nicholas-babaian armenian church service at easter


with Krista Tippett….an excerpt, click title to listen to its entirety and find mp3 of Tippett’s interview with guroian

a tip of the hat and thanks to my friend who led me to this story….

From America Public Media:

Theologian Vigen Guroian experiences Easter as “a call to our senses.”  We’ll explore his Eastern Orthodox sensibility that is at once more mystical and more earthy than the Christianity dominant in Western culture.  And at this time of year and beyond, Guroian does real theology in his garden as richly as in church.

Aslan Sings the Creation of Narnia into Existence
The Magician’s Nephew, the sixth of seven novels in The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, functions as the prequel book. Written between 1949 and 1954, the books feature the adventures of children in a fictional land of Narnia ruled by Aslan, the Great Lion.

In the chapters describing the creation of Narnia, Guroian says that Lewis understood the Orthodox concept that God constantly wills Creation into existence through song and hymns:

In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful voice he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it. The horse seemed to like it too; he gave the sort of whinny a horse would give if, after years of being a cab-horse, it found itself back in the old field where it had played as a foal, and saw someone whom it remembered and loved coming across the field to bring it a lump of sugar.

“Gawd!” said the Cabby. “Ain’t it lovely?”

Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out—single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any world. There were no clouds. The new stars and the new voices began at exactly the same time. If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.

“Glory be!” said the Cabby. “I’d ha’ been a better man all my life if I’d known there were things like this.”

The Voice on the earth was now louder and more triumphant; but the voices in the sky, after singing loudly with it for a time, began to get fainter. And now something else was happening.

Far away, and down near the horizon, the sky began to turn gray. A light wind, very fresh, began to stir. The sky, in that one place, grew slowly and steadily paler. You could see the shapes of hills standing up dark against it. All the time the Voice went on singing.

There was soon light enough for them to see one another’s faces. The Cabby and the two children had open mouths and shining eyes; they were drinking in the sound, and they looked as if it reminded them of something. Uncle Andrew’s mouth was open too, but not open with joy. He looked more as if his chin had simply dropped away from the rest of his face. His shoulders were stooped and his knees shook. He was not liking the Voice. If he could have got away from it by creeping into a rat’s hole, he would have done so. But the Witch looked as if, in a way, she understood the music better than any one of them. Her mouth was shut, her