A Christmas Service with Armenians
International at home: Article 1
Not long ago I wrote an article titled, “How to be international without leaving home.” My intent with writing that article, was to give an introduction to this series. I am going to begin writing articles, when applicable, about international events close to my home. To show people how they can experience international cultures, religions, and customs in their own backyard even when they are not traveling.
This past week an Orthodox friend of mine contacted me to let me know that the Armenian Orthodox church was going to have their annual Christmas celebration over the weekend. I thought it would be an interesting experience so I decided to go.
My friend was more familiar with Orthodox practices, and I am ashamed to admit that I was fairly ignorant of many of their practices. Although I am familiar with the practices of several different Christian denominations, Orthodox is still somewhat different and new to me. In this article, I will share some of the things that I learned about Orthodox practices and the Armenian people.
The Symbolism of the Candle
Upon entering the church, it is right for one to stop and collect a candle. Usually, you will also make a donation to the church. (There is a drop box) As you enter, you light your candle, say a prayer, and place your candle among the others. There is typically a sand box of some sort or at least a candle holder. This practice has a very symbolic meaning in the orthodox church. This can mean a number of things to members of the church; however, one explanation that I heard was that the candle was raising your prayers to the heavens.
The layout of the church is also important in the orthodox church. There are typically three chambers or rooms. Some say, these rooms are representative of the three major life stages. Birth, death, and rebirth. Whether this is true, or there is another meaning, it is still interesting. There is a unique little altar area in the church that I went to. The altar was well-decorated with room to walk around it. Between the altar and the congregation room, there was a large curtain that could be closed.
One could say that all services are similar to an extent. In some ways, this is true, but not exactly. Orthodox has an interesting influence from the east that is clearly noticeable in their service. The church service that I attended was almost completely said in Armenian. The bishop was in town because it was a Christmas service; therefore, he said the majority of the mass. However, the local priest remained present and took part in the mass as well. During this service, I noticed that the person saying the mass, in this case the bishop, faced the altar a lot. This was a primary focus. This is a large difference with Catholic and other churches that I have attended. This was a traditional tendency in the old Latin masses of Catholicism but it isn’t true anymore.
The church service actually took place on January 6th, which was later than most see Christmas. They do this because of the Epiphany.
Another aspect of the mass that I found noticeably different was that the congregation was told to stand during the times when readings were taken direct from the bible. I think that this is a practice in Catholicism, but I noticed it to be more forceful in the Armenian church. There was also more involvement of the altar boys or men in this case. They seemed to have a large part in singing, praying, and responses.
The Holy Eucharist was given as the priest knelt. People would go before the priest and kneel, then receive the Eucharist on their tongue.
Lastly, there didn’t seem to be a conclusion like a Catholic service. Perhaps, it was because I couldn’t understand Armenian, but the mass just ended. They was no walking out together, or final song. The priest just offered the packets of holy water (to drink), then everyone began to walk around.
Afterward, the festivities began. We ate some pastries, then local food. I tasted a few amazing pastries, including one that I was told is very regional. That particular pastry had rose water cooked into it, which tasted very interesting. Almost as if you were eating a rose petal… but much better. Can’t really explain that one. It was great though. Seemingly, a large part of their culture is to share in a meal or celebration after the service.
Things that I learned about Armenian Culture
The Armenian people, at least the ones that I have met, seem to be very kind-hearted and warm. They are very hospitable and were very welcoming to my friend and I as we joined them for their church service. They were also very willing to share some bits about their culture and history, which I enjoyed hearing. Below is a list of a few things that I learned about Armenian culture.
- Armenians are very proud of their heritage. As one of the men described to me, “The people have been through so much, that they all feel a strong need to maintain their heritage.” Effectively, their culture has become stronger through persecution and oppression.
- Armenians have been displaced to many areas in the world. Much of this started with the Ottoman Persecution of Armenians, which dispersed Armenians to several areas in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and even the Americas. To this day, Turkey is a sore subject with Armenians. It is best not to bring it up.
- Armenians maintain their language very well abroad. There are large communities of Armenians in a few countries such as Lebanon and Syria. In those areas, the diaspora has existed for many years, but they still speak Armenian. Even the community that I met in Baton Rouge, maintained their language.
- The Armenian language is not really relevant to other local language in the region. It is somewhat linked to Ancient Greek and a Phyrian language, but not anything like Azeri, Georgian, Farsi, Arabic, or Russian. Most older Armenians speak Russian (because of USSR) and Armenian. The ones living abroad might speak 3 or 4 languages.
What are your thoughts?
Have you been to an orthodox church before? Would you like to visit one in the future?
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