Archive for October, 2015

Icon of Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide

October 22nd, 2015    |    No Comments »

The icon of Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide was commissioned by the Catholicos of All Armenians, His Holiness Karekin II, and painted by Tigran Barkhanajyan specifically for the 2015 ceremony of canonization, marking the 100th year of remembrance of the Armenian Genocide.

It is a unique work of iconography, depicting the first “new” saints to be recognized by the Armenian Church in several centuries: the martyrs who (in the words of the official prayer of intercession) “gave their lives during the Armenian Genocide for faith and for the homeland.” The Holy Martyrs are portrayed in the dress typical of the Ottoman empire in 1915, and represent all ranks of Western Armenian society: men, women, children, and the elderly; merchants, intellectuals, artists, clergymen, farmers—all of whom perished in the brutal crime of 1915.

Although the icon directly depicts God the Father and the Holy Spirit, the figure of Christ is not explicitly shown. However, the artist’s intention is that the multitude of figures represents the mystical Body of Christ: his holy Church. In this way, all three Persons of the Holy Trinity are present in the icon.

In the manner of our Lord at his resurrection, the martyrs travel from Death to Life, emerging upon the precincts of God’s heavenly kingdom as the Church Victorious. Their path is bordered by desecrated khatchkars and the shattered remains of Armenian monuments, suggesting the centuries of sacred and material culture lost to the Armenians when they were driven from their historic land.

His Holiness Karekin II and a special council of bishops approved the icon for display as a sacred image. The original is on view at the museum of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, in the Republic of Armenia.

Holy Martyrs of 1915

Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide.

Consecration in the Armenian Church

October 15th, 2015    |    No Comments »

To “consecrate” a person, place or object means to separate it for divine service.  After its consecration, the person, place or object is thereafter distinguished from the ordinary members of its category as holy or hallowed.

In the general vocabulary of Christianity, the term “consecration” is commonly used with reference to: (a) the Eucharist—the act whereby bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ; (b) bishops—the conferment of episcopal authority and rank; and (c) altars, churches, and Eucharistic vessels—the solemn rite of setting these things apart exclusively for the service of God.

The consecration of an icon—the depiction of one or more saints, or of a particular episode from scripture or the holy tradition—likewise sets it apart from ordinary works of art, to serve as a “window” onto the divine, and as a focus for personal devotion.

The Armenian Church’s understanding is no different in substance from that of other traditional churches.

Setting Aside a Place for Holiness

For example, when a site is chosen to build a new church, the plot of land (or foundation) must be set apart as holy ground; this distinguishes the new structure from a simple meeting or assembly hall, as a place where sacred functions—most notably the Eucharist—will be enacted. Later, when the church (or more precisely, its altar) is erected, the altar itself will be consecrated, to distinguish it as the hallowed “table of the Lord.”

The consecration of a church (an act reserved to the bishop) differs from its blessing or ‘dedication’ in that it is held to be an irrevocable act: once consecrated, the building can never be secularized.  The destruction of a holy altar by vandals or military forces—as happened to countless Armenian sanctuaries in Ottoman Turkey during the period of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923)—is therefore more than merely an unfortunate act of barbarity or cultural intolerance: it is an act of sacrilege, a defiance and denial of God.

Whether it involves an altar, a person, or an icon, the Armenian consecration service involves a series of prayers, blessings and symbolic acts—including the anointment with chrism in the names of Apostles.

Saints and Sainthood in the Armenian Church

October 8th, 2015    |    No Comments »

What does it mean to be a saint?

The Armenian word for saint is sourp, which means “holy.” The word holy, in turn, derives from an Indo-European root for wholeness, worthiness, and being set apart for God.

In the New Testament, St. Paul uses the word “saint” as a general term to refer to the members of the church community broadly speaking. For him, the simple fact that people believed in Christ identified them as holy and as set apart from the mass of humanity—that as, saints.

In the early days of the institutional church, the designation of “saint” was mostly reserved for martyrs: in a time of persecution, those who had died for their faith were seen as giving the most profound human example of holiness.

But as persecutions receded, the church began to use the word “saint” more broadly, to describe people who led impressive lives, or exhibited exemplary Christian virtues, but who were not called to sacrifice their lives in Christ’s name. Ascetics, scholars, kings and queens, mystics, and simple folk came to be considered as saints. Saints were understood to be those believers who were so united with Jesus Christ that the life of Christ was visible in what they did and taught.

