The Armenian Church


The Church of Armenia acknowledges as its original founders two of Christ’s twelve Apostles, Saints Thaddeus and Bartholomew, who are referred to as the First Enlighteners of Armenia to distinguish then from the Second Enlightener, Saint Gregory. According to Tradition the two Apostles were martyred in Armenia. The generally accepted chronology gives a period of eight years to the mission of Saint Thaddeus 35-43 A.D. and sixteen years to that of Saint Bartholomew 44-60 A.D.

In the year 301 A.D., there happened a most important event not only in the history of Armenia, but in the annals of the Christian Church. The faith which from its beginning had been relentlessly persecuted throughout the world, was proclaimed the national religion of Armenia. It was no small event to adopt religion which the most powerful empires of the time those of Rome and Persia, denounced and persecuted.

The man who made the Light of Christianity shine in the land of Armenia was Saint Gregory, called the Enlightener or Illuminator of Armenia. Gregory was of a noble family, educated in Caesarea, then a Christian center. He entered the service of King Drtad of Armenia and after much persecution and suffering succeeded in converting the King, who in turn helped him to convert the whole country to Christianity.

Gregory was also responsible for the conversion of the neighboring countries of Georgia and Caucasian Albania. He also built the first Christian cathedral in Vagharshapat, near Mount Ararat, the then capital of Armenia. As directed by our Lord in a vision, he build the cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin, that is the place where the Only Begotten descended in 303 A.D.

In time the fundamentals of the internal organization of the church and its discipline were established. Rituals and church services took definite form. Aside from its moral and spiritual benefits, the adoption of Christianity helped to unite the various racial elements and divisions in Armenia and forged them into a people.

The Armenian Church continued to make slow and steady progress. Christianity was making its way into the hearts of the people. The fifth successor of Saint Gregory, Nerses the Great, became prominent in the Armenian Church by building and creating charitable institutions. He established orphanages, homes for the aged, homes for lepers, hospitals and monasteries.

The one serious disadvantage that the church labored under was the lack of an Armenian alphabet. All scriptures had to be read in Greek or Syrian. A very learned man, who was a former secretary at the royal court, left his position to take the vows of a missionary monk, appeared on the scene. This was Mesrob Mashdotz, an honorable man of vision who realized the need of an Armenian alphabet. After searching, traveling and consulting with brilliant scholars, Mesrob composed an alphabet of 36 letters in which every sound of the Armenian language was represented.

Thereupon, Saint Mesrob with Saint Sahag the Catholicos and with the help of King Vram-Shabouh, one of the wisest rulers of Armenia set about to translate the Bible into Armenian. The very first lines written in the new Armenian letters were the opening words from the Book of Proverbs:

That men may know wisdom and instruction, understand the words of insight.

In 450 A.D., the King of Persia, issued a decree commanding all Christians to embrace Mazdeism. A violent revolt began in Armenia under Vartan Mamigonian. brave devote prince and his small army were eventually overwhelmed at the Battle of Avarayr 451 A. D. and Vartan martyred together with 1036 of his men.

The death of Vartan was a severe loss for the Armenians the Battle of Avarayr saved the nation, and the Persians never expecting such resistance, became convinced that Armenian people would rather die than forsake their faith. Vartan’s supreme sacrifice and that of his fellow soldiers, whom were from royal families, has been ardently cherished the present. The Armenian Church commemorates the anniversary of the Battle of Avarayr and pays tribute to its heroes.

The spirit of tolerance forms the groundwork of the Armenian Church. It accepts the first three Ecumenical Councils of Nicea, Constantinople, and Ephesus, where fundamental dogmas and principals of Christianity were declared and adopted by all churches. Its hierarchal organization consists of the Catholicos of All Armenians, supreme head of the Armenian Church, who resides in the ancient city of Etchmiadzin, the Catholicate of Cilicia, the Patriarchates of Jerusalem and Constantinople, and various dioceses under their jurisdictions. The church believes in stresses the conviction that churches should be at liberty differ on points of secondary importance. Her lofty motto centuries has been:

Unity in essentials
Liberty in doubtful matters
Charity in all things.

The Armenian Church is considered an Oriental Orthodox or Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Church and is in communion with the Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian Jacobite Churches and the Indian Church of Malabar. The Armenian Church professes seven sacraments. The Divine Liturgy celebrated is substantially that of St. Basil of Ceasarea, and the language used is Classical Armenian (Krapar). Theophany (Christmas)is celebrated on January 6 as it was in the original Church.

