sin less. “
My interest also led me to the Marshal Armenak Ghamparyantz Air Force Institute with Deacon Michael Barsaeghyan, who was recently appointed as its first chaplain. Similar to chaplains serving on bases, his role is first and foremost to impart the Christian faith to the cadets both through classes as well as via personal encounters. His presence in the institute has been warmly received by not only the commander, but by staff and cadets alike.
In Deacon Michael’s words, “I keep all my encounters on a strictly official level. I have an excellent relationship with the commander and officers and can say that I have in a very short time earned their respect. I try to do my best. I bring in interesting movies and am working with AR TV station to prepare programs on the Armenian army and Marshal Bagramian. I am also planning a group baptism for cadets, who have not yet been baptized. My dream is to have a chapel on the grounds of the institute, where we can celebrate the Divine Liturgy, light candles, pray and meditate. Something that we have introduced is a prayer before lunch. Soldiers often approach me with prayer requests and questions about the faith.” He also feels that this work is very rewarding and will help him to be a more effective priest.
The assistant to the Commander of the institute, Colonel Zaven Hakobjanyan shared that “in the past religion was absent here, but now we are very happy that Deacon Michael is here. We feel his spiritual presence and we observe him to be passionate about his work. He is truly concerned about the fruit of his labors. The Mother See has truly blessed us with this program. The cooperation between the Mother See and the military is very healthy.”
Without any hesitation, it can be said the Armenian Apostolic Church is making great strides in meeting the spiritual and pastoral needs of those serving in the military forces in the Armenian Republic. The following illustrates how this presence is truly moving the souls of servicemen.
During my visit to Bishop Vertanes’ office, a young soldier entered inquiring about being baptized. The primate warmly welcomed him, gave him a New Testament and a small wood cross and encouraged him to return when they could further discuss the meaning of baptism and arrange for the sacrament. When I asked the primate if this was a common occurrence, he responded that the more our Church’s presence grows, the more we see this phenomenon of people (especially the young) reaching out for the saving sacraments of God.
The Relics of Saint Gregory the Enlightener
Today, March 28, is the feast of St. Gregory the Enlightener’s Entrance into Khor Virab the Deep Pit (dungeon). The feast commenced last evening as a reliquary containing relics of St. Gregory the Enlightener was carried in a pontifical procession into the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin bestowing blessing upon the clergy and faithful gathered.
The feast of his Entrance into Khor Virab is the first of three annual feasts commemorating St. Gregory. The tortures endured by the first Catholicos of All Armenians in the pit (over 13 years) and the story of his deliverance from the pit are known to many. However, few realize that St. Gregory the Enlightener as a pan-Christian saint is celebrated in the calendar of other Christian churches as well. Likewise, St. Gregory’s relics are considered to be of great sacredness in other churches, too. In this regard the story of the relics of St. Gregory in the possession of the Roman Catholic Church is of particular interest.
In the Neopolitan Church of St. Gregory the Armenian (built in honor of the saint) the saint’s skull, chains (used to fetter his feet), two staffs with which his torturers beat him, and other holy relics are kept. According to tradition, the relics were brought to Naples at the end of the 8th century by nuns from a monastery in Constantinople. Today, the relics are maintained with great reverence by local Benedictine nuns. St. Gregory is the object of a special veneration by pious Neopolitans and is considered the second patron saint of the city. In the year 2000 the Roman Catholic Church (His Holiness Pope John Paul II of blessed memory) presented one of these relics from Naples to the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.
Another relic of St. Gregory the Enlightener is kept in a city in the south of Italy, not far from Naples, called Nardo. St. Gregory the Enlightener is also the patron saint of this city. In 1743 at the time of a catastrophic earthquake in Nardo only the statue of St. Gregory remained standing. For this reason the first Catholicos of the Armenians was declared the patron saint of the city. On February 20th, a feast dedicated to the saint, the faithful take part in impressive solemnities and glorious processions. The faithful also offer intercessory prayers to the saint when the city is in need of rain.
There are various testimonies regarding relics of St. Gregory the Enlightener found in Greece, too.
The Right Hand (Soorp Ach) relic of St. Gregory the Enlightener, the first chief priest of the Armenian Apostolic Church, is kept in Holy Etchmiadzin, the spiritual center of the Armenian people and seat of the Catholicos of All Armenians. It is cherished as a sacred relic officially signifying this spiritual authority.
by Heghine Mkrtchyan
“Lazarus is dead and I am glad for you that I was not there so that you might believe in me.”
Holy Week has begun in full force and living in a monastery I have the rare advantage to participate in the very full schedule of services appointed from ancient time to commemorate each day of this most solemn week for us Christians. What is most spiritually uplifting is the interplay between the theme of each day, the scripture readings and the accompany hymnology, which are poetic reflections on the prophecies and gospels.
Holy Week began with Saturday, the remembrance of the resurrection of Lazarus, the good friend of our Lord Jesus. (see John 11) After morning prayer in the cathedral I was picked up by Bishop Sion Adamyan, Primate of the Armavir Diocese. He has previously invited me to take part in the annual pilgrimage to the St. Lazar Church in Medzamor. Taking part in a pilgrimage is yet one more way that we connect with our spiritual ancestors and at the same time outwardly witness to our holy faith. The pilgrimage procession commenced from the entrance of the city and made its way, about a fifteen minute walk up to the church. We were led by a cross-bearer, two banners, the Primate, clergy and the approximately 200 pilgrims singing the verses of St. Nersess the Graceful’s hymn, “Aravod Loosoh” as it made its way.
Soon upon entering the church the holy Badarak began. The church was literally packed (literally two feet was left open in front of the altar) with an overflow outside. In honor of his name day, the celebrant was Fr. Ghazaros Bedrossian, who serves a village called Pyooravan. Sion Srpazan gave the message of the day on the theme from John 11, “Lazarus is dead and I am glad for you that I was not there so that you might believe in me.” In this miracle of the raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus once again demonstrated his glory as the divine Son of God and at the same time prefigured-prophesied His own death and resurrection. It is in this context that He makes the well known proclamation, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25) In truth the whole theme of our Holy Week journey is encapsulated in this one verse.
What was remarkable was that all ages were represented at the pilgrimage. It was truly a family of faithful gathered in prayer to begin their spiritual walk with the Savior in the last week of His life. I was so moved with the level of piety the bowing, the crossing and the singing of the Badarak in unison, from the heart, and focusing on the celebration at hand!
