Sunday of the Steward

February 25th, 2016    |    No Comments »

The steward is a figure who comes up in many of Jesus’ parables—a “stock character,” we might say, who would have been very recognizable to Christ’s listeners.

What did stewards do, in the time of Jesus?  What made them so interesting to our Lord?

They were, first of all, servants. But a special kind of servant: They were caretakers, or business managers, as we might say today. They were not owners; but the true owner, the master, had given the steward responsibility and authority. And to be given such things meant that the steward was in a position of trust.

Clearly, Jesus saw this special relationship of “stewardship” as symbolic of the greater dynamic between God and man. In the deepest sense, we are not the owners of the good things in our lives: our families, our healthy bodies, our heritage, our church. To be sure, we are indeed responsible for all these things, and we cannot neglect our responsibility. But our highest responsibility is not really to satisfy ourselves, but to please God.

Jesus’s parable about an unjust steward who was accused of cheating his master (Luke 16:1-17—the reading for the third Sunday of Lent) is famous for being difficult to understand.  But it gives us some very concrete clues about what it means to be a “good steward.”

Jesus tells us: “He that is faithful in a little, is faithful also in much” (Lk 16:10).  He asks: “If you have been dishonest with another man’s belongings, who will give you something of your own?” (Lk 16:12).  And he concludes with the famous saying: “No servant can serve two masters” (Lk 16:13).

These words of wisdom should be “food for thought” for us, during our journey through Lent.

But the most important words in the parable come at the very beginning, when the Master asks the Steward: “What is this I hear about you? Give me an account of your stewardship” (Lk 16:2).

Surely, this is the larger point Jesus was making throughout his teaching on stewardship.  God has entrusted us with many serious responsibilities.  He has given us many beautiful gifts and blessings.  But we are called to make an account.

When our Master does so, will we show ourselves to have been good stewards?  Or neglectful ones?

But let’s return for some final thoughts on the parable of the Unjust Steward.  As mentioned, it’s difficult to understand.  Some interpreters strive mightily to make the desperate, swindling steward into an exemplar of moral conduct.  But these attempts are unpersuasive, given Jesus’ larger themes about what constitutes being a “good steward.”

Perhaps a key to its meaning can be found in an overlooked point in Luke’s account.  We learn (Lk 14:14) that Jesus was addressing the Pharisees: the religious teaching authorities of Jesus’ time, entrusted with the job of telling the people what God wanted from them.  But in order to make themselves popular, they had “watered down” the message: like the unjust steward, they had “discounted the debt” that man should rightfully owe to God.

Through the parable of the Unjust Steward, Jesus seems to have been warning the Pharisees—and all authorities in positions of trust—that while this might make them welcome in the homes of men, eventually there would be an accounting—and did they think that God would congratulate them on their shrewdness?

In this reading, Jesus is being ironic when he says (Lk 16:8), “The lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely.” But that mood certainly fits better with the stern lessons about honesty, integrity, and the impossibility of serving two masters, which immediately follow the parable.

Read the passage for yourself. What do you think?

Unjust Steward

A Father’s Love

February 18th, 2016    |    2 Comments »

Perhaps the holiest moment in the Armenian Divine Liturgy is when the congregation fills the church with the singing of the Lord’s Prayer. We begin with the words Hayr Mer—“Our Father”; but what really do we mean by referring to God as a “father”? Do we mean that God brought us into this world? That He is responsible for our welfare until we can go off on our own? Do we think of God as a stern disciplinarian, who will punish us if we go astray? Or do we expect Him to treat us with fatherly favoritism, and turn a blind eye to our faults and misdeeds?

We are told in the Bible that the followers of Jesus were also struggling with this question. The answer that Jesus gave is probably the best summary of Christian love that has ever been uttered: the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

This gospel passage (Luke 15:11-32) should be familiar to everyone—it provides the reading for the second Sunday of the current season of Lent—but let us try to see it with new eyes.

Bowing to the request of his younger offspring, a man divides his property between his two sons. The younger son takes his share and leaves home, but quickly squanders his wealth. Destitute and disgraced, and feeling unworthy of his father, the boy swallows what little pride he has left and returns to his father’s house, where he expects a cool reception. To his surprise, the father welcomes him with embraces and kisses, ordering the servants to make preparations for a great celebration: “My son was dead, and is alive again,” the father announces; “he was lost, and is found.”

Jesus could have ended the parable here—with the “happy ending” of a father celebrating the return of his lost son—and had a simple story expressing God’s undying forgiveness for man, and His joy when a sinner repents.  But Jesus did not stop there: he switches the scene to the field where the older son is working—and has been working diligently his entire life. The older boy is outraged when he learns of his father’s behavior, and corners his father to complain bitterly of the injustice of it.

From a public celebration, we are pulled into a private family argument, and it is as if reality suddenly bursts into the story. In the real world, grand public displays of forgiveness are easy to make; but in private—in the family, so to speak—resentments still linger. The older son’s anger has the ring of truth: he has worked hard to do the right thing, taken responsibility for his life. He has earned his father’s love.  One might ask whether a father who throws away his affection on an undeserving child is so very different from a prodigal son who squanders his inheritance.

Part of what makes this such a touching parable is the way the details seem drawn from real life. Jesus shows himself not as a teller of moral fables, but as an acute observer of human behavior and the human heart. An upright son who demands fair play and just deserts; the uneasy feelings of competition which brothers harbor for a parent’s approval and love—these are all too human, and all too recognizable even to us. The father’s response to his eldest son is the same: having already lost one son, he does not want to lose the other; yet he can offer no counter-argument, nor appeal to any greater standard of justice.

The best he can do is to repeat what he said to the onlookers when his wayward son first returned.  But this time, in this quiet, private setting, the same words have a different feeling: not a joyful announcement to the world, but a father’s plea for understanding from his son: “Your brother was dead, but now he is alive again.” What person who has ever lost a family member—to whatever circumstance—can hear those words and not be moved? The love of a parent for a child is very strong; but to lose that child, and then to get him back again—this must bring forth the most powerful love of all.

This is what God’s love for us is like. This is what it means for us to be able to call Him “Father.” With regard to God, we are all like children who want to be close to our parents: we wonder which child they love best, and worry that we may become unworthy of their love. These are not small concerns, but in our child-like way, we miss the point about our father’s love, which is not necessarily the same for all, but which is so deep that it makes no sense to set up a ranking of least to most favored. It is a love whose depth cannot be measured, and which sometimes is not even fully recognized until it confronts the prospect of loss.

It is a powerful lesson, and a fine example of the kind of teaching that made Jesus famous during his mission to the world.  He offers not a fairy tale where actions have no consequences and love conquers all, but rather a full portrait of what real love requires, and of the obstacles such love presents to real people.

—Christopher Hagop Zakian

A painting found in London's Dulwich Picture Gallery (c. 1630s).

A painting found in London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery (c. 1630s).

 

 

 

Expulsion and Temptation

February 12th, 2016    |    No Comments »

The Armenian Church lays special emphasis on the season of Great Lent as a “school” for personal spirituality. The faithful are guided on a kind of “pilgrimage of the soul,” with each Sunday of Lent dedicated to a story from Scripture, based in a parable of Jesus, or in prophecies concerning him.

However, the first Sunday of the series—the Sunday of the Expulsion—seems at first glance to have no direct link to the life of Jesus.

Lent is the period of personal sacrifice when we are meant to remember (and re-enact) Christ’s sojourn in the wilderness, and the temptations he overcame there. The story of the Expulsion, on the other hand, concerns Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden. On the surface, the stories have little to connect them.

But perhaps there is a deeper connection to consider. Identifying that connection is the subject of a short article published as a web exclusive of First Things magazine, by Christopher Zakian, the Diocese’s director of Communications.

By starting Lent with the Sunday of the Expulsion, the Armenian tradition helps us to appreciate the depth of our human intimacy with Jesus.

Click here to read the essay.

20 Years Ago: His Holiness Karekin I Visits the U.S.

January 14th, 2016    |    No Comments »

January 10, 2016 marked the 20th anniversary of the 1996 pontifical visit to our Diocese of His Holiness Karekin I, the late 131st  Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.  The visit was a milestone in the modern history of the Armenian Church in America, and remains a warmly remembered moment of optimism and ambition for an entire generation of Armenian-Americans.

What follows below is a remembrance of the 1996 pontifical visit, and a brief sketch of its unforgettable central figure, Catholicos Karekin I himself, as excerpted from The Torch Was Passed: The Centennial History of the Armenian Church of America, by Christopher H. Zakian (St. Vartan Press: New York, 1998).

His Holiness Karekin I

Catholicos Karekin I, speaking in Boston during his 1996 Pontifical Visit to the Eastern Diocese (Credit: M. Hintlian).

 

Blizzard

Once the jubilation over the election of a new catholicos subsided, what remained were the questions.  These questions involved more than the natural curiosity of a people anxious to acquaint themselves with the character and personality of their leader.  His Holiness Karekin I was the first new pontiff of the Church in four decades—the first in centuries to be elected under an independent Armenian regime.  He was also, as he liked to put it, “a son of the diaspora,” having been born in Kessab, Syria, and having spent the greater part of his ministry away from the native soil of Armenia.  These factors alone made him an intriguing figure.

But his election was unprecedented in other ways, as well.  Never before in history had a catholicos of Cilicia made the transition to the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.  This would have been merely an interesting historical footnote, but for the rivalry that had almost sundered relations between the Sees of Etchmiadzin and Cilicia for much of the twentieth century.  Karekin Sarkissian had played a role in this division, however unhappily; in the 1970s, he had even served in New York City as the chief bishop of America’s separated faction.  But in more recent years, as head of the Great House of Cilicia, he and Catholicos Vasken had been drawn closer together.  On several occasions, the two catholicoi had issued joint statements on matters of great importance to the Armenian people.  Beyond this, Sarkissian’s brilliance, his ability to lead and inspire, were unquestioned—as were his sense of patriotism towards Armenia, and his abiding love of the Armenian Church.

Nothing illustrated this better than his decision to accept, at the age of sixty-three, the obligations of the Catholicos of All Armenians.  At a time of life when most men would be setting their sights on a life of ease and relaxation, Catholicos Karekin left the sunshine of Lebanon, to take on the greatest and most grueling challenge of his life.

The Armenians of America found themselves particularly curious about what the advent of Catholicos Karekin would herald.  In the late autumn of 1995, they received word that an opportunity would shortly arrive to witness the new era of the Armenian Church at first hand.  On January 10, 1996, less than a year after his ascension to the pontifical office, His Holiness Karekin I would make his first official visit to the Armenian communities of North America.

As the rest of the country wound down for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the diocesan center in New York City was a flurry of activity, with volunteers and staff workers preparing for the pontifical visit.  As the great day approached, however, flurries of another sort became a cause for alarm, when a major winter storm engulfed the eastern seaboard of the United States.  There was speculation that the visit would be canceled, but Archbishop Barsamian assured his people that Catholicos Karekin’s tour of America would go on as scheduled, even if a blizzard struck the country.

As it happened, the blizzard came.  But so did the catholicos, and he proved to be the more formidable force of nature.  He took New York City by storm, and then roared through seven local communities—Washington D.C., Providence, Worcester, Watertown, Cambridge, Detroit and Chicago—all during the first two weeks of his visit.  The catholicos next made his way through the Canadian and western dioceses, before returning east for a short visit to Boca Raton and other parishes in Florida.  The whirlwind finally ended where it began, in New York.  From there, after five weeks of relentless travel and activity, Catholicos Karekin I returned to Armenia—but not before he had endeared himself to the Armenians of America, who were left breathless by the pontiff’s dynamism and energy.

Naturally, the catholicos’s tour of the diocese was punctuated by meetings with the important public figures of the day.  The mayors, governors, senators, congressmen and religious leaders of the localities he visited all received Catholicos Karekin, as did the secretary-general of the United Nations and President William Clinton.  These were all charmed by the catholicos, who was a fluent and engaging English speaker.  But the Armenian faithful had a precious opportunity to see and hear something deeper.  In his remarks at almost a dozen question-and-answer forums with the Church’s youth, during his sermons before thousands of Armenians across the country, in his words of comfort at a requiem service for the victims of Sumgait and Baku—in countless formal and informal circumstances—the Armenian Americans had a chance to experience more than a winning personality and a fine intellect.  They came to know the great heart of their vehapar, as well.

That heart was never more in evidence than when the catholicos implored his flock to rise above the divisions within the community:

I have not come as one ignorant of the American world.  I know America; I have lived in America; I have served its people.  There is nothing new for me here.  The only things new in me are my new eyes.  Those are the eyes of a person who feels that God and the people have called him to be a father for all.  It is not an easy burden to uphold.  I feel that I must justify all my predecessors, and not put to shame all those who will follow me.  And this burden can be held, with dignity, only through your cooperation, your fellowship and solidarity.

Because of his unique history, the election of Catholicos Karekin I and the prospect of his visit to America had raised expectations about finally healing the decades-old rift in the American diocese.  This, alas, did not materialize.  Perhaps it was too much to expect.  Nonetheless, Karekin I never ceased speaking to the better angels of human nature, exhorting his people to seek common ground, even in the face of administrative division.  He asked them to unite first in their hearts, and so to fulfill the intrinsic promise of the title, Catholicos of All Armenians.

—Excerpted from The Torch Was Passed: The Centennial History of the Armenian Church of America, ed. C. H. Zakian (St. Vartan Press: New York, 1998).

The Naming of the Lord

January 13th, 2016    |    No Comments »

There is an ancient Church tradition to name a child at baptism. It is through baptism we are adopted as children of God; therefore, receiving a new name identifies us as a disciple of Christ. The name chosen would be one of biblical origin, a saint of the Church, or someone else who exemplifies and models faith in God. Today, it is not uncommon for a child (or adult) to be given a baptismal name in addition to his or her birth name.

But where does this tradition of naming come from? And what does it have to do with circumcision? Like many things, it has its beginnings in the book of Genesis. “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” ~ Genesis 2:19

What was the purpose of Adam naming the animals? In the previous chapter of Genesis, God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” A name, then, gives both identification as well as a sense of belonging to the one who has done the naming.

Later in the book of Genesis, circumcision, like naming, became the seal or identification of those who belonged to the ‘people of God.’ Performed on the eighth day after a child’s birth, it served as an irreversible sign of promise, a branding which made one the property of God. For Christians, following the death and resurrection of Christ, the practice of circumcision as the entrance into a covenant relationship with God ceased, and baptism became the entrance point into communion with God.

Explaining the meaning of circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the Church, St. Cyril of Alexandria writes, “The rite of circumcision was abolished by the introduction of baptism, of which circumcision was a type. It separated the descendants of Abraham by a sort of sign and seal and distinguished them from all other nations. It prefigured in itself the grace of divine baptism. Formerly a male who was circumcised was included among the people of God by virtue of that seal; nowadays, a person who is baptized and has formed in himself Christ the seal, becomes a member of God’s adopted family.”

Like circumcision, baptism was still traditionally done on the child’s eighth day to mark his or her entrance into ‘life in Christ,’ and also like circumcision, it is an irreversible seal that marks the baptized as an adopted member of the ‘people of God.’ St. Paul writes, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God…” ~ Colossians 2:11-12

In the Armenian Church, the Feast of Naming of the Lord «Անուանակոչութիւն» is celebrated on January 13th, the eighth and last day of Theophany. “And at the end of eight days, when He was circumcised, He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21). Our Lord was given the name Jesus, meaning ‘Savior,’ and our Savior has named us. Through baptism, we belong to Him. Those who are baptized make up the Church, and together, the Church makes up the people of God. Theophany is a celebration, proclamation, and remembrance of many things, and living out the commitment of our baptism, and the promises prayed over us, is of foremost priority.

We can aptly conclude the season of Theophany and the Feast of the Naming of the Lord with the fitting words of St Paul as he writes, “…Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11).

Hymn for the Eighth Day of Theophany

Looys ee loosoh/ Լոյս ի լուսոյ (Light from light)

+ Light from Light, you were sent by the Father and you assumed a body from the holy Virgin so that you might renew the corrupt Adam.

+ You, God, appeared on earth and you went about with people, and you saved the universe from Adam’s curse.

+ The voice of your Father testified of you from heaven, saying, “This is my Son.” And in the appearance of a dove the Holy Spirit revealed you.

+ You cleaned humanity’s filth with the Spirit and with fire. All of us shall praise you as God and Savior.

+ The Savior appeared and brought the world back to life from the deception of the enemy, granting us adoption through baptism.