Scripture, as part of the Holy Tradition of the church, is a good place to begin looking for insights into the meaning of sainthood. Here are a few passages to consider:

  • 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:18—We as God’s people are all called to be saints.
  • Psalm 97:10—Saints are those who praise the Lord’s name, who hate evil.
  • I Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:1—Saints are those who are faithful to Jesus and are part of church communities.
  • Psalm 16:3; 97:10—The Lord delights in the saints, guarding them and promising deliverance; not worldly deliverance, for we are not guaranteed safe passage in this world, but eternal deliverance.
  • Ephesians 1:18—Saints pass on God’s glorious inheritance of new life in Him to others.
  • Ephesians 2:19—As Christians, we are fellow-citizens with all the saints, other true believers.
  • I Corinthians 6:2: Having lived deeply in Christ, saints will share in the judgment of the world.
  • Revelation 5:8b—The prayers of the saints are precious, and are heard by God.

As members of the Armenian Church, we venerate the saints. It should be noted that veneration is not worship. Worship is reserved for God alone. When we venerate saints, we are honoring them, admiring them, and giving them reverence.

The Armenian Church calendar commemorates saints on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. On such days, we include their names in liturgical prayers and hymns as we remember them and ask them to pray for us.

Specific saints are named during the Divine Liturgy. We worship God together with them, and we ask that they be remembered by Him. In other liturgical services (such as the “Hours”), we ask the company of saints in general to pray for us.

We should also read their stories. The Lives of the Saints (Haysmavoork) is a collection of stories about our saints, once read daily prior to certain liturgical services. By becoming familiar with their stories, we can be inspired to live holy lives as they did.

Above all, the saints dedicated themselves to Christ. Having been transformed by his truth, is Truth,  they becamethey became his hands in the world—even dying for their faith. The manner of their lives poses a timeless question for us: How prepared are we to live for our faith?

More Than Just Paintings: Icons in the Armenian Church

October 1st, 2015    |    No Comments »

What are icons, and how are they used in the Armenian Church?

Simply stated, an icon is an artistic image, likeness, or representation of someone or some event. Often they are paintings depicting Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, angels, or biblical scenes.

But an icon is more than just a painting. Icons are images of the holy which provide access to the holy. They are hung and displayed in churches and homes, sometimes illuminated with candles or oil lamps. During liturgical services, they are venerated with incense. Sometimes a candle is placed in front of an icon of a saint, in which case it is customary to ask for the intercession of that particular saint. We bow before them and even kiss them in reverence of the holiness they represent.

Wall-paintings, mosaics, and stone carvings give us our earliest depictions of Christ, Mary, and the saints. From these early efforts, Christian art developed and the church accepted sacred imagery as objects of veneration. With the growth of Christianity in Armenia holy images proliferated, and praying before them became a popular expression of piety. The internal and external walls of Armenian churches became adorned with images, particularly with images of the cross, of Christ, of the saints and Biblical scenes.

Eventually a theology of icons in the Armenian Church developed. A treatise written around the year 600 and attributed to Vertanes Kertogh, Locum Tenens of the Catholicate at Dvin, describes holy images as having an educational and inspirational purpose, serving as kind of visual theology. Vertanes’ treatise is the oldest defense of icon veneration preserved in any language.

When speaking of images of Jesus Christ, Vertanes emphasizes that Christians do not worship the material artwork, but Him whom the image represents:

“When we prostrate ourselves before the Holy Gospel, or when we kiss it, we are not prostrating ourselves before the ivory and the paint, purchased from barbarian countries, but before the Word of the Savior which is written upon the parchment…. By the same token one bows before the icons not because of their pigment, but because of Christ, in whose name they have been painted.”

In the eighth century St. John of Odzoon (Catholicos at Dvin, 717-728) developed an even deeper, mystical theology of icons in the Armenian Church tradition. He explained that it is possible to represent the image of God because of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Since God took human, material form in the person of Jesus Christ, when bowing down before an icon of Christ, we are actually bowing before Christ enthroned; while looking at the visible, we recall to our mind the invisible.

Although there have been times when the veneration of icons was in dispute among Christians, or suppressed by non-Christian foreign powers, today in the Armenian Church the practice of painting, consecrating, and venerating icons endures. This devotional practice reflects a deep Christological understanding of holy images. Consider the tradition of placing an image of the Virgin Mary and Infant Christ over the altar table where badarak is celebrated. The image of the Mother-of-God and Christ Child glorifies the virtue of her consent to become the “living temple” of the Incarnate Lord. Through Mary, the gift of salvation entered the world in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. What better image to place above the holy altar, where the gifts of bread and wine become the Body and Blood of our Lord?

The theology of icons and the practice of image-veneration developed in the Armenian Church over the centuries, becoming more defined and focused through the writings of our Armenian Church fathers.

They teach us that icons are not merely visual aids or decorations, but are reminders that all things fashioned by the Creator are transfigured through the power of God. They are powerful spiritual signposts to enhance the faith of all who encounter them in our churches.

Adapted from Art in the Armenian Church: Origins and Teaching, by Fr. Garabed Kochakian (1995).

Faithful venerate the icon of the Holy Martyrs.

Faithful venerate the icon of the Holy Martyrs.