This year the Armenian Church liturgical calendar designates August 24 as the feast of St. Jeremiah: one of the major prophets of the Bible.

His life straddled the 7th and 6th centuries before Christ—making him a contemporary of the Athenian lawgiver Solon.  Jeremiah received his prophetic calling in a time of great promise: the reign of the godly king Josiah, during which a lost book of Moses (eventually known as Deuteronomy) was re-discovered, and a movement of spiritual renewal awakened among the Hebrew people.

But the pious king died in battle; his successors were weak and profligate; and Jeremiah’s generation saw its worst fears realized: the conquest of their holy city, Jerusalem, and the bitter exile of a nation from its homeland.

Jeremiah documented his painful experiences in the Old Testament book of his name, as well as in the aptly titled book of Lamentations.  As a result, he became known to the ages as the “weeping prophet.”  Jeremiah’s vivid, sorrowful prophecies were picked up by the evangelist St. Matthew in his telling of Christ’s life (“Rachel weeping for her children” at Mt 2:17; “thirty pieces of silver” at Mt 27:9).  And we today derive the word “jeremiad”—meaning a long, mournful complaint—from this somber figure.

Yet even in defeat, Jeremiah was something other than a voice of doom.  To his people he spoke with the words of God; and they were words of hope, not despair.  Consider this inspiring passage by the prophet, in which God speaks to a dispirited nation in exile:

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord: plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  Then, when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord.  And I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord.  And I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”  (Jer 29:11-14, NRSV)

Jeremiah’s words and example have held special meaning for Armenian Christians—as witness St. Gregory of Narek, who borrowed the title “Lamentations” for his own masterpiece of mystical poetry.  The similarities between the travails of Jeremiah’s time and the experiences of our own people hardly need to be enumerated.

The more important similarity, of course, is the spirit of hope, grounded in a loving, fatherly God, which allows people to endure, overcome, and live on—whether in the 6th century B.C., the 20th century A.D., or today.

—Christopher H. Zakian

Sunday School Superintendents from parishes across the Eastern Diocese gathered for the second National Sunday School Superintendents Summit held this past weekend at St. Nersess Seminary in Armonk, NY.

The three-day event, from August 11-13, was organized and sponsored by the Diocese’s Department of Christian Education. Superintendents representing 11 parishes explored the challenges facing Christian educators today and the newest paradigm shifts in faith formation. In addition to structured discussions, networking, and drafting a “state of the Sunday Schools” report, participants heard presentations on education, faith development theory, the Christian life journey, Diocesan educational resources, and paths to community discipleship.

A visit from the Primate, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, afforded a welcome opportunity for dialogue. Reflections and prayer experiences were interspersed throughout the weekend.

The presentation of Fr. Tavit Boyajian, pastor of Sts. Joachim and Anne Church (Palos Heights, IL), was a Summit favorite. Fr. Boyajian performed his original songs about Armenian Church history and the Bible on guitar and piano, before awed audience members who couldn’t help but sing along. He also shared online links to badarak hymns he had recorded as a teaching resource. The Christian Education department will be working to make Fr. Boyajian’s songs more widely available.

The session afforded an opportunity to discuss an instructional CD of badarak hymns in English translation produced by Andrea Carden and a team of educators at the St. Leon parish (Fair Lawn, NJ), as well as the general subject of teaching sharagans and songs.

The Summit concluded with a moving Divine Liturgy (and grape blessing) celebrated by the Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, director of the Diocese’s Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center and Professor of Liturgical Studies at St. Nersess. Following worship, Fr. Daniel gave a talk on the deeper, more authentic nature of the liturgy, which prompted animated conversation.

Other presenters included Nancy Basmajian, director of Adult Christian Education in Cheltenham, PA, and a former Diocesan youth and education staffer; Elise Antreassian; and Eric Vozzy of the Diocesan Department of Creative Ministries who spoke on the “Bread and Salt” video series.

Gratified by the results of this second Summit, Elise Antreassian noted that “Our Sunday School Superintendents are becoming a true leadership team – informed, spiritually centered, working with staff, parents, and students – dedicated to bringing those we serve closer to Christ. And they are humbly committed to that journey as well.”

Proposals emanating from the Summit will help foster change in local programming as well as the priorities of both the Department of Christian Education and the Diocese overall.

Inspiring Messages

Participants were inspired by the weekend’s program, citing renewed energy for the challenges ahead. A sampling of e-mails that arrived at the Diocesan Center immediately following the Summit tells it all:

“Thanks to all 2017 Summiters!,” wrote Joyce Avedisian (of Sts. Sahag and Mesrob Sunday School, Providence, RI). “I left St. Nersess filled with gratitude, joy, and enthusiasm for what lies ahead.”

“It was such an uplifting weekend with friends that are brothers and sisters in Christ!” wrote Andrea Carden (St. Leon Sunday School, Fair Lawn, NJ). “My mind is so full of ideas and thoughts this morning, as well as the warm memories of just a day ago. Looking forward to communicating!”

Laura Purutyan (St. James Sunday School, Watertown, MA) wrote: “Thank you for a breakthrough experience and God bless our team!”

“I feel blessed to be part of such an amazing group of brothers and sisters in Christ’s work! I feel invigorated. Today I told a naysayer not to burst my bubble!!” wrote Alice Leylegian (St. Gregory Sunday School, White Plains, NY).

“This second Superintendents Summit was so informative and inspiring!  I wish more of my fellow superintendents had been in attendance to experience the sense of unity in purpose,” wrote Yeretzgin Tirouhe Boyajian (Sts. Joachim and Anne, Palos Heights, IL). “Contemplating the future of our church and the role of Sunday School in shaping that future was exhilarating!”