+ The One who brings life appeared today and burns our sin with water. He refreshes the world with his divine water.

+ The Savior crushed the dragon’s head in the Jordan River and by his own power he brought everyone back to life.

+ Restoring the old man, today the Savior comes to baptism to make our corrupted nature new with water, giving us an incorruptible garment instead.

+ Christ is baptized and all creatures are made holy. He forgives our sins, washing us from above with water and the Spirit.

How does this hymn shape our understanding of the Feast of Theophany – Christ’s birth and baptism, our baptism, the Eighth Day, and The Feast of the Naming of the Lord?

The Nativity and Washing of the Child, together with the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Angels, and the Journey of the Magi, 1633, Istanbul.

The Nativity and Washing of the Child, together with the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Angels, and the Journey of the Magi, 1633, Istanbul.

Revealed As Joy to the World

January 12th, 2016    |    No Comments »

Քրիստոս ծնաւ եւ յայտնեցաւ՛
Kreesdos dznav yev haydnetsav!
Christ was born and revealed!

As previously discussed, the Armenian Church celebrates both the birth and baptism of Christ on January 6 (Theophany), while all other Christian traditions celebrate only His birth on December 25 (the Julian Calendar equivalent to December 25 is January 7), and in general, on January 6, eastern traditions celebrate only the baptism of Christ (Theophany or Epiphany), while western traditions commemorate the Magi.

Why refer to the feast of His birth and/or baptism as Theophany or Epiphany (these are interchangeable terms)? In Armenian, the word designated for this feast is Asdvadzahaydnootyoon/Աստուածայայտնութիւն, which translates as ‘the revelation or manifestation of God’ (Asdvadz/Աստուած = God and haydnootyoon/յայտնութիւն = revelation). Theophaneia/ θεοφάνεια is the Greek word which translates the same way (Theo/θεο = God and phaneia/φάνεια = appearance).

Although these events in the life of Christ are celebrated on different days, the one thing they have in common is that they celebrate the revelation or manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God – God Himself in human form. Even the commemoration of the Magi proclaims the appearance of God in human form. These elite kings from the east traverse deserts on foot in search of an infant divine King revealed to them, the one who rules the Kingdom of Heaven.

Today’s hymn speaks of both the birth and baptism of Christ, and two times we sing, “who assumed a body for us and were revealed as joy to the world.” The revelation or appearance of God isn’t merely a cognitive understanding of the God in the flesh, but wonderful news that changes our lives brings joy to our hearts. Why? Because our Savior, the source and fountain of everything good, has come to heal the world and save us from death! Joy to the World!

Օրհնեալ է յայտնութիւնն Քրիստոսի՛
Orhnyal eh haydnootyoonn Kreesdosee!
Blessed is the revelation of Christ!

Hymn for the Seventh Day of Theophany
Aneghanelee puhnootyoon/Անեղանելի բընութիւն (Uncreated nature)

+ Uncreated nature, who share the Father’s essence, you were born to the holy Virgin. We extol you, co-Creator with the Father.

+ Uncreated Creator, who assumed a body for us and were revealed as joy to the world, we extol you, co-Creator with the Father.

+ You were baptized in the Jordan by John. In the form of a dove, the Holy Spirit testified of you in a heavenly voice. We extol you, co-Creator with the Father.

+ The Word, sent by the Father, who assumed a body for us, and was revealed as joy to the world. We extol you, virgin Mother of God.

+ For the One whom the blazing Seraphim could not bear, He dwelled in your womb. We extol you, virgin Mother of God.

+ Awestruck, they trembled at His light, flashing like lightning, yet you took Him into your arms. We extol you, virgin Mother of God.

+ O Light you were sent by Father when you came down from heaven and assumed a body from the holy Virgin. You are the Lamb of God and the Son of the Father.

+ Today in the cave you were presented as Savior and you were worshipped by the magi. When the shepherds saw you they said, “You are the Lamb of God and the Son of the Father.”

+ John saw the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove. He cried out, saying, “This is the Lamb of God and the Son of God.”

Hymns are prayers. If there is a moment when you don’t know how or what to pray, take a hymn of the Armenian Church, or even just a verse, and repeat it back to God as a prayer.

The Nativity of Christ, 14th century, by St. Gregory of Datev at Datev Monastery

The Nativity of Christ, 14th century, by St. Gregory of Datev at Datev Monastery.

The Faith of the Magi

January 11th, 2016    |    No Comments »

When we hear the story of the birth of Christ, we hear a familiar cast of characters – the shepherds in the field, the angels who announce the birth of Christ, King Herod, Joseph and Mary, and then there are the Magi, the three Wise Men from the East. Who are the Magi, and what are they doing in this narrative? It’s interesting that among the very few people that were invited to the event of the Incarnation, it included three Gentiles, not from Palestine, but from Persia.

Astrologers and scholars of their time, the Magi were Gentiles who anticipated the Messiah, but why? In the Old Testament in the book of Numbers (chapter 24), we read about The oracle of Balaam the son of Be’or, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, the oracle of him who hears the words of God.” Balaam prophesied about a coming king of whom he said, “…his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.” He went on further saying,

“I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not nigh:
a star shall come forth out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”

Balaam was the predecessor of the Magi, and so they heard from his oracles that a deified King would be born under a star. Since the day that oracle was uttered, the Magi were looking for the particular star that hung in the sky the night Christ was born. And so the Magi, discovering the fulfillment of this ancient prophecy, journeyed from the East to seek out the King. We are not sure what they expected to find, but their place in the narrative is very telling.

When the Magi found the King, what they saw was both ordinary and extraordinary. They didn’t find a palace, but a place fit for animals. They didn’t find their king clothed in colors of royalty, but in swaddling cloths fit for burial. We can safely assume that the paradox of the situation is what compelled them to worship. Their eyes were opened to the glory the beheld them – the God of the Universe born as an infant and lying in a trough.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” ~ Isaiah 9:6

The Magi did not turn around and go home when arriving upon such ordinary circumstances. They were not offended or scandalized by what their eyes saw outwardly. Instead, they worshipped and brought gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – not for an earthly king, but for God, the eternal King. In a homily by Catholicos Zakaria I (855-877), he writes, “…opening their treasures they offered incense, as a sign of His being God, gold, as to a king, and myrrh, as for one who would die for the salvation of the world.”

These three wise men from the East set an example that we are still called to follow today. To trust, journey, seek, worship, and offer the gift of our lives to the King of Kings. Perhaps the Magi are not the characters in the narrative of Christ’s birth that one would expect to demonstrate such depth of faith and worship, but then again, they demonstrated how to find God in the most unexpected of places. Like the Magi, may our hearts be open to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, to see God everywhere present. Blessed is the revelation of Christ!

Hymn for the Sixth Day of Theophany

Anageezpnagan deseel/Անակզբնական տեսիլ (A timeless vision)

+ A timeless vision of your glory was given to us miraculously, appearing inexplicably in the birth of a child. Today joy has been revealed to the universe.

+ Singing harmony with the bodiless, spiritual beings in their fiery radiance, a pillar of the piercing, incendiary cloud was crafted in the cave. Today the shepherds joined the choirs of the supernal pageant.

+ The dawn of light spread everywhere. The magi followed it by means of the star, presaging the birth in the cave. There they offered their gifts to the divine child.

+ O timeless Son, who share the essence of the Father and of the Holy Spirit, you came down from the Father’s embrace. Becoming human, you assumed a body from the Virgin, taking away the triumph of death for the transgression of Adam, the forefather. We sing to you with the hosts of the angels, in the midst of the shepherds. Blessed are you Christ, the eternal Word.

+ Today you were born, the Son from the Father before the ages, a ray of glory and the dawn of the indivisible Light. Through the vision of the prophetic star, you lay within a manger in the cave of a lodge. We sing to you with the hosts of the angels, in the midst of the shepherds. Blessed are you Christ, the eternal Word.

+ Christ, king of glory and creator of all, God, mighty prince, Father of the coming light, having appeared today as a child, you remain unchanged in your essence. We sing to you with the hosts of the angels, in the midst of the shepherds. Blessed are you Christ, the eternal Word.

How does this hymn change the way you have typically pictured the story of the birth and coming of Jesus?

Nativity of Christ and Adoration of the Magi, 1317

Nativity of Christ and Adoration of the Magi, 1317

The Paradox of Faith

January 10th, 2016    |    No Comments »

Is faith in God rational? Does it supersede human reason? Does belief in God necessitate that we shut down our minds and blindly go forth into the realm of mystery and theological concepts that only people of the Church understand? Perhaps if faith were simpler and more understandable, more people would believe.

It makes some sense that if God were more understandable, attainable, or graspable, faith would be easier. Or would it? Would it even be faith at all? Is there something deeper that needs to be there in order for faith to form and endure? Indeed there is… paradox. In fact, it is mystery of paradox that moves us to love and worship our Creator.

What is a paradox? Let’s look at an example of one from the hymn for the First Day of Theophany: “The One who cannot be bounded by heaven or earth was wrapped in swaddling clothes. Never parting from the Father, he lay in the holy cave.” How can the One who cannot be bound by heaven and earth, in fact be bound in swaddling clothes? Is this an irrational statement? Is our faith based on riddles and contradictions?

To be clear, there is a significant difference between a contradiction and a paradox. A contradiction is a falsehood, and as such cannot be understood or grasped. It is irrational to say or believe that a black hat is, in fact a red hat. On the other hand, a paradox is a seeming contradiction, but is not a contradiction. A paradox, in the Christian sense, resides in the realm of mystery, but because we are limited by our finitude, it is something we do not understand and are unable to grasp, even though it is true.

Christian theology and belief is not only replete with the presence of paradoxes, it is rooted and grounded in them. The Incarnation itself, a revealed mystery, contains various paradoxes, which we see become prayerful song in numerous hymns of the Church. Although not able to be understood through human reason, these Christian paradoxes become a means to worship God.

A paradox places us where we rightfully belong in the created order, as finite beings in loving communion with an infinite God. They are not a syllogisms to be proven, or riddles to be solved. They are the content of our faith, and without the mystery of Christian paradoxes there would be no sense of the transcendence of God, and nowhere for our faith to take root and rest. Our faith is not irrational. And thankfully, neither does it rely on human reason.

Instead, our faith rests in knowing a God who is unknowable. Glory to God and blessed is the revelation of Christ!

Hymn for the Fifth Day of Theophany
Aysor vor hator
/Այսոր որ յաթոռ (Today, who is enthroned)

+ Today the incarnate Word, who is enthroned in glory with the Father, is born to the holy Virgin, giving birth to the universe for the grace of adoption.

+ Today the uncontainable Word of the Father, the Lord of all, lies in a manger for simple beasts, and rests above the Cherubim.

+ The One who is the very radiance of the Father’s glory, asked John to be baptized in the Jordan’s currents, requesting the company of the universe with an apostolic call.

+ In faith let us receive the One born to the holy Virgin into our hearts, just as Simeon earlier received Him into his arms.

+ Let us praise the One sent by the Father, who was wrapped in swaddling clothes for us, and saved us from the curse of Adam.

+ Rejoice, parched desert! Flower in blessed faith forevermore! For Christ, has been revealed as Hope to the nations.

As you read the words to this hymn, did you notice the paradox/mystery. How does it affect your faith? What do we know (or not know) about God from these verses?

The Baptism of Christ, 989, Noravank Monastery

The Baptism of Christ, 989, Noravank Monastery

The Hymns of Theophany

January 9th, 2016    |    No Comments »

As mentioned in a previous post, the hymns that are being featured are from the Orhnootyoon/Օրհնութիւն sharagan, which find their home in the Night Service of the Armenian Church, but are also sung during Soorp Badarak (Divine Liturgy) as the Taporee Sharagan/թափորի Շարական. That is, this hymn is sung during Badarak when curtain first opens and the priest descends from the altar area and processes around the church with a censer and hand cross.

Orhnootyoon/Օրհնութիւն means praise or blessing, and this particular series of hymns derive their name and are based on the biblical canticle from Exodus 15, when Moses crossed the Red Sea escaping the Egyptians. In fact, many of our hymns are based on Old Testament canticles and are named after the first unique opening word. In Exodus 15, Moses opens his song with the words, “I will sing to the Lord” or in Armenian Orhnestsook uzDer/Օրհնեսցուք զՏէր, which means ‘I will bless the Lord.’

