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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Armenians Celebrate the Annunciation – From Ararat to Istanbul

In the first nation to adopt Christianity, a small group of faithful celebrate the feast of the Annunciation.

Far from Mount Ararat, the imposing symbol of their ancestral home, a few dozen Armenian Christians gather in the austere stone Church of the Holy Virgin in the former Christian quarter of Istanbul. The daily life of this depleted community reflects the Apostle’s expression of faith: “I live, now not I: but Christ liveth in me.” (Gal. 2:20)

On the feast of the Annunciation, they especially direct their hopeful thoughts to that comfort to sufferers, the Blessed Virgin. They take heart in Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin: “Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.” (Lk. 1:30)

At this feast day’s liturgy, the clergy and the congregation carry themselves with the dignity befitting the descendants of the first nation to adopt Christianity. At the same time, their great humility marks their hallowed Christian tradition, which knows the same persecution which challenged the early Church.

In the third century, St. Gregory the Illuminator overcame vicious pagan persecution to spread the Gospel and convert King Tiridates III. Carrying the Light to those in darkness, Gregory brought comfort and hope to the afflicted and fearful. In remembrance of his role, the Armenian Orthodox Church is sometimes called the Gregorian Church.

The Armenians in this city maintain the rituals of their forebears from the isolated steppe of eastern Asia Minor. These tribal people have a strong sense of their distinct spiritual identity and independence. The monk Mesrop introduced the Armenian alphabet in the fifth century and translated the Bible into the native tongue. The Armenian church established its autonomy then, and classical Armenian has been the language of the liturgy ever since. Though the communicants may have an imperfect comprehension of this venerable language, they preserve and honor their heritage in it.

The history of Armenian Christians, while always troubled, testifies to a tenacious spirituality. The pagan challenge of Persia in 451 kept them from full representation at the Council of Chalcedon. Though a defeated Armenia rejected its doctrines 55 years later in order to guarantee protection by the Byzantine emperor. the simple faith of the Christian population was true.

This estrangement from the Church substantially changed after the fall of the Bagratid dynasty (865-1071). With the formation of the truncated Armenian state of Cilicia came ties with the West through an alliance with the Crusaders. More importantly, it joined in Church councils, such as the one at Antioch in 1141. As further evidence of reconciliation, Leo II (1185-1219) received his crown from Pope Celestine III.

Fifteen Armenian catholicoi (patriarchs) during the golden age of Cilicia maintained communion with the Apostolic See. In 1438 a triumphant Council of Florence concluded a bull of union with the Armenian Church. The reconciliation was short-lived. The Turkish conquest of Armenia in 1453 led to a new schism. Still, Armenians in the West and parts of Persia kept ties with Rome.

Since the eighteenth century, the Congregation of the Mechitarist Fathers has encouraged a flowering of Armenian culture. Under the inspiration of these “Armenian Benedictines,” books were printed, manuscripts were reproduced, and fresh theological, literary, historical, and scientific thought was promoted. As their Armenian identity was renewed, Catholics were accorded special recognition within the Ottoman empire. Yet, they still suffered terrible persecution. During World War I, thousands of Armenians were killed for their faith. Courageous martyrs like Gomidas Keumurgian, who was beatified by Pope Pius X1 in 1929, were typical of the Armenian Christian witness.

Today’s Christians continue this witness. The Blessed Virgin is especially venerated by Armenians, who seek her intercession during sickness and suffering. Throughout Armenian history, shrines to the Holy Mother stretched from Ani to Erivan. At one time, 38 monasteries were dedicated to her.

The simple arrangement of the Armenian church lets participants concentrate on the ritual. The sanctuary is separated by a double curtain. The altar is elevated with a staircase on either side. A curtain also surrounds the altar. A niche in the wall on the right contains the offerings of bread and wine. No icons adorn the church. The Armenians say that the cross is their icon.

Offsetting this simplicity, the bishop wears his colorful “vestment of salvation” as an outward sign of his spiritual commitment. His garments consist of the alb with crosses on the chest, back, and shoulders; a high, stiff, embroidered collar called a varkas; and a stole trailing from the left shoulder and fastened by a gold buckle called a goti. The bishop also wears a dazzling Latinate mitre, a tradition dating from the twelfth century, when Pope Lucius II made a gift of a bejeweled mitre to the reigning catholikos. Still, his prayer covers these rich vestments with humility: “O Lord all powerful! Who hast permitted us to robe ourselves in the same celestial garb, make me, thy useless servant, worthy of the spiritual ministry of thy glory.”

Though clergy and laypersons assist the bishop, the entire congregation shares in the ritual. Though larger parishes might have a choir, worshippers of smaller communities raise their voices with clarity and confidence. The warmth and spontaneity identify the communion between celebrants and worshippers.

The highly prescribed Armenian rite remains solemn in keeping with the community’s sacrifice and self-abnegation. Still, it remains a rite of joyful praise proclaimed in the voices of the priest and deacons, in the tinkling bells of the zinzhga and the clashing of the brass cymbals. This Eastern music evokes special praises for Mary: “The sound of the joyful noise is heard, thee O Immaculate One: to prepare a chamber for the Lord.”

Even as the bishop leads a magnificent procession, his spirit humbly acknowledges himself as a sinner. After he recites the Confiteor, the deacon offers absolution before the procession proceeds to the altar. While worshippers remain still, the bishop kneels and removes his mitre and other marks of his position. He comes as a simple priest seeking God and salvation through the Savior. His prayer is the prayer of all the faithful. The celebrant and the penitent are one praying to the “Good Shepherd, reclaimer of wandering souls, who was delivered for our offenses and was raised again for our justification.”

While the worshippers sing, the sanctuary curtain closes while the celebrant prepares the sacraments. “The Holy Church acknowledges and confesses the pure Virgin Mary as Mother of God, through whom has been communicated to us the bread of immortality and the cup of consolation.” As the curtain opens, the altar and offerings are censed, filling the church with fragrance.

Armenian clergy and congregants approach the Eucharist with profound reverence. After a 24-hour fast and an even longer period of confession and soul-searching, they will usually take communion only on feast days or special occasions. The Armenians mix the wine and bread, reflecting the indivisibility of God’s separate natures.

The Armenian rite goes beyond the mere order of the service and the sequence of ritual movements to transcend the arrangement of the church, sacramental objects, and the clergy’s vestments. The Armenian rite speaks to God from the depth of the Armenian soul.

In their common prayers, these worshippers find a wonderful communion. In their own lifetimes, they have seen the slaughter and suffering of their people, whose nation remains dispersed. As a faithful remnant, their spiritual unity gives them strength and dignity. As the ceremony closes, the Armenians show their unity as they bow, hand on heart, in reverence to one another. Their love fills the old stone church, and they are one in the Body of Christ. And at that moment, the men and women of the Church of the Holy Virgin have, like Mary, “found grace with God.”

Mark Leeds, a free-lance writer living in London, specializes in research into Christians of the eastern Mediterranean.

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