Thursday, March 14, 2019

Guest Article: “Some Ritual Features of the Armenian Catholic Liturgy”

Following up on a recent article for NLM, “Encountering the Sacred Mysteries East of Byzantium: The Armenian Liturgy as a Home away from Rome,” Fr. John Henry Hanson, O.Praem., offers today a more detailed look at the particular rituals of the Soorp Badarak (the “Holy Sacrifice”) that comprise the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Catholic Church.

As noted in the previous article, the traditional Latin Mass and the Armenian liturgy share much common ground, largely owing to lengthy periods of reunion, not to mention the missionary efforts of Dominican friars in the fourteenth century, who translated the Mass of the Latin rite entirely into Armenian so as to reach more effectively those separated from Catholic communion.

The order of the Divine Liturgy follows the familiar structure of Christian liturgy: prayers of preparation, the Mass of the catechumens (or liturgy of the word), and Mass of the faithful (or liturgy of the Eucharist).

Prayers of Preparation

Upon beginning the liturgy, the celebrant and a numerous contingent of deacons and subdeacons flanking him alternately recite and chant the preparatory prayers at the foot of the altar, actually beginning in the nave. As Psalm 42 progresses, the celebrant begins to ascend the altar one step at a time, each step corresponding to a verse of the psalm. Word and ritual go together.

After several other prayers, the large sanctuary curtain is drawn, and behind it begins what could be called a minor offertory—known more properly as the Preparation of the Oblation. The chalice is unveiled and the host is both blessed and offered up “in remembrance of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Proceeding to the epistle side of the altar, the celebrant then prepares the chalice. After blessing the wine, he pours it crosswise into the chalice, without (according to ancient usage) mixing water.

Mass of the Catechumens: Liturgy of the Word

This is followed by the recitation of the day’s introit, a Byzantine-style litany, and then the Gospel Procession. All Armenian churches are built with an east-facing high altar within an apse, leaving space between the altar and the sanctuary wall for the deacon, a thurifer, and two torch bearers to pass in procession. The procession is always accompanied by the chanting of the Trisagion, which the Latin rite normally reserves to Good Friday. This unique procession symbolizes the Gospel going out from Jerusalem and around the world, enacted ritually by the circumambulation of the altar.

From a Biblical point of view, this is very poignant. Both altars and earth are described by the prophets as having four corners, thus linking earth with the table of worship. The implication of the earth as the venue for the worship of God, for glorifying God, is thus displayed. As St Paul says, quoting Psalm 24 (23), “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (1 Cor. 10, 26).

The Gospel procession normally concludes at the edge of the sanctuary where those lay faithful come forward for whose intentions the Mass is celebrated, and venerate the Gospel book with a kiss and touch of the forehead.

After the Gospel procession, the Gospel Book itself is enthroned on the left side of the altar. This placement explains why in the Divine Liturgy the missal is always placed to the right of the corporal: no other book should have prominence on the side of the altar dedicated to the word of God.

The epistle is then read facing the congregation, after which the Gospel is read by the priest celebrant (or deacon), standing directly before the altar. He first blesses the congregation with the book, then chants the Gospel while the book is held by two servers, who in turn are flanked by two torch bearers, with (normally) two thurifers stationed at opposite ends of the sanctuary, swinging their thuribles outward at the end of each sentence of the Gospel: an impressive punctuation to “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4, 4)

The use of dual thuribles is actually a feature throughout the liturgy, as are the keshotz, liturgical bell fans comparable to the Byzantine ripidion. The use of these bells is often intended not only to alert the congregation to particularly important moments in the liturgy, but also to signify the movement of angelic wings. This is especially poignant as the fans are shaken in greater earnest at the moment the priest chants the words of consecration, reflecting the exultation of the angelic spirits before the Lord’s arrival under the forms of bread and wine.

Before the Eucharistic liturgy proper, the Nicene Creed is always chanted—at every Mass, high or low, and the sign of peace is given. Armenians retain the practice of receiving the peace from the altar, in this order: two deacons kiss the altar, then the priest’s dual maniples, then proceed into the nave where they personally extend the peace to each row. Armenians greet each other with this formula: Christ is revealed in our midst. Blessed is the revelation of Christ.

Mass of the Faithful: Liturgy of the Eucharist

Then follows the canon. Known as the Anaphora of St Athanasius, it is used in every Mass and recited sotto voce as the priest extends his arms in cruciform manner. As he prays the canon, the sublime Armenian Sanctus or Soorp, Soorp (“Holy, Holy”) is sung.

The elevations of the consecrated elements do not take place immediately after their consecration. Rather, quite later in the liturgy, each species is lifted up for a prolonged elevation, accompanied by words deriving from the ancient Liturgy of St James. As he raises the Host, the priest says or sings “The Holy Gifts are due to the saints!”, after which the people, in words referenced by St Cyril of Jerusalem in his Baptismal Catecheses, acclaim, “There is One who is Holy, One who is Lord, Jesus Christ!”

A final poignant ritual just prior to Holy Communion is a blessing with the Eucharistic species. Turning from the altar, the priest elevates the host over the chalice, making the sign of the cross over the congregation, saying, “Let us taste in holiness, the most holy and precious Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who descended from heaven and is now distributed among us. This is life, hope, resurrection, expiation and forgiveness of sins. Sing psalms to the Lord our God, sing psalms to our heavenly and immortal king, who sits upon the chariots of the Cherubim.”

Communion is always given standing, the respectful posture of Eastern worship, but on the tongue after intinction of the Host. As the celebrant reposes the Blessed Sacrament, he again blesses the people with the ciborium, quoting Psalm 28 (27), “Save, O Lord, your people, and bless your inheritance.” After the ablutions, the concluding rites are relatively brief. A blessing with the hand-cross is given accompanied by the words, “May you be blessed through the graces of the Holy Spirit. Go in peace, and may the Lord be with you all!”

A word about vestments may be added. As a rule, Armenian vestments are bright, colorful, and richly textured—while not necessarily carrying a chromatic meaning reflecting the feast of the day. While black is customary for requiem services, wearing blue or violet on Pentecost, for instance, is totally fine. One reason for this lack of uniformity is to emphasize that all of the mysteries are celebrated in each liturgy. The function of the vestments is to draw attention to the dignity and beauty of the liturgy itself.

The church seen in these photos (as in the ones for the previous article) is St Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Catholic Cathedral in Glendale, Caliofornia, which was built in the early 2000’s.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: