Pious Customs of the Armenian Faithful
There are many pious customs and traditions of the Armenian faithful connected with the feasts and Saints’ Days of the Armenian Church. To enumerate and describe them all is a topic for a future publication. Here we have listed some of the most common pious customs of our faithful.
The Sign of the Cross
Making the sign of the cross is an ancient Christian custom, which is practiced in all ancient churches. Upon entering a church one crosses oneself, because of the sanctity of the House of God, and primarily because of the presence of the Host: the Body and Blood of Christ, the living God. We also make the sign of the cross before and after saying a prayer, receiving Holy Communion, lighting a candle, kissing the cross or Gospel, or whenever one is censed by a priest or deacon. This pious custom reminds the faithful of the crucifixion of our Lord and His glorious resurrection.
As in ancient times, incense is used in the church as a symbol of honor and dignity. Additionally, when one is censed by a deacon or priest one crosses oneself so that our prayers may ascend to heaven with the incense. The fire of the thurible (censer) represents purity, and the incense itself represents our prayers ascending into heaven.
This ancient and pious custom is attributed to the Apostles. Today, the priest will travel to the homes of the faithful at Christmas and Easter, blessing the home and passing on the Good News of Christ’s birth or resurrection. Additionally, Home Blessing symbolizes God’s protective care over the home of a faithful Christian, its inhabitants, and the goodness resident therein.
Madagh is a mercy offering intended for the poor and needy. The Armenian Book of Ritual articulates, first, the blessing of salt intended for the madagh, and then the blessing of the madagh itself-traditionally, boiled lamb. Madagh should be totally consumed, and is to be distributed freely and without charge. One may offer madagh for a specific vow, or in memory of loved ones on a special holiday. Presently, madagh is most often distributed on April 24 (or the closest Sunday thereto) in commemoration of the Armenian martyrs. The mercy offering is one of our Christian duties, and madagh is only one means of helping the poor and needy.
Another pious Christian custom is the lighting of candles. This custom is usually performed before a consecrated painting of a saint or saints. The faithful light candles and offer a prayer either for the living or the dead, and in certain instances when making a vow. A person may ask for the intercession of the saint represented in the painting, or of any saint close to his/her heart.
The act of pilgrimage is an ancient one among Christians. In the early church, Christians traveled to Jerusalem and Bethlehem to visit and view with their own Eyes the places where our Lord was born, crucified, buried, and rose again. A person going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem was called mahdesi, which is derived from arabic word “Mghdesi” (Ghods – arabic for Jerusalem) which means somebody who has been in Jerusalem. Pilgrimages are also made to holy places, churches, and shrines, as is practiced today in Iran with the annual pilgrimage to the monastery of St. Thaddeus. Also, many Armenians still make pilgrimages to Jerusalem and to Holy Etchmiadzin. To go on pilgrimage is a blessed thing: the pilgrim has made a sacred vow. This ancient and beautiful custom should be encouraged within the church.
Since the times of Moses, the faithful have been commissioned to keep the lights of the House of the Lord burning. Pure oil was burned in ancient times, and until this century the faithful either made monetary donations or brought pure olive oil to be used for the ganteghs(or “lamps”) of the church. This custom continues today at Easter and Christmas, with monetary gifts given to the church to ensure that its lights will remain burning.
The faithful who have departed are referred to as the “Church Triumphant:’ For this reason, the church fathers set aside the day following each of the five tabernacle (daghavar) feasts as merelotz, or Commemoration of the Departed. On such occasions, according to tradition, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated with hokehankisd for all souls and particularly for those which are the subject of specific requests. Afterwards, the clergy and faithful proceed to the cemeteries, where the graves of the departed faithful are blessed individually. Although this custom is maintained in the Near East and in Armenia, in the United States and Canada grave blessings usually take place on Memorial Day and upon special request.
Hokehankisd (Requiem Service)
The Requiem Service, or hokehankisd, is not merely a custom but a rule of the church. Forty days after the death of a member of the church, a requiem is offered for the repose of his/her soul. This also ends the official mourning period, and usually the grave of the departed is also blessed. After the Forty-Days’ Requiem (karasoonk), hokehankisd may be requested annually on the Sunday closest to the date of death or, according to a more ancient custom, the day commemorating the saint after whom the departed was named. Requiem services may be requested at any time during the ecclesiastical year. However, they may not be performed on the five major or tabernacle (daghavar) feasts, as hokehankisd is penitential and the feasts are dominical in nature. Likewise, hokehankisd should not be performed on Dominical Feasts (I.E..,on Palm Sunday, Ascension, or Pentecost). Although through the requiem we are praying for the departed as a matter of love and respect, we cannot alter their state or God’s Final Judgment. What we do request through prayer is that the Lord should remember our loved ones, and judge them mercifully and with compassion.