After the liturgy the clergy gathered in a small building, which serves as an after school activity center for approximate 45 children (similar to the Hayortyatz format) where they learn singing, art and marionette performance. I must point out that the people of Medzamor are at a great economic disadvantage. The city had been built about thirty years ago to house the workers who built and ran the atomic power plant. Unfortunately, after the earthquake and the fall of the Soviet Union the city fell on extremely hard times. When the plant was decommissioned for a few years, international workers abandoned the place and the city became populated by refugees from Baku and elsewhere, as well as by a certain criminal element. The children’s center thus serves a very challenging clientele, a number from broken homes fathers having deserted their families. In addition to programs for the children, the center also gives spiritual and psychological support to needy families.
Needless to say I was very impressed with the dedicated staff, which provides such love and support to the children and families in the context of the Apostolic Church. Similarly to other places, such cults as the Pentecostals and other foreign religious movements have taken advantage of the vulnerable population. Thankfully, as our church makes its presence better known, the residents are able to see the truth contained in the Holy Apostolic faith of our Fathers.
The children presented a few songs, one of which was the hymn of the Armenian army, during which the Armenian flag was proudly waved. Before departing, I promised that I would visit the school when classes were in session.
The pilgrimage was an excellent way to begin my Holy Week journey. During Vespers that evening as the hymn of Palm Sunday, “Vor verorhnis” was chanted, the curtain of the main altar (closed since the beginning of Great Lent) was opened in preparation for the celebration of our Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem for our salvation.
Sunday morning the Mother See was a buzz with activity as pilgrims from everywhere converged on the world-wide center of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the locale appointed by Christ Himself over 1700 years ago.
His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, in remembrance of the fact that it was the children who recognized and praised Jesus our heavenly King when He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, has declared it a day of blessing for children. Indeed, “Out of the mouths of babes comes forth perfect praise.” After morning services Hayortyats children came out in full forth. The drum bands played patriotic tunes and provided a march for the Catholicos and Brotherhood walking in procession to the courtyard of the Cathedral for the solemn blessing of the four corners of the world.
In the center was a table covered with willow branches, which were distributed to the faithful. Many formed laurels with these branches and placed them on the heads of the children. Following the Antasdan the Catholicos prayed for the children.
Hayortyats children also made colored chalk artwork on the asphalt next to the open air altar as the marching bands continued to perform into the afternoon.
The Divine Liturgy followed and was celebrated by Bishop Ararat Kaltakjian, the Grand Sacristan of the Mother See. He is responsible for all of the liturgical rites celebrated in the cathedral. He also oversees the other three monasteries in Etchmiadzin. At the conclusion of the liturgy the children filled the chancel to capacity as yet another prayer of blessing was offered by His Holiness.
It was an incredible to see so many families, parents and children flocking to the Mother See throughout the entire day almost 12 hours nonstop. I don’t recall ever seeing so many children in my life.
The day’s activities concluded with Vespers and the Service of the Opening of the Doors Trnpatsek. In the morning we celebrated Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem for our salvation. In this deeply moving evening service we contemplated our worthiness to enter the heavenly Jerusalem and God’s mercy beyond measure. Before the closed curtain, three clergy in the lamenting tone, prayed that the Lord “open the doors of mercy that we may enter in.” After a series of three short dialogues and as the Catholicos himself recited, “Open unto us the doors of mercy, they we may enter,” the curtain was opened, a final gospel regarding our Lord’s saving mission was read and a final blessing bestowed.
I hope that you find this account informative, if not inspiring.. My Holy Week is off to a good start and I wish all of you a spiritually uplifting one as well as we together look forward to celebrating the feast of all feasts. I’ll have more to report as the week progresses.
It is my great pleasure to greet all of you with the ancient Easter greeting, ”Kreesdos haryav ee merelots! Christ is risen from the dead!” This day we celebrate the joyous Light of the resurrection, which is the terminus of our Lenten and Holy Week journey. Fortified by fasting, prayer and good works, we have concluded this annual pilgrimage and have prepared ourselves to celebrate the mystery of the empty tomb of Easter.
This year I had the privilege of undertaking this journey in the sacred bosom of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. On this occasion I want to share with you two insights.
First, my journey was anchored on daily worship in the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin, one of our most revered holy places. During Lent and Holy Week the average daily time spent in the sanctuary was two hours. (Yesterday, between the Holy Thursday services and Good Friday Vigil Khavaroom, we were in prayer approximately 8 hours). The insight here is that unlike typical parish life where you know everyone, here in our spiritual center besides the clergy and a group of regular “havadatsyals,” at each service there are always new faces pilgrims of all ages from throughout Armenia and the world united by our Holy Apostolic faith.
A second insight came to me about a week ago during one of the services. For an Armenian American, there are certain challenges in adjusting to life in Armenia. There are definite cultural and psychological differences. Also, the linguistic difference is significant. In Armenia, the Eastern dialect of Armenian is used with occasional words from the local dialects and some Russian words. The insight is that despite all the differences, when we were together in prayer, it was the very same language, in fact the very same prayers, liturgy and hymns of our universal Church, which created a powerful unity. Obviously, this is something that I was aware of but the enormity of this truth genuinely touched me.
Friends, I want to again extend my very best wishes to you and your loved ones on this feast of all feasts, the Resurrection from the dead of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ. May the joyous hope of this holy day transform your hearts and fill your lives with new meaning and all spiritual zeal.
p.s. - I’ve included a few photos taken during the Vespers of the Ten Virgins (Holy Tuesday), the Washing of the Feet (Holy Thursday) and the Service of the Crucifixion (Good Friday).
The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin was filled with thousands of pilgrims, from Armenia and throughout the world, participating in the liturgical activities celebrating the glorious resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I am attaching photos from three events of the past weekend:
Once again, my very best heartfelt wishes to you all during this most joyous season of the Resurrection of the Son of God.
It's the end of Easter Week, which in a number of our sister Orthodox Churches is referred to as "Bright Week." I must say that the last three days have been particularly bright ones for me. In my researching of the Christian Education Center of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, I visited 6 kindergartens in the city of Etchmiadzin, where the children presented Easter pageants.
The Christian Education Center prepared the program, which is being produced in over 100 kindergartens throughout Armenia. In the context of the show, children present facts about Great Lent, Holy Week and Easter through recitations, song and dance. There are also games and riddles related to the season. Special artisitic displays were created for the occasion.
