The Divine Liturgy is the main worship service of the Armenian Church. But the Badarak, as we call it in Armenian, is much more than that. It provides the most intimate encounter we can have with God in this life. In the Divine Liturgy, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, comes to his people—to you and me—in two forms: First, by his Word, in the reading of the holy Gospel; and second, by his holy Body and Blood, in Holy Communion. These two actions—the reading of the Word of God, and the reception of Holy Communion—are the two pillars or building blocks of the Divine Liturgy in all ancient, apostolic churches
Officially, the liturgical language is Classical Armenian (Grabar), which differs decidedly from the eastern and western modern Armenian dialects. The vernacular is not used in the celebration of the Divine.
The Armenian Liturgy is one of the five liturgical families of the Christian East. Although scholars long considered the Armenian Liturgy to be but a branch of the Byzantine liturgical family, recent scholarship has demonstrated beyond doubt the independence and distinctiveness of the ancient liturgical tradition of the Armenian Church.
Back in the 10th century, the great Armenian theologian Khosrov Antsevatsi eloquently described the importance of the Divine Liturgy when he wrote: “Since those who confess and show repentance receive atonement by means of the Holy Mystery [the Badarak], and are reunited to Christ in order to become for Him Body and members, we should be eager for the great medicine.” The Divine Liturgy is the great medicine that provides true meaning and direction for our lives. It offers the peace and solace that only God can give—a free gift no less—in an age when so many people are searching, and spending millions of dollars in vain to find personal stability and security.
The high Alexandrian Christology promulgated by the Armenian Church is reflected in many facets of its liturgical expression. The Armenian anaphora of St. Athanasius, while addressed to the Father, is Christological from the outset. The opening discourse on God’s creation found in conventional Antiochene Eucharistic prayers is reduced in Armenian Athanasius to a mere mention. Other Christological emphases include a Christological doxology that always precedes the Lord’s Prayer, and the perpetuation in Armenia of the unified celebration of Christ’s birth and baptism on January 6, which became for the Armenians a symbol of the perfect divinity and perfect humanity of Christ in one nature.
The Armenian Liturgy often preserves ancient structures and usages long since supplanted in other rites. In Armenian Sunday Matins, to cite one example, the Cathedral Vigil exhibits today the same lucid structure that the Spanish pilgrim Egeria described toward the end of the fourth century. Scholars are increasingly turning to the Armenian Liturgy as an important witness for the historical reconstruction of early liturgical structures and practices.
Special aspects of the Armenian liturgy
The Armenian Liturgy is celebrated with a form and ceremonial which partakes in a measure both of the Roman and Byzantine rites. The curtains are used instead of the altar-rail or iconostasis of those rites, and the vestments are also peculiar. The Armenian Church uses unleavened bread, in the form of a wafer or small thin round cake, for consecration, and those not used for consecration in the Liturgy are given afterwards to the people as the antidoron. The wine used must be solely the fermented juice of the best grapes obtainable. In the Armenian Churches Communion is given to the people under both species, the Host being dipped in the chalice before delivering it to the communicant.
On Christmas Eve and Easter Eve the Armenian Church celebrates Liturgy in the evening; the Liturgy begins with the curtains drawn whilst the introductory psalms and prophecies are sung, but, at the moment the great feast is announced in the Introit, the curtains are withdrawn and the altar appears with full illumination.
During Lent the altar remains entirely hidden by the great curtains, and during all the Sundays in Lent, except Palm Sunday, Mass is celebrated behind the drawn curtains.
The Armenian vestments for Liturgy are peculiar and splendid. The priest wears a crown, which is called the Saghavard or helmet.
The Armenian bishops wear a mitre almost identical in shape with the Latin mitre. The mitre has been introduced in the Armenian Church in the twelfth century. The celebrant is first vested with the shapik or alb, which is usually narrower than the Latin form, and usually of linen (sometimes of silk). He then puts on each of his arms the bazpans or cuffs; then the ourar or stole, which is in one piece; then the goti or girdle, then the vakas or amice, which is a large embroidered stiff collar with a shoulder covering to it; and finally the shourchar, or chasuble. If the celebrant is Patriarch or Catholicos, he also wears gonker or epigonation. The bishops carry a staff shaped like the Latin, while the vartabeds (doctors of divinity) carry a staff in the Greek form (a staff with two intertwined serpents). Originally no organs are used in the Armenian church, but the elaborate vocal music of the Eastern style, sung by choir and people, is accompanied by two metallic instruments, the keshotz and zinzqha (the first a fan with small bells; the second similar to cymbals), both of which are used during various parts of the Liturgy. The organ was introduced in the Armenian Church in 1923. The deacon wears merely an alb, and a stole in the same manner as in the Catholic or Orthodox Churches. The sub-deacons and lower clergy wear simply the alb.
Sections of liturgy
The Armenian Liturgy may be divided into three parts: Preparation, Anaphora or Canon, and Conclusion.
The first and preparatory portion extends as far as the Preface, when the catechumens are directed by the deacon to leave. The Canon commences with the conclusion of the Preface and ends with the Communion. As soon as the priest is robed in his vestments he goes to the altar, washes his hands reciting Psalm XXVI, and then going to the foot of the altar begins the Liturgy. After saying the Intercessory Prayer, the Absolution, which is given with a crucifix in hand, he recites Psalm XXII, and at every two verses ascends a step of the altar. After he has intoned the prayer “In the tabernacle of Holiness,” the curtains are drawn, and the choir sings the appropriate hymn of the day. Meanwhile the celebrant behind the curtain prepares the bread on the paten and fills the chalice, ready for the oblation. When this is done the curtains are withdrawn and the altar incensed. Then the Introit of the day is sung, then the prayers corresponding to those of the first, second, and third antiphons of liturgy of Basil the Great, while the proper psalms are sung by the choir. Then the deacon intones “Proschume” (let us attend), and elevates the book of the gospels, which is incensed as he brings it to the altar, making the Little Entrance. The choir then sings the Trisagion (Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us) thrice. The Armenian Church interpolates after “Holy and Immortal” some words descriptive of the feast day, such as “who was made manifest for us,” or “who didst rise from the dead.” During the Trisagion the Keshotz is jingled in accompaniment. Then Litany is sung, and at its conclusion the reader reads the Prophecy; then the Antiphon before the Epistle is sung, and the epistle of the day read. At the end of each the choir responds Alleluia. Then the deacon announces “Orthi” (stand up) and, taking the Gospels, reads or intones the gospel of the day. Immediately afterwards, the Nicene Creed is sung. After concluding in the ordinary form the deacon adds the sentence pronounced by the First Council of Nicaea: “Those who say there was a time when the Son was not, or when the Holy Ghost was not; or that they were created out of nothing; or that the Son of God and the Holy Ghost are of another substance or that they are mutable; the Catholic and Apostolic church condemns.” Then the Confession of St. Gregory is intoned aloud by the celebrant, and the Little litany sung. The deacon at its close dismisses the catechumens, and the choir sings the Hymn of the Great Entrance, when the bread and wine are solemnly brought to the altar. “The Body of our Lord and the Blood of our Redeemer are to be before us. The Heavenly Powers invisible sing and proclaim with uninterrupted voice, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts.”
Here the priest takes off his crown and the cross (if the celebrant is bishop his mitre and if celebrant is bishop the curtains are drawn). The celebrant incenses the holy gifts and again washes his bands, repeating Psalm XXVI as before. After the Salutation is sung, the Anaphora or Canon begins. The Preface is said secretly, only the concluding part being intoned to which the choir responds with the Sanctus. The formal kiss of peace is exchanged. The prayer before consecration follows, with a comparison of the Old and the New Law, not found in either Greek or Roman Rite: “Holy, Holy, Holy; Thou art in truth most Holy; who is there who can dare to describe by words thy bounties which flow down upon us without measure? For Thou didst protect and console our forefathers, when they had fallen in sin, by means of the prophets, the Law, the priesthood, and the offering of bullocks, showing forth that which was to come. And when at length He came, Thou didst tear in pieces the register of our sins, and didst bestow on us Thine Only Begotten Son, the debtor and the debt, the victim and the anointed, the Lamb and Bread of Heaven, the Priest and the Oblation for He is the distributor and is always distributed amongst us, without being exhausted. Being made man truly and not apparently, and by union without confusion, He was incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and journeyed through all the passions of human life, sin only excepted, and of His own free will walked to the cross, whereby He gave life to the world and wrought salvation for us.” Then follow the actual words of consecration, which are intoned aloud. Then follow the Offering and the Epiklesis: “whereby Thou wilt make the bread when blessed truly the body of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” Then come the prayers for the living and the dead, and an intoning by the deacons of the Commemoration of the Saints, in which nearly all the Armenian saints are mentioned. Then the deacon intones aloud the Ascription of Praise of Bishop Khosrov the Great in thanksgiving for the Sacrament of the Altar. After this comes a long Ektene or Litany, and then the Our Father is sung by the choir. The celebrant then elevates the consecrated Host, saying “Holy things for Holy Persons,” and when the choir responds, he continues: “Let us taste in holiness the holy and honourable Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who came down from heaven and is now distributed among us.” Then the choir sings antiphons in honour of the sacrifice of the Body and Blood, and the small curtain is drawn. The priest kisses the sacred Victim, saying “I confess and I believe that Thou art Christ, the Son of God, who has borne the sins of the world.” The Host is divided into three parts, one of which is placed in the chalice. The choir sing the communion hymns as appointed; the priest and the clergy receive the Communion first, and then the choir and people. The little curtain is withdrawn when the Communion is given, and the great curtains are drawn back when the people come up for Communion.
After Communion, the priest puts on his crown (or the bishop his mitre and omophoria), and the great curtains are again drawn. Thanksgiving prayers are said behind them, after which the great curtains are withdrawn once more, and the priest holding the book of gospels says the great prayer of peace, and blesses the people. Then the deacon proclaims “Orthi” (stand up) and the celebrant reads the Last Gospel, which is nearly always invariable, being the Gospel of St. John, I: “In the beginning was the Word, etc.”; the only exception is from Easter to the eve of Pentecost, when they use the Gospel of St. John, XXI, 15-20: “So when they had dined, etc.” Then the prayer for peace are said, the final benediction is given.