This particular song of Moses was sung by the earliest Armenian Christians, but reinterpreted in the light of Jesus Christ. That is, the triumph of Moses is the triumph of Jesus. The Red Sea becomes baptism, and the Egypt and the Egyptians become the escape from the bondage of sin. Various refrains giving a more explicit Christian interpreation were then composed and added to the biblical canticle. These refrains are the seeds of what eventually became the hymns we hear and sing today. In fact, one should be able to find allusions to the canticle of Exodus 15 in all of our Orhnootyoon/Օրհնութիւն hymns.

Hymn for the Fourth Day of Theophany
Aysor Gabriel tsndzootyamp yerkyats
/Այսօր Գաբրիէլ ցնծութեամբ երգեաց (Today, rejoicing, Gabriel sang)

+ Today, rejoicing, Gabriel sang good news to the holy Virgin, who gave birth to the Savior of our souls.

+ The One whom heaven and earth cannot contain was revealed to us from the virginal womb as life, God, the visitor of mankind.

+ The Magi followed the shining of the brilliant star that preceded them as a sign to the birth of the Son of God.

+ Today the angel Gabriel, joyously sang to the holy Virgin, saying, “Rejoice, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”

+ Today the good news of the archangel joyously filled the holy Virgin, for the Only-begotten descended into the womb of the Virgin.

+ Today the universe gleamed at the good news of the holy Virgin for the Word assumed body and dwelled in us.

Read Exodus 15:1-19. Are there any allusions to the canticle of Moses?

Nativity of Christ and Adoration of the Magi, 1038, Armenia

Nativity of Christ and Adoration of the Magi, 1038, Armenia

Never A Time When The Son Was Not

January 8th, 2016    |    No Comments »

This can all become very confusing. If everything begins with mystery, and the Mystery is the Incarnation of Jesus, then why does the first verse of this hymn tell us that Jesus the Son is without origin? Furthermore, if Mary is the Mother of God, then why does the same verse tell us that Jesus, who is God, is without a mother? Perhaps the following will clarify any potential confusion.

The birth or incarnation of Jesus was not the origin of Jesus. That is, Jesus Christ has no beginning. As the second person of the blessed Trinity, the Son of God existed from eternity, but was eventually born into our time as Jesus Christ, the Son of God in human form through the Virgin Mary.

St. Paul referring to Jesus, writes, “…for in Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17) Even in His prayer to the Father, Jesus speaks of His existence prior to His incarnation as a human being. “…and now, Father, glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory which I had with You before the world was made.” (John 17:5).

Jesus Christ is not a created being. He is God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, within which all three Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) share the same essence as the one God. There was never a time that the Son did not exist. In fact, immediately after we recite the Creed (Havadamk/Հաւատամք) during Soorp Badarak (Divine Liturgy), the deacon says, “As for those who say there was a time when the Son was not…or that they came into being out of nothing…the catholic and apostolic holy Church anathematize.”

As far as Jesus being “without mother,” one has to keep in mind that the first verse of this hymn is expressing the divinity of Christ (His being equal to the Father and Holy Spirit as God) and His existence from eternity. Mary as the Mother of God is not understood as being the Mother of God from eternity, that is, the Mother of God the Father, but Mother in terms of the birth of Christ. Again, the title ‘Mother of God’ is an expression of the Incarnation.

Hymn for the Third Day of Theophany
Ehageets hor yev hokvooyn
/Էակից հօր եւ հոգւոյն (Equal to the divinity of the Father and the Spirit)

+ Equal to the divinity of the Father and the Spirit, O Son without origin. Without mother, first in priority, and with the Father forever.

+ Sent from the bosom of the Father, you were placed in a manger for unthinking [animals] and were revealed God the Word.

+ Christ, born in the city of David, the shepherds proclaim with the angels, and the Magi with the star.

+ You bore in your womb the Lord incarnate. Rejoice O unwed mother.

+ You bore incorruptibly in your womb the One who cannot be apprehended by anything that exists. Rejoice O unwed mother.

+ Bringing into existence the Word, the co-creator, you gave birth to him manifestly in the world. Rejoice O unwed mother.

From these verses, what else surprises or strikes you? Do they also speak to you and shape your faith in any way?

The Baptism of Christ, 1232, Siunik

The Baptism of Christ, 1232, Siunik