Classrooms are decorated with traditional Eastern themes, including red colored eggs, pilaf made with raisins, fish, and the Zadig (lady-bug) which is placed by the tomb of Christ. A few places had Zadig cakes and, of course, pagharch - sweet bread. At each school I was invited to bless the bread, salt and water. In the course of the program the symbolism of each item was given.
For instance, the pilaf is symbolic of the people of the world and the raisins are the Christians whose virtuous lives sweeten the world. The fish is the symbol used by the early Christians and the red color of the eggs is the blood of our blessed Lord, shed for the salvation of the world.
Needlessto say we adults learned a lot from the children about Easter and the Armenian traditions surrounding this feast of all feasts.
The attached photos will give you a flavor of Easter in the kindergartens of Armenia.
A day does not pass when I do not look towards Mount Ararat and dream of being able to hike around it's base. (I doubt I'd ever have the stamina to get very high because of the pressure of the high altitude). It's, of course, the dream of every true Armenian to connect with the ancestral homeland that was lost because of one of the greatest attrocities ever committed against humanity.
In 1965, the fiftieth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the first monument to the 1.5 million martyrs was erected on the grounds of the monastery of Holy Etchmiadzin (just to the north of the cathedral). Two years later the impressive memorial overlooking the city of Yerevan was constructed. The complex is known as "Dzidzernagapert" or "Fortress of the Swallows." Since the sixties the citizens of Armenia have solemnly observed April 24 as a day of remembrance - "Sukadon." (Since Independence it is a governmental-public holiday).
Being in Armenia at this time is extremely moving and is truly a deep soulful day of reflection. Throughout the day TV stations broadcast live coverage of the countless visitors to the Martys Monument, requiem concerts, and films on the genocide and Jewish holocaust. It is impossible to pass this day without any emotional response.
I was blessed to part of the entourage of clergy of the Mother See led by the Catholicos of All Armenians and the President of the Republic of Armenia. Following the military honor guard into the main section of the monument at the center of which is an eternal flame, we all placed flowers as a sign of loving respect to the marytrs. By the end of the day the broadcast showed the pile of flowers having grown to over five feet high.
After the requiem prayers we returned to the Mother See for the celebration of holy Badarak and another requiem in front of the original martyrs monument. Attached are some photos taken on this most solemn day for Armenians everywhere.
Blessed and etrernal be the memory of the Armenian Martyrs of 1915. May we continue to honor their memory by recommiting ourselves to the faith of the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian language and sacred traditions.
p.s. - As an interesting side note, there is lot of talk here about opening roads between Armenia and Turkey. Time will tell what becomes of this and how it will impact our nation - positively and negatively.
Yesterday, April 26 I was blessed to celebrate the holy Badarak in our sister parish of St. Katoghikeh in the village of Jervezh located just outside of Yerevan. For those who have been to Armenia you would have passed through Jervezh on route to visit the ancient temple at Garni and the monastery of Geghart.
This was the first time that I had an opportunity to celebrate the Badarak since arriving in Armenia over two months ago. So you can image how impatient I was for Sunday to come. O that we were always filled with such zealous excitement to receive the Lord in the holy Eucharist each Sunday. "Taste and see that the Lord is sweet!"
God has truly blessed this community. In conversation with the primate of the diocese of Kodayk, Bishop Arakel, this parish is the most thriving one in his jurisdiction. Thanks to the efforts of Fr. Gyuregh, the pastor, St. Katoghikeh is expreriencing unprecedented growth.
The chuch was filled to capacity for well over two hours. Since seating is very limited, most people remain standing the whole time. The faithful arrive before the liturgy begins in order to take part in the confession, which is a prerequistie for the reception of the precious body and blood of Christ. The procession took well over ten minutes as the faithful pressed for an opportunity to kiss the celebrant's hand cross.
St. Katoghekeh Church is blessed with a superb choir and the director/soloist is the renowned singer Anna Mailyan. In just a few days they will give a concert in Belarus! Next Sunday - Red Sunday, the pilgrimage day of St. Katoghekeh will be observed with the badarak celebrated by Arakel Srpazan and a multitude of faithful pilgrims from thoughout and beyond the area.
Needlesstosay, I eagerly await my next opportunity to visit the faithful of Jervezh.
It's been quite a while since I have been in touch with you from the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. Throughout these forty days of Easter each day, we have been proclaiming the good news of our blessed Lord Jesus' resurrection in worship and in song in the Mother Cathedral of the Armenian Church.
On Friday, May 8 I was invited by Father Lazar Petrossyan, who serves the faithful of nine villages in the Massis region of Armenia. I spent most of the day visiting three of the villages: Ditak, Jerashen and Pyooravan. During the span of a week, Father Lazar makes contacts with each of the nine villages, meets with villagers and leaders and offers a spiritual message.
The first two villages that I visited do not have churches, so we met in small halls provided by the local government. The theme was one of my favorites, namely the obligation and need to participate on a regular basis in the sacrament of holy communion. Not only is this a commandment of our Lord Himself whereby we remember his saving death on our behalf, but also as the greatest and most powerful means that the Apostolic Church provides us to encounter our all loving God. (By the way, this crucial element of the spiritual life is not offered by any of the foreign cults and religious movements which are actively luring folks away from the Mother Church here in Armenia.)
Pyooraven, which is also the home base of Father Lazar, is blessed with a beautiful, little church and was filled to capacity for my Friday afternoon message. Prior to the talk the church choir, consisting of teenage girls, offered a few sharagans from the Divine Liturgy. It should be noted that this church was built through the extremely hard-earned contributions and labor of the villagers themselves and did not receive any outside funding.
While the villagers listened intently to my message, what struck me the most was their thirst for knowledge regarding holy communion and other related topics. The concept of it being a true encounter with the real presence of Christ seemed to be a somewhat new and helpful teaching for them. The afternoon ended with a group photo and a warm invitation for me to return and celebrate the holy Badarak with them.
This week the Armenian Apostolic celebrates feasts relating to its founding over 1700 years. On Monday, we commemorated the feast of St. Hripsime and Tueday the feast of St. Gayane. For each of the feast processions escorted their holy relics from Holy Etchmiadzin to their respective monastery for the celebration of the holy Badarak.
This evening the relics of St. Gregory the Enlightener will be brought into the Cathedral for venerations during Vespers and tomorrow morning to the monastery of Khor Virab (the Dungeon Pit) for the venerations of pilgrims and celebration of Divine Liturgy on the feast of St. Gregory's Deliverance from the Pit.