“This is one weekend that I will always remember and cherish. Thanks to all of my colleagues, I am ready to bring our local Sunday School to another level,” wrote Barry Bilzerian (Armenian Church of Our Savior Sunday School, Worcester, MA), adding: “No longer am I tired. I will be reaching out to all of you throughout the year to share ideas. Our group picture is in my office to remind me of how special each and every one of you really is.”

Martha Jamgochian (Sts. Sahag and Mesrob, Providence, RI), enthused: “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! A really wonderful Summit; I consider it a gift.”

Finally, the Rev. Fr. Tavit Boyajian, pastor of Sts. Joachim and Anne Church in Palos Heights, IL, offered these words: “Your dedication is inspiring to me, for in your service the Holy Spirit shines forth to the children and parishes you serve.

Blessing of Grapes

A certain stereotype of Christianity paints the church as puritanical and severe, an inhuman taskmaster which begrudges the sound of laughter and the joys of life.  In the 2,000-year history of the religion, some Christians have indeed adopted such a worldview; but it is hardly characteristic of Christianity as a whole, and as far as the Armenian Christian tradition goes, nothing could be further from the truth.

A single feast day in our liturgical calendar illustrates the connection between the life in Christ and the abiding concerns of human existence.

The “Blessing of the Grapes” is one of the most beloved ceremonies in the Armenian Church calendar.  Most of us can recall people who would refuse to eat grapes until the fruit was “officially” sanctified by the local clergyman—a pious practice which dates back to an earlier era in the church’s history, when daily life revolved around the growing seasons of an agricultural society.

Grapes do have a certain symbolic significance in Christianity (think of all the references which Jesus made to wine and to “the vine and the branch,” references which are still repeated in the Divine Liturgy).  But for most people living during the early centuries of the church, the important thing about grapes was that they had to be harvested at a certain time of the year, and that, eaten as fruit or distilled into wine, they added something pleasing to life.

In other words, for our ancestors, the grape season meant both labor and recreation.  Through the grape-blessing, the church gave it a further significance, one having to do with man’s sacred obligations to God.  Thus work, play and worship were all brought together in this ceremony.

The church was in effect saying to its followers: “What is important to you—the labor of your days, the joy of your festivals—is important to God as well.  His church is not some otherworldly institution which is concerned only with what happens to souls after they die; to the contrary, the church is deeply interested in the living, and in being a part of all the seasons of life.”

Such a sentiment flies in the face of the secular stereotype of Christianity.  But more than that, it is an example of what really sets our religion apart from other philosophies of life.  The God of our fathers and mothers is not remote and aloof from human concerns.  Indeed, He is profoundly moved by even the most ordinary experiences of life—our private troubles and our simple pleasures, the longings of our hearts and bodies, our gentle affection for family and friends.

And God does not simply possess abstract knowledge of these matters; He has, if we may put it this way, first-hand experience in all of the human qualities, because He became a human being, lived among us, took on all our cares and concerns.  Far from demeaning human life, Christianity in the fullness of its teaching lends to mere life a new meaning which it never had before: a spark of the divine.  And this new meaning is embellished and played out through the offices and sacraments of the church.

The occasion on which we celebrate the Blessing of the Grapes is a major feast day called the “Assumption of the Holy Mother-of-God,” and it, too, underscores a wonderful insight unique to Christianity.

The story of the Assumption concerns St. Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and how having completed her life on earth, she was taken up in body and soul—”assumed”—into Heaven.  This was a special courtesy, performed by Christ many years after His Ascension, as a loving tribute to the mother who bore and raised Him.

What is interesting is how this story, which at first glance seems to be about the death of a pious soul, is transformed into a beautiful illustration of a very special—and very familiar—kind of love.

It is not uncommon in this world for grown children to want to share the fruits of their achievements with their parents, and to have their parents by their side.  That sentiment is related to what Christ felt for His mother.  Of course, this is comparing great things to small; but it is consistent with the Christian understanding that our common experiences of the world can offer us glimpses into the most cosmic truths.

One is reminded that before becoming man, God had no mother.  The inhabitants of Heaven, the angels—beings of pure spirit—likewise have no mothers; only embodied, material beings do.  Jesus touched on this general point during His earthly ministry when, in answer to a question about marriage in the Kingdom of God, He suggested that the ties binding us together on earth will not apply in Heaven (Mt 22:23-33).

But the Assumption of Mary shows us another side of the story: even in Heaven, Christ’s love for His mother endures.  We might cautiously wonder whether Christ introduced something novel into Heaven, when He brought Mary to His side.

Once again, the simple, human love of child for parent is given that “spark of the divine,” by being reflected in God Himself.  And at the same time, perhaps, Heaven is granted a poignancy it did not have before, by bearing witness to the human love of a son for his mother.

Through the combination on a single day of the Assumption and the Blessing of the Grapes, the Armenian Church reminds us that God understands and embraces the entirety of the human condition.  The things that are important to us—our work, our recreation, our connection to other human beings—are important to Him as well; in some measure He is with us through all of these things, sharing our heartaches as well as our triumphs, our defeats as well as our victories.

In becoming human, God reached out fully to us, His children.  He did so not only to console us in our grief: He also wants to be with us in our happiest, most joyous moments.  His presence in those times magnifies that joy, giving it power and meaning beyond itself.

—Christopher H. Zakian

St. Garabed Armenian Church of Baton Rouge, LA

Last weekend, the community of St. Garabed Church of Baton Rouge, LA, celebrated the 10th anniversary of the church’s consecration and the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the parish. Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), visited the parish on this occasion. He was accompanied by the Rev. Fr. Tateos Abdalian and Maestro Khoren Mekanejian, who trained the choir for the weekend’s services.

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