For the second consecutive year, the celebration of the Feast of the Nativity and Theophany of Jesus Christ (Asdvadzahaydnoutiun) at New York’s St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral required navigating the protocols of the ongoing pandemic.
But the joyous service on Thursday, January 6, 2022, commemorating God’s gift of salvation to the world, overcame the tribulations of these uncertain times, and showed that God’s love and grace can prevail, and illuminate the way before us. Indeed, that is the message of Christmas embodied in the announcement of the angels, spoken to shepherds more than 2,000 years ago: “For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
The Rev. Fr. Davit Karamyan, Vicar of St. Vartan Cathedral, marked the feast day as celebrant during the Divine Liturgy and Blessing of Water ceremony (Churorhnek). Fr. Karamyan, joined by members of the Diocesan clergy and deacons, celebrated the badarak in place of Diocesan Primate Bishop Daniel Findikyan, who took ill a few days prior to “Armenian Christmas,” but is now, following the prescribed quarantine period, once again in good health.
In the Armenian Church, the Feast of Theophany occupies an eight-day period (called the “octave” of Theophany), observed from January 6 to 13. Armenian Christmas itself is unique in the Christian world, in that it commemorates both the birth and baptism of Jesus: two events in Christ’s life separated by 30 years, according to the Gospel accounts.
The rich colors and golden hues of the processional banners and vestments at the start of the service, punctuated by the percussive ringing of the kshots (liturgical fans) and sacred sharagans of the choir reverberating throughout the sanctuary, set the tone for the ancient and beautiful liturgical rituals. Like the previous year’s celebration, the number of worshippers permitted in the sanctuary was kept to a minimum, to ensure safety and comply with local regulations on public gatherings during the pandemic. However, the presence of God’s love was unmistakably clear in the worshippers’ expressions.
And for the thousands of faithful participating from home, watching the broadcast on the Eastern Diocese’s YouTube and Facebook channels, the use of a four-camera configuration to transmit the program provided a three-dimensional, “virtual” experience of the service.
Opening Our Hearts
With the closing of the altar curtain and dimming of the lights, the sanctuary took on a mysteriously beautiful and sacred aura as the choir soloist sang the hymn Der Voghormya with heartfelt inflection and reverence. It is moments such as this that have embodied the devotion and unwavering faith of Armenian Christians since the earliest days of our church.
Following the sacrament of Holy Communion, Fr. Karamyan came froward from the altar to deliver his sermon.
“Today is one of the greatest, most joyful days in the life of the Armenian Church,” he said in his homily. “We celebrate the birth of our Lord and accept it as the greatest ‘Good News,’ and we long for salvation.” Fr. Karamyan went on to describe how God became like us–a human being–in order to bring salvation and peace on earth among people who have goodwill and accept Him.
But what is expected from us today? “If we want peace in our lives, we must open our hearts to Him, for once He is with us, peace reigns and prevails within us,” he emphasized. “The Armenian Church opened its heart to fully accept the birth of Jesus many years ago, and we today need to revive that spirit, through our own goodwill towards each other.”
As is its tradition, the Armenian Church designates a Godfather of the Cross for the Christmas Water Blessing ceremony. This year the honor was bestowed upon brothers Nicholas and William Nazarian, who stood as witnesses of the ceremonial remembrance of Christ’s baptism.
St. Vartan Cathedral’s Christmas celebration began on the evening of January 5, with the solemn Jrakalouyts (“Lamp-lighting”) service traditionally celebrated on Christmas Eve. The Divine Liturgy on Christmas Day was the work of many hands. Assisting the celebrant Fr. Davit Karamyan were a half dozen deacons and altar servers, led by Dn. Manuel Rakoubian. Hasmik Rakoubian directed the soulful St. Vartan Cathedral Choir, accompanied by organist Florence Avakian.
George and Lorraine Marootian and the St. Vartan Cathedral Council extended hospitality to worshippers during an outdoor reception following the service. The online broadcast was directed by Yervant Keshishian, with Chris Zakian providing the narration. Diran Jebejian photographed the service inside the sanctuary.
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By Stephan S. Nigohosian