The climax of this will be Sunday's celebration of the great feast of the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin, the Mother Church of the Armenian people.
Through the intercession and prayers of the Holy Saints Hripsime, Gayane and Gregory the Enlighterner, may the Lord hear our prayers and save us. May these celebrations be an occasion for the faithful everywhere to be inspired in their faith in Christ and grow in their piety according to the sacred traditions of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
It's been a very long time since I have shared news from Holy Etchmiadzin with you. Thus I am taking this opportunity to share with you photos of a most memorable experience, namely my first celebration of the Holy Badarak in the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin on Sunday, August 2, 2009. (note: because there are so many clergy serving at the Mother See, the opportunity to celebrate the Divine Litury is rare) Needless to say, I was quite nervous especially being in the presence of around 40-50 Archbishops, Bishops and Priests. Yet, it was a most powerful spiritual experience and God willing I look forward to another such opportunity. On that occasion I remembered my brothers and sisters in Providence as I do on a regular basis during our daily worship.
May the blessings of this most holy center of the Armenian Apostolic Church be with you and your loved ones always. My best wishes to all as we conclude the summer season with the Labor Day weekend.
On Wednesday, August 19 I made a visit to the northeastern region of Armenia. The region is called Davush and the main city is Ichevan. It is not far from the Azeri boarder. Together with the diocesan vicar of that region I visited both the monastery of Haghartsin as well as Ichevan's Sts. Sahag and Mesrob Church. I was surprised to learn that this church, a building of the Soviet era, was totally renovated and converted to church standards by a generous gift from a family from the Boston area, Mr. and Mrs. George and Berjouhie Nersessian.
What was even a greater surprise were the names of the priests in that place (same name as the Providence Church) on that day. In the attached photo you will see from left to right - DER TORKOM, HAYR TORKOM, HAYR SIMEON, DER SIMEON. What are the chances of four Armenian priests getting together with the same names? Hayr Torkom is the newly assigned vicar of the region and Der Torkom and Der Simeon are the parish priests there.
Last Sunday (September 13) marked the great feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In Holy Etchmiadzin, the spiritual center of the Armenian people, the day was observed with a solemn Divine Liturgy in the morning and the festal "Antasdan" procession of the Holy Cross after Vespers in the early evening. After the four corners of the world were blessed, there was a special veneration of relics of the True Cross of the blessed Lord Jesus and distribution of sweet smelling basil in remembrance of the discover of the True Cross by Empress Helen in the early fourth century.
In addition to the discovery of the cross, the Feast of the Exalation also celebrates two other occasions when the Holy Cross was lifted up for the veneration of the faithful: 1. when the Apostle and First Bishop of Jerusalem had the Cross exalted as he proclaimed: "We venerate You Cross, O Christ, and we glorify Your Reserrection!" 2. when in the seventh centuries the Christian forces rescued the Cross from its capture in Persia.
Interestly, the services throughout this past week continue to celebrate the "instrument of our salvation" via the many sharagan-hymns composed in honor of the Holy Cross.
"And on account of your precious Cross, O Lord, receive our prayers and save us."
This morning I observed that the Daughters of Vartan held a walk-a-thon yesterday to benefit "Mer Doon" in Yerevan. By happy coincidence yesterday I accompanied the girls of Mer Doon together with the director Dikranouhi Karapetian on a pilgrimage to Amberd.
Amberd is a favorite destination for pilgrims. It is located on the way to the summit of Mount Arakats, the highest mountain in Armenia. The spot is very beautiful with striking views of Mount Ararat, alpine streams and deep ravines.
Amberd consists of two ancient structures: Church of St. Asdvadzadzin and the royal fortress. After offering prayers in the church the group visited the ruins of the fortress. One photo captures the church framed by an opening in the fortress.
"Mer Doon" is a home for girls, who grew up in orphanages. Upon reach the age of eighteen they must leave the orphanages. Mer Doon offers the girls a safe haven, where they can master home-making skills and attend university in Yerevan or Etchmiadzin. At the same time they learn such crafts as carpet/jewelry making. They also learn languages and the Christian faith. Mer Doon is located within a walking range to the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.
Hats off to the Daughters of Vartan for supporting this most worthwhile project. Mer Doon is fully dependent on the generous support of benefactors.
This year’s feast of the Holy Translators (Srpots Targmanchats) fell on Saturday, October 10. The feast recognizes the immeasurable accomplishments of St. Mesrob Mashdots, inventor of the Armenian alphabet, and of those who continued his work of educating the Armenian nation in the holy apostolic faith, Armenian language, history, literature and culture. Also remembered this day are St. Yeghishe, St. Moses the Poet, St. David the Invincible Philosopher, St. Gregory of Narek and St. Nersess the Graceful.
On this holy day several hundred pilgrims of all ages from throughout the region converged on the Monastery of St. Mesrop Mashdots in the village of Oshakan. I decided to relive a pilgrimage that I went on about twenty years ago while still a deacon. So together with two young deacons and a humble group of faithful pilgrims, after offering prayers before the Altar of Descent (Ichman Soorp Seghan) in the Mother Cathedral, we proceeded on foot for the approximately15 kilometre (about 9 miles) trek to Oshakan. Since the Divine Liturgy began to begin at 10:30, we needed to commence our sojourn by 7:30, prior to sunrise.
Except for a brief rain shower, thanks to God, we safely made it to our holy destination in approximately 2.5 hours. Along the way we greeted villagers, dogs of all sizes and sheep. We made our entrance into Oshakan chanting St. Nersess’ hymn, “Aravod Loosoh” (one verse for each of the letter of the alphabet) and “Park I Partsoonus” – Glory to God in the Highest.
The first order of business was to enter the crypt located directly under the altar to venerate the tomb of St. Mesrop and to ask his intercessory prayers for the peace of the world, the Armenian nation and for wisdom to continue the legacy of the holy Translators.
This journal entry is best described as "bitter sweet."
Within the context of the tenth anniversary celebration meetings of the Supreme Spiritual Council, Bishops Council, and Primate - Diocesan Council representatives from throughout the world will take place over the next few days here in the Mother See. On Sunday the solemn "Pontifical Prayer" will be offered at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy.
Thus, we take this occasion to congratulate the Catholicos of All Armenians and pray that the Lord grant him many years in his apostolic ministry.
