Thursday, February 28, 2019

Guest Article: “The Armenian Liturgy as a Home away from Rome”

Fr John Henry offering the Armenian Divine Liturgy
Editor's Note: NLM is always interested in showcasing all rites of East and West. We are therefore very pleased to present to our readers today a guest article by Fr John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., who on Sundays celebrates the Armenian Divine Liturgy at the Armenian Catholic Cathedral in Los Angeles. We publish it in connection with the February 27th feastday of the latest Doctor of the Church, the Armenian St Gregory of Narek.

Of all the Eastern rites, the Armenian is the one whose shape mirrors most closely that of the traditional Latin Mass. During extended periods of reunion, the Armenians were very receptive to Latin influence. For example, there are extended prayers at the foot of the altar, with Psalm 42. On the other hand, there are things peculiar to the Armenian rite, such as not mixing water with wine during the preparation of the chalice: the Armenians just use pure, unmixed wine.

The Armenian rite is a great example of a traditional rite that tranquilly maintains its traditions within the context of the modern world. Like other “smaller” rites within the Church, it was preserved from great damage after Vatican II because it was so “off the beaten track” that fashionable liturgists scarcely paid attention to it. Also, the spirit of ecumenism worked to the advantage of the East and always to the disadvantage of the West. The Armenians were told after Vatican II (especially under Pope St John Paul II) to restore whatever needed restoring in their rite. All the same, the Armenian liturgy needed little repair. In any case, the idea of root-and-branch change is unthinkable to Armenians, due in large part to the ancient culture their liturgy preserves, and which has given the people such a strong sense of identity over so long a time.

Encountering the Sacred Mysteries East of Byzantium:

The Armenian Liturgy as a Home away from Rome 

Fr John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Being only partially Armenian in ancestry (a quarter, to be exact), it’s not surprising that I was not raised in the rite of my ancestors. It was only after ten years of ordination as a priest of the Norbertine Order that the opportunity of exploring the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Rite was unexpectedly given me, when my assistance on Sundays was requested by the Armenian Catholic Cathedral in Glendale, California.

Before beginning public celebrations of the Armenian Soorp Badarak (“Holy Sacrifice”), I was tutored in its rituals by His Grace, Mikael Mouradian, Eparch of the Armenian Church in North America. And although it differed much from the Roman rite, I found enough of the liturgical terrain familiar territory. If the surface of the altar may be likened to the “compact” holy city of Psalm 122, then the monuments, edifices, and lanes looked a lot like home.

Over and again I found myself registering the similarities between the traditional Latin Mass and the Armenian, while also noting those ways in which the mystery of Christ is celebrated in a uniquely Armenian way. These likenesses are no coincidence, but rather the fruit of lengthy periods of reunion between Rome and the Armenian Church, most notably from 1198-1375, when much Latin influence was assimilated. Today, the division between Catholic and Orthodox Armenians prevails, although their liturgy is substantially the same.

The rare opportunity of seeing one’s native rite from the outside — from the inside of another rite — has afforded me a wholesome compare-and-contrast, increasing my appreciation for both. For westerners, in fact, the special beauty of Eastern Christian liturgies is primarily one of fresh perspective: experiencing the mysteries of Christ through a new lens. Each rite preserving its own proper character gives a special glory to God by revealing an aspect of Christ not fully revealed by another rite.

Pope Benedict XVI alluded to this quality of the sacred liturgy in the letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum. Explaining the attraction felt by many young people to the traditional liturgy of the Latin rite, he regarded their attraction as rooted in “a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, particularly suited to them.” While the Mystery remains the same, the form of encounter differs, and should be held in reverence by those drawn to a different form of worship.

The idea of liturgy as the venue of encounter with Christ in the Eucharistic mystery is key to understanding not only the genius of one’s own rite, but of other rites as well. As one Byzantine abbot put it in a homily I heard several years ago, the eastern rites should not function merely as a “side show” for western Catholics. If the end of the sacred liturgy is worship pleasing to God, coupled with its inseparable purpose of uniting man to God, then it behooves Christians of any rite to explore the ways in which their brethren worship and how their liturgies do the work of bringing them into communion with the Lord.

In a particular way, the Popes of modern times (from Leo XIII on) have insisted on the equality, the shared dignity, of all Catholic rites. Pope Pius XI, perhaps more than any pre-conciliar pope, vigorously defended the legitimate diversity of rites while encouraging deeper familiarity with them, especially on the part of Latin clergy. Appreciation for their cultural antiquity and unique expression of the Christian mysteries can provide, as Pius XI said, “a more adequate knowledge of Catholic theology … while conceiving a more ardent love for the true Bride of Christ, whose enchanting comeliness, and unity in the diversity of the various rites, will shine forth more clearly in their [i.e. the clergy’s] eyes.”