The Armenian Church, in its structure, is divided into five principal areas: the Vestibule (Narthex), the Nave, the Chancel, the Sanctuary, and the Apse. Each of these divisions serves a specific purpose and has its own divisions.

The Vestibule or Narthex serves as the entrance to the church. In earlier times the vestibule was a large waiting area where the catecumens and .penitents would wait during the Holy Sacrifice. Prior to the start of the third portion of the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice, the deacon orders the catechumens and those of little faith out of the church. In the early church it was at this time that those still unbaptized or still learning about Christianity would retire to the vestibule. In many churches in Armenia before the 14th century the vestibule was larger that the Nave itself (eg. Saghmosavank). In more recent times the size of the vestibule has been reduced, now It serves sometimes as an entrance or a place where candles are distributed. In some churches it has been removed completely and replaced by a bell tower. The vestibule does not appear in the most ancient Armenian churches, since entrance in general was restricted to the brotherhood and/or to believers.

The second division within the Armenian church is the Nave. The Armenian word for nave is nay which means ship, so called from the likeness of its form to that of an inverted ship. It is in the nave that the true believers stand or sit during the services. Technically, the nave is only that part which is beneath the main dome, since old Armenian architecture the dome was supported not by pillars but by the walls, thus covering the entire floor area. At present we consider the entire floor area used by the congregation as the nave. It thus begins at the door and includes the whole area up to the chancel.

The Adyan is the central area within the nave directly outside the chancel, in front of the main altar and under the dome. The Adyan is put to special use on holy days and for particular services; for example, Hokehankeesd, Antasdan and Funerals.

The Chancel is the third division within the Armenian church and Itself divided into three parts: left, right and center. The left and right sides are referred to as the Achagoghmyan Tas and Tzakhagoghmyan Tas respectively. The central area is called Pokr (small) Adyan. Tas is the Armenian word for chancel and also means lesson. Perhaps this word is used because we do hear, from the chancel, the lesson of the day’s readings, Gospels and from the Sharagans. During the daily services the servers stand in each Tas and sing the appropriate Sharagan while the priest and deacons read the prayers and litanies from a lectern placed on the bema and approached from the central chancel. During the Divine Liturgy the choir usually stands on the left side of the chancel and the clergy on the right. The Episcopal Throne is always found in the right part of the chancel. All daily services take place in the chancel. (The names right and left are given looking out from the altar and not towards it.)

The Sanctuary is divided into two major parts; the Bema and the Altar Table. The Bema is the elevated part set off from the chancel usually by two sets of stairs, one on each side. Only ordained male servers are allowed to ascend to the sanctuary. On the floor of the bema is the Holy Altar Table, The table itself is consecrated by a bishop, usually the diocesan primate, and should be the focus of attention in the church. The Altar Table should have three, five or seven elevations on which the holy vessels are displayed and should be covered by a canopy type structure with four pillars (dedicated to the four evangelists) and a cupola (this is a Cilician style altar as opposed to the traditional table on a pedestal base.)

The Altar Table Sourp Seghan and the entire sanctuary represent heaven and the chancel in turn represents the world. This is most evident when the Gospelsbook is offered to the people to kiss at the Lesser Entrance. This shows the Word of God coming down from heaven to earth and being accepted by mankind. Again, when the deacon gives the Kiss of Peace, he should make an entire circular movement around the altar and chancel. This shows the love and peace of Christ throughout the whole earth as well as the unity of the church.

The Picture of Salvation is the name of the painting used in all Armenian Churches over the main altar. It shows the Holy Virgin holding the child Christ in her lap. He should be blessing the people and His clothes radiant, depicting His divinity. Most often the painting has the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. The sanctuary should be situated at the eastern wall so that the celebrant and the faithful will be facing east during the various services.

The semicircular area behind the Altar Table which contains two niches is called the Apse. During the Divine Liturgy the deacons move in this area on a number of occasions while censing and also, holding the Gospelsbook, at the Lesser Entrance; and the Chalice during the Greater Entrance.

Aside from the main altar there are traditionally two side altars in Armenian Churches. The left hand altar is dedicated to Mary the Mother-of-God and the right hand altar is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. (Remember that the sides of the church are determined by looking out from the main altar towards the congregation.) There are some churches in which one or both of the side altars are dedicated to specific saints aside from those mentioned above. This is a local preference and not a general practice. In many ancient churches only a main altar was used, with niches in the apse.

At Holy Trinity the left hand Altar is dedicated to St. Gregory the Illuminator, patron saint of Armenia and the right hand altar to St. John the Baptist.