On this occasion we pray that the Lord receive the soul of Grigor Nersisyan into His eternal kingdom and grant the comfort of the Holy Spirit to His Holiness the Catholicos and to the Nersisyan family.
November 5: 10th Anniversary of Consecration of His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians
I am pleased to announce to you that a series of articles that I have written on the various programs and ministries of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin are now accessible via the Etchmiadzin website.
Please access at: Etchmiadzin website and click on: 10th Anniversary of the Consecration of Karekin II Catholicos of All Armenians; at the bottom of the next page click on: VIEWPOINT.
I know that all of you are extremely busy getting ready for the Sts. Sahag and Mesrob Armenian Church 2009 Bazaar. I wish that I could be with you for the most fun weekend in the year of our parish. It's a great time to reconnect with parishioners and friends, not to mention to enjoy the "hamov" treats.
To brighten up your day, I thought I send you this picture, taken in front of the Old Seminary of Holy Etchmiadzin. You'll notice that I'm getting younger here by the minute. In fact, I feel twenty years younger!
Last week was the first of three week long (Monday-Friday) fasting periods, which the Armenian Apostolic Church observes in spiritual preparation for the celebration of Christmas. (The second, popularly known as the fast of St. James of Nisibis, takes place in early December and the third is kept the week immediately preceding and leading up to Christmas – January 5/6. In ancient times, one long continuous fast took place in the fashion of Great Lent.
The reason I am pointing this out is that the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians was the appointed liturgical scripture for Monday through Friday of last week. I was greatly moved by the overwhelming sentiment of thanksgiving expressed particularly in the opening chapter. Allow me to share with you some of these verses and invite your reflection.
“In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.” (1:3-6)
“For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.” (1:9-12)
What’s most amazing is that St. Paul is writing these uplifting and encouraging words from of all places, his prison cell. “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake.” (1:24a) Perhaps the line that I could immediately relate to was, “For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, and I rejoice to see your morale and the firmness of your faith in Christ.” (2:5)
Indeed, throughout my year of service in Holy Etchmiadzin I have regularly remembered in prayer you, my brothers and sisters in Rhode Island, and continue to give thanks for all that you do in encouraging, respecting, loving and forgiving one another – and for your sacrifices and constant love and commitment to the Holy Church of Armenia while “I am absent in the body.”
While Thanksgiving is not strictly speaking a feast in our church nor is it celebrated here in Armenia, nevertheless thanksgiving (eucharistia) is one of the names describing the central act of Christians, namely the Holy Badarak or Divine Liturgy.
I’m including a photo taken from one of the Badaraks celebrated in Armenia, during which I have offered thanks for all that Christ has done for us by virtue of His death and resurrection. This Thanksgiving Day I will offer a special prayer of thanks before the holy altar of the Descent of the Only Begotten Son of God (Ichman Soorp Seghan) for each and every one of you, and ask that you remember me in your prayer.
Lastly, I encourage you in St. Paul’s words to “devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.” (4:2) An insight that becomes clearer to me each day is that the more I am able to master (inner) silence, the clearer God’s voice becomes in my life. I cannot get over how powerful and freeing God’s voice is when I am able to focus in thanksgiving - during our liturgical prayer - on each word of every prayer, litany, Psalm or sharagan. Someone once said that it’s when we are quiet that God speaks. Perhaps that explains at least in part how St. Paul, although “in chains” and ultimately sentenced to death, was in fact free and thankful.
Brothers and sisters, to you and your loved ones I wish you all a most happy Thanksgiving.
Almighty God, we thank you for all the blessings of this life, and today especially for those that are ours in this free land; for the fruits of the soil, the resources of the earth; the opportunities for work and play and healthful living; for liberty in speech and the written word. We thank You for these and all Your mercies and pray that You will continue Your goodness to us and make our nation great in the greatness which alone is pleasing to You.
May the food and drink of your servants be blessed with a spiritual blessing, O Christ our God. Make us healthy in soul and body; so that as we enjoy the food our bodies require in the modesty appropriate to our religious calling, we may share in your infinite blessings, and in the kingdom of heaven, together with all your saints. So that in thanksgiving, we may glorify you, with the Father and with the all-holy Spirit, now and always and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
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One of the most memorable dates in modern Armenian history is December 7, 1988. As the Soviet Union was slowly coming to an end and Armenians were struggling for the liberation of its historical Karabagh (Artzakh) territory, Armenia suffered an immense natural disaster, an earthquake, which shook and destroyed the northern territory of the republic. Over 25,000* people died as a result of the earthquake in the cities of Spitak, Vanadzor, Gumri and surrounding villages. Not only did this disaster serve to mobilize countless Armenians in the diaspora, but it also brought relief workers from several foreign countries. Many assimilated Armenians scattered throughout the world rediscovered their roots. The earthquake also redirected the focus of traditional Armenian organizations towards increased humanitarian activities.
*It should be noted that poorly constructed buildings and the fact that children were at school played a major role in the high death rate. If the earthquake had struck just five minutes later, the children would have been at recess.
As a student at Holy Etchmiadzin in 1998, I recall most vividly visiting Spitak on the first year anniversary of the earthquake (December 7, 1989). I will never forget the day. Spitak’s relatively new cemetery had more than quadrupled as a result of the earthquake. New gravestones depicted entire families, young and old, all victims of the earthquake.
Our purpose that day was to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in memory of the victims. It was to be the first liturgy to take place in a chapel, Soorp Haroutiun (Holy Resurrection) at the top of the cemetery’s hill. This structure was erected just months prior with materials salvaged from earthquake wreckage. That day I witnessed literally thousands mourning their dead. I heard the unforgettable sound of wailing and dirges, and saw the smoke of incense in every direction.
Exactly twenty years later I again had the opportunity to visit Spitak. Of course, much has changed in twenty years. New homes and buildings have been built by various international organizations. Of particular note are the contributions of the Italian and Norwegian peoples. Since the days following the earthquake, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity continue to have an appreciated presence among the impoverished population whose everyday is a struggle.
Now there is a new church built in the center of the town and administered by Father Avetik, a member of the Brotherhood of Holy Etchmiadzin. I was surprised to see that the cemetery church is no longer in use and basically abandoned, now as a silent witness to the 1988 tragedy. This time there were noticeably fewer mourners out, though the sad cries and the rising of incense were evident. There was a steady movement of Spitaktsis making their way to the graves, where according to custom after cleaning the gravestones, flowers are placed and incense is burnt. I was invited by a family to offer prayers at the graves of loved ones.