This balanced and appreciative Magisterial thinking is a welcome antidote against the often superficial and uninformed polemics launched from various sides of ongoing liturgical debates (discussions which also exist, in their own way, in the oriental churches). Easterners tend to do better at respecting the sacred liturgy as a sacred inheritance, a family heirloom, and this is a wholesome corrective against liturgical fads, the pressure to reinvent, or reduce the liturgy to its bare essentials (whose ironic side-effect is a quasi-demystification of the mysteries). Mysteries need to be presented with an air of mystery, of the transcendent, or else we fallen creatures will never rise from the mud of daily life.

This is not to say that our liturgy is a kind of museum piece, to be admired from afar, and curated (not to say comprehended) only by a select few. Nor is it frozen in time. The liturgy is alive and, like all living things, grows and develops organically — which is why Benedict XVI asserted: “In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture.”

Put simply: In liturgy, there needs to be a part we get and a part we don’t get. The “food” part of the Eucharist we get, the God part we don’t. It is the nature of a sacrament to present incomprehensible realities under the form of comprehensible signs. But to treat those signs with great dignity and solemnity better points us to the invisible workings of grace than using common and ordinary things which can’t effectively point beyond themselves.

Easterners have a deeper sense of the cultural and apostolic lifelines preserved in their liturgy than do Latin Catholics. What Benedict XVI said in Summorum Pontificum itself is very applicable to the eastern rites: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too…. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.” Whereas the Latin rite emerged from Greco-Roman culture, with its unique modes of verbal expression and ritual, the contemporary Catholic in the pew is not likely to perceive a connection between the liturgy of their mainstream parish and that of their ancient ancestors — a sad result of inauthentic application of the Council’s intentions for the liturgy.

Where the Latin rite is often characterized by a kind of austerity and sobriety of expression — a holy restraint reflecting our inability to express the ineffability of the mysteries we celebrate — the Eastern rites tend to express themselves in superlative fashion. Mining human language for its richest expressions, utilizing poetry where prose falls short, and employing ritual gesture that engages the outer man as much as the inner, are some of the most conspicuous marks of eastern liturgies.

This has not prevented at least one eminent Armenian Orthodox scholar and prelate from describing the divine liturgy as somewhat “dysfunctional,” in that modern Armenian-Americans bring along their inevitably modern mentality to church and fail to find meaning in the ancient rituals, language, and chants of their native rite. Even if the dysfunctional culture in which the people are immersed is the more likely culprit, the problem is a real one: ritual relevance. The solution of many in the western Church has been to introduce novelties that might engage some for a time, but in the end lack the weight of tradition to sustain them.

Armenians manifest a healthy balance between preservation and adaptation. The lectionary is more or less invariable like that of the Tridentine missal, and valuably preserves closer than any other rite the primitive Jerusalem lectionary. And although the liturgical language is classical Armenian, modern Armenian is often employed in the proclamation of the Scriptures — often, as in the extraordinary form, read in addition to reading in the classical language.

Individual eparchies are also free to employ the vernacular for other parts of the Mass at the discretion of the Eparch. Hence, you will find Armenian Catholic parishes celebrating good portions of the liturgy in, for example, Arabic, French, and English. But although modern languages are utilized, the ritual remains the same. What the priest and ministers do at the altar admits of no variation, but reflects the Armenian mode of worship. The altar is always eastward in orientation, priests and sacred ministers wear liturgical slippers during the liturgy, duel thuribles are almost continually in use, along with metal liturgical fans, and the laity (in general) are not given access to the sanctuary.

Armenian worship is unique in the family tree of Christian rites, standing independent of the other eastern liturgical offshoots. Armenians have uniquely assimilated Syrian, Byzantine, and Latin influences — so much so that Catholics who regularly attend the extraordinary form will find in the Armenian rite much to remind them of home: Prayers at the foot of the altar, including Psalm 42, unleavened communion bread (given on the tongue after intinction), normally a rectangular stone altar instead of the square Byzantine style, a single canon recited silently (although accompanied by the chanting of the hauntingly beautiful Armenian Sanctus), the Last Gospel (chanted rather than recited), and an open sanctuary not permanently covered by the iconostasis. At those several moments in the liturgy requiring a veiling of the sanctuary, a large curtain is drawn instead.

The liturgy is generally traced back to that of St Basil, although the Greek liturgies of St James and of St John Chrysostom are clearly in evidence. Combine this with generous Latin influence, and you have a rite all its own. One may argue that it has absorbed the best features of both eastern and western rites, forming a kind of ecumenical liturgical bridge between east and west.

The following video is a succinct overview of the history of the Armenian Church with liturgical footage:

An Orthodox Armenian liturgy celebrated in the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in 2015, commemorating the genocide:

Gloria TV has a complete Easter liturgy in Beirut in 2017 (here).

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