May the Lord bless and grant eternal rest to the souls of the victims of the Armenian Earthquake.
I came across this unique newspaper interview taken during the recent visit of the Catholicos of All Armenians to Nagorno-Karabagh for the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the re-opening of this ancient diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Correspondent Arpi Sahakyan’s interview taken with nine-year old Mariam was published in the October 2, 2009 issue of “Zrootsakits.” I’ve translated it to English for your reading pleasure.
The prayer service was underway in the cathedral of Gantsasar (Karabagh). The Catholicos of All Armenians and high-ranking clergy and dignitaries were present. There standing in the front row was a blond girl tightly grasping her brother’s hand. I later learned that they were “Vanketsis.” The two of them had walked the long and windy road from their village all the way to Gantsasar in order to see “Gregory the Enlightener and to hear the holy Badarak.”
After the service we saw Mariam and her brother in the church courtyard and decided to interview her.How old are you?
Nine. I’m in the fourth grade.
Are you a good student?
Yes, not bad (vochinch).
Do you know what’s taking place here?
Yes, the Divine Liturgy. Gregory the Enlightener has come!
Who gave you that cross that’s in your hand?
Gregory the Enlightener.
The Catholicos of All Armenians gave you the cross.
Karekin II? Oh (vay), you’re right. Oops my mistake.
Have you heard about the war? Have the grown-ups talked about it?
What did they say?
Well, the Azeris came and wanted to take over our land – Armenia and Artzakh, but they weren’t able to. Our people won and pushed them out of our land.
Did your people also fight?
Yes, my father fought.
Is this your brother?
Yes, but I have another brother and sisters. We are five children.
Do you live in Vank?
Yes, but my two older sisters are married.
Do they also live in Vank?
No, one of them went to Stepanakert (capital of Nagorno-Karabagh).
What do you like to do?
Do you dance alone or with a group?
Alone. I do Armenian, Russian and Georgian dances.
Where did you learn?
My sisters taught me.
Do you dance well?
I don’t know. I haven’t seen myself dancing to know how well I dance.
Do you have a television?
No, but Levon Hayrapetyan just now promised that he would give me a TV and DVD so that I can watch my dances.
Are your mother and father Armenian?
Then why do you have blond hair and blue eyes?
This is how the early Armenians were, blond and blue-eyed.
Who told you that?
Is your mom also blond?
I noticed that you were talking with the Vanketsi benefactor, Levon Hayrapetyan, a little while ago. What were you discussing?
He was asking me questions. I told him about my family and how my father doesn’t have a job. He promised that he would give him a job.
This evening will you tell him that you found him a job?
Yes. And in the morning I’ll send my dad to Hayrapetyan.
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Armenian Apostolic Christians are well aware that the Holy Badarak or Divine Liturgy is the central and most important act of worship, yet for various reasons many fail to grasp its full meaning. Most have a vague notion that it is the continuation of an action established by our Lord at His Last Supper, but likely do not realize that the celebration is in fact a divine commandment and that it is to be conducted as an on-going reminder of God’s love shown to the world through the death and resurrection of His only Begotten Son.
Over the last 1700 years the Badarak of the Armenian Church has evolved with various embellishments into a very inspiring celebration marked by some of the most beautiful music and rituals known in Christendom.
Realizing the Church’s need to educate the masses in this holy sacrament (particularly the youth), His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, with the support of the ministry of education and science of the Republic of Armenia, and organization of the Christian Education Center of the Mother See, put forth the concept and blessed the implementation of a brand new program “The Holy Badarak on Students Lips” in all of the schools in the Armenian Republic.
The aim of the program, lovingly dedicated to the tenth anniversary of the Catholicos’ consecration, was to make the students knowledgeable regarding the biblical origins and mystery of the Divine Liturgy as well as in the singing of the Holy Badarak. The Christian Education Center provided various resources to the schools, including the music of the Ekmalian version of the Badarak and an extended bibliography. Each school was given the freedom to create their own original “scenario” to present the central sacrament of the Christian Church within thirty to forty minutes.
To provide added incentive to the schools, the program was developed as a competition on three levels: regional, statewide and national. In Yerevan over 115 schools participated, out of which 15 of the best presentations were selected on the diocesan level. Approximately 700 schools participated republic-wide.
The final phase of the composition took place last week (December 1-3) in the auditorium of the newly renovated Etchmiadzin Hayortyats Doon. I had the privilege of being present for presentations made by schools from Stepanavan and Jervezh. I was truly impressed with the imaginative skits developed by each school. Stepanavan reenacted the Last Supper in traditional biblical costumes as a small choir sang hymns from the Divine Liturgy. Jervezh began with modern children at play, portraying everyday challenges, moral choices and the need to forgive, which was put into ritual action with the exchange of the kiss of peace - with each other and the audience - while “Krisdos I Mech” was sung. Also, actual scenes from the Badarak were projected onto the wall above the stage, while the students explained the particular section of the celebration.
To give a higher level of importance and seriousness to this pedagogical competition, a panel of judges consisting of clergy and personalities from the world of stage, offered candid comments after each performance. I found the comments surprisingly critical, but understood that the intent was for the children to realize just how significant their work was. Also, theological-biblical inaccuracies and theatrical improvements were pointed out for the sake of their edification.
Lastly, in the next few weeks the overall “best” school performance will be recognized and awarded by the Catholicos of All Armenians in Holy Etchmiadzin. The Mother See and especially the Christian Education Center (director, Father Vardan Navasardyan) are particularly worthy of credit for this exceptional program, which I believe could be a model for use in diasporan parish schools.
One of the highlights of a priest’s ministry is having the honor to serve as the isponsoring priest during a priestly (sacerdotal) ordination. The role of the sponsoring priest “khardavilag” is to present the candidate deacon to the ordaining bishop. (It’s somewhat like the godfather’s role in the sacrament of baptism). During the Calling Service “Gochman Gark” on the eve of the ordination, the sponsor attests to the educational, moral and spiritual preparedness of the candidate and at the Ordination Service “Tsernatrootyan Gark” he presents the candidate to the bishop for ordination.
Well you can imagine my surprise and joy when I was given the special blessing and unique privilege to sponsor not just one, but twelve new priests! These holy rites took place here at the spiritual center of the Armenian people, in the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin on December 12 and 13 and the ordaining bishop was His Grace Bishop Vertanes Aprahamian, primate of the diocese of the military (several months ago I wrote an article on this unique diocese).
Our faithful need to know that in Holy Etchmiadzin all of the liturgical rites are conducted with the highest level of organization and elaborately rich pageantry, all to the glory of our heavenly Father.
The Saturday evening Calling Service is somewhat like a final exam, during which the bishop asks various questions about and directly to the candidates. Great emphasis is placed on the renunciation of heretical false teachings and the profession of the true holy orthodox Christian faith.
The ordination interrupts the Sunday Divine Liturgy celebration at two points: just before the scripture readings and again prior to the Kiss of Peace. During part one the deacons are led up to the bema on their knees before the bishop. After the reading of lengthy prayers, they turn to face the west while “Asdvadzayin yev yernavor suhnorh – Divine and heavenly grace which provides for the needs of the Apostolic Church” is chanted three times and their worthiness is proclaimed. After this the bishop places his hands upon the candidates thus imparting to them the priestly grace. Then the bishop passes the diaconal stole behind the neck of each candidate, as an outward symbol of the priesthood.
After the Great Entrance the Divine Liturgy is once again interrupted. After more prayers, the bishop presents the sacred priestly vestments. Once the new priests are fully vested, one by one the bishop anoints their foreheads and hands with the holy muron (oil), at the same time giving them their new priestly names. Soon after, the newly ordained are invited to give their first blessing “Kaghaghootyoon amenetsoon – Peace be with you” to the congregation and are presented with the chalice bestowing upon them the grace to celebrate the Divine Liturgy for the forgiveness of sins and salvation. Then all of the clergy present approach the newly ordained and receive from them the kiss of peace.
Attached are some photos, which depict scenes from this recent ordination. For the next forty days, the new priests will remain in the monastery of Holy Etchmiadzin observing a strict fast and intensive prayer.
The following are the names of the newly ordained: (Dn. Vaghinak) Fr. Vazken Hovhannisyan, (Dn. Ashod) *Fr. Hmayak Sahakyan, (Dn. Armen) Fr. Nairi Gevorgyan, (Dn. Artur) Fr. Vicken Ghazaryan, (Dn. Sayad) Fr. Yervand Papayan, (Dn. Armen) Fr. Yeghishe Nazaryan, (Dn. Edgar) Fr. Zohrab Mazmanyan, (Dn. Stepan) (Dn. Aram) *Fr. Anania Dzaturyan, (Dn. Artak) Fr. Mikayel Noorijanian, (Dn. Samvel) Fr. Ashot Safaryan, (Dn. Armand) *Fr. Hakob Grigoryan. (*celibate priests)
Every time I am present for the sacrament of ordination my thoughts always go back to my own ordination, which took place a little over 13 years at St. Gregory of Narek Armenian Church in Ohio.
Friends, please pray for all our priests that they may effectively carry out their sacred call to teach the saving gospel by word and deed, and worthily administrate the holy sacraments of God.
May God bless the newly ordained priests and grant them many years of inspired and fruitful ministry in the Apostolic Holy Church.
A Bishops' Pilgrimage to Western Armenia
I wanted to bring to your attention an interesting article by Bishop Sebouh Chouljian, which appears in the latest issue of the "Armenian Reporter." It is the story of his pilgrimage to Western Armenia this past summer.
It may be accessed via the internet: A bishops' pilgrimage to Western Armenia
Dear Friends, I have been following the extreme winter conditions at home and hope that everyone is safe and warm.I know that you are all very busy preparing for Christmas. Over here in Armenia December 25 will be just like any other workday, though that evening there will be a pre-festal of St. Stephen. The main festivities begin on New Years Eve and will continue until January 6, Armenian Christmas. The main square in Etchmiadzin is already decked out with holiday lights and workers have been laboring to set up lights throughout the monastery. I'm guessing that they'll begin lighting them up closer to New Years. I wanted to share with you two celebrations of the Holy Badarak that I had over the last two weeks. The first took place on the feast of the Conception of the Holy Mother of God by Anna on Wednesday, December 9 at the ancient St. Hripsime Monastery. Here’s an except from my article on the “Deanery of Monasteries” to give you some background on this very special church, which is by the way one of the most exquisite examples of Armenian church architecture: St. Hripsime Monastery (city of Etchmiadzin) was built over the place where St. Hripsime was martyred at the end of the third century. On the ninth day after his release from the dungeon St. Gregory buried Hripsime and her companions who were martyred by King Trdat. As a sing of penance the king hauled stones from Mount Ararat and together with St. Gregory built a chapel in that place. The chapel was destroyed by the Persians in the fifth century and restored by St. Sahak Partev. In 618 Catholicos Komitas I built a cathedral in this spot, which was restored by Catholicos Philipos in 1653. Walls surrounding the complex were erected in 1776 and a belfry was added in 1880. Pilgrims pay homage to St. Hripsime’s sacred memory by praying before her grave, which is located under the main altar. The church’s pilgrimage day is the Monday before the feast of the Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin. This monastery and the monastery of St. Gayane are particularly popular among the youth who are so inspired by their heroic examples of martyrdom that many choose to have their weddings blessed and babies baptized in these holy shrines. In my sermon I stressed the role of silence in our spiritual life: silence in response to holiness and as a product of our prayer. With devout and consistent prayer a spiritual person will master five types of silence: of the mind, eyes, ears, mouth and heart. The second Badarak took place this past Sunday, December 20 when I was invited by the Mother See's Dean of Monasteries to celebrate at the ancient monastery of Sevan. By the way I saw my first snow in the Lake Sevan region (exception: the distant slopes of Mounts Ararat and Arakadz). When I entered that centuries-sanctified church located on the height of what was once an island and now a peninsula, I was moved by the deep piety of the faithful gathered and the students of the nearby Vazkenian Seminary who sang the liturgy. You could "hear a pin drop." In this prayerful atmosphere I vested and commenced the liturgy. By the way the roots of this monastery go back to the early fourth century when our father in the faith, St. Gregory the Enlightener, established it. The theme of the sermon was: he who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted. Certainly this is a meaningful message for everyday, but most especially during this holy season of the birth of the Savior of the world in the humble manger of Bethlehem. In my sermon, I also recalled how over the centuries enemies of the faith slaughtered Armenian faithful in and about the monastery; and that we must be careful never to take our Armenian spiritual traditions for granted. In that very spot monks gathered for hours each day reciting the sacred Psalms of King David and chanting our precious sharagans. So at this most joyous time of the year I extend to each and everyone of you my brothers and sisters of Sts. Sahag and Mesrob Armenian Church my very best wishes. May the joy of the birth of the Light of the World enlighten your hearts and minds.
Merry Christmas to all!
With less than forty-eight hours left in 2009 I wanted to send you all my very best wishes for a new year filled with God’s many blessings.Here in Armenia the days leading up to January 1 have been very hectic, with holiday shopping and traffic similar to the pace in the US just prior to December 25. . In the Armenian Church calendar of commemorations the last week has been a particularly colorful one. The “Avak Donner” or Senior Feasts fall at the latter part of December and celebrate some of the most important saints of the Church: the king and prophet David, Apostle James (Brother of the Lord), Stephen the first deacon and martyr, apostles Peter and Paul, apostle James and evangelist John (known as the Sons of Thunder). . In Holy Etchmiadzin the feast of St. Stephen is the occasion for the ordination of acolytes, stole-bearers, subdeacons and this year twenty-eight deacons. The large numbers of ordained are from the ranks of the Gevorkian and Vazkenian seminaries. Following tradition, the dean of the Gevorkian Seminary, Bishop Sahag Marshalian conducted the ordinations. . Towards the end matins on the feast of St. John the Evangelist a moving text is read called the “The Repose of the Blessed Apostle and Evangelist John.” The reading is marked by the evangelists words of Christian wisdom and instruction to his followers and prayers leading up to his death. . Also, in the days leading up to New Years, Christmas lights were set up throughout the main square of Etchmiadzin and the monastery. The biggest treat is a life-size manger scene set up to the west of the entrance of the cathedral. (remember that Christmas will not be celebrated here until January 6). . As a sobering reminder of what the Christmas season is really all about, yesterday I visited to an orphanage in the northern Armenian city of Vanatsor. During this holiday season the Christian Education Center (CEC) of the Mother See is making visits to eight state-owned orphanages throughout Armenia. During the visit titled “Smiles for the New Year and Christmas” the Armenian branch of the International Association of Marionette Artists put on a puppet show for the children depicting the parable of the Good Samaritan. This was followed by games, dancing and a special visit by Tsumer Babig (alias Santa Claus) to distribute gifts to the children. The director of CEC Fr. Vardan Navasardyan extended the greetings and blessings of the Catholicos of All Armenians. . As for New Years plans, tomorrow evening the brotherhood will gather for a fun-filled dinner “Gaghant-chek” during which I am told the students are free to “roast” the miapans, particularly the instructors at the seminary-so I’m not sure what I have in store for me. Hopefully they won’t be too cruel, although my students have promised to go easy on me. . Exactly at midnight we’ll be in the cathedral offering the “Hayrabedagan Maghtank” prayer for the longevity of the Catholicos of All Armenians and the stability of the Mother See as the spiritual center of the Armenian people. Lastly, on January 1 according to tradition a solemn Divine Liturgy will be celebrated for the peace of the world and for an increase in faith, hope and love among the Armenian people. . Happy New Year to ALL – Shnorhavor Nor Dari!
As my days in the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin (the Armenian Bethlehem) quickly come to an end, I offer my final "Etchmiadzin Journal." I write this on the occasion of the great feast of Theophany, which was celebrated around the world last Wednesday, January 6. Actually, starting on January 6, we've had a very heavy schedule here at the Mother See and my schedule continues to be hectic as I am administering final exams at the seminary today and tomorrow.
In any case, I want to take this opportunity to extend my very best wishes to all on the feast of the Birth and Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our celebrations here have been exquisitely majestic, with the highest liturgical elegance worthy of the birth of the King of Peace and Saviour of the World!
I should preface that I was blessed to celebrate the first "Sunday" Divine Liturgy of the year 2010 at the high altar of the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin on January 3rd.
After the chanting of the third chapter of the prophecy of Daniel, the Christmas Eve liturgy (January 5) was offered by the Chancellor of the Mother See, Bishop Arshak Khachtryan. This was followed by the blessing of the Veharan (Catholicos's residence) and the refectory of the monastery. During the dinner I offered a toast in which I reflected on the different make-up of the monastery since my time as a student twenty years ago. Now there are many young priests and I have entered the ranks of the older miapans. This, of course, speaks to the "youth-centered" programming of the Catholicos, regarding which I have written in a number of articles.
The Christmas day liturgy was celebrated by the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, His Holiness KAREKIN II. I was honored together with another priest to carry the "Garr" or "Lamb," which is a richly embroidered cloth at the center of which is the image of Jesus, the Lamb of God. I am told that at one time this would be placed on the altar and the chalice would be placed on it during the liturgy. Now it is carried as a sacred decoration during the procession and is venerated by the faithful. At the conclusion of the liturgy His Holiness together with the archbishops, bishops and vartabeds blessed the water in remembrance of our Lord Jesus' baptism in the river Jordan. Serving as the godfather was Mr. Seyran Ohanian, the Minister of Defense of the Armenian Republic.
For both liturgies the cathedral and surrounding environs were filled to "over" capacity. Of particularly attraction have been the Christmas lights set up throughout the compound together with a large manger scene, reminiscent of our La Salette Shrine. During both Christmas eve and Christmas day, the procession of clergy had to literally push its way through the crowds of faithful jammed into the cathedral. Thanks be to God for this amazing resurgence of faith.
On Merelots or Memorial Day (January 7) I celebrated the liturgy at St. Gayane, thus fulfilling my "ookh" or vow to liturgize at all of the monasteries located in the city of Etchmiadzin.
Yesterday, I offered my final Divine Liturgy in our sister parish, St. Katoghike in Jervezh. I'm pleased to say that the church was filled to the maximum. My hope is that more of our parishioners, as in the past, will have a chance to come to Armenia and participate in the liturgy in this truly exceptional parish. The liturgy was followed with a special production of the "Divine Liturgy through the Lips of Students" by students of the Jervezh middle school.
Friends, I send you my very best wishes of this holy season and greet you from Holy Etchmiadzin with the ancient proclamation: Kristos dzunav yev haydnetsav! Tsez yev mez medz avedis! CHRIST IS BORN AND REVEALED! May this holy feast be a source of inspiration and peace for all. Amen.
SPACE THAT NO ONE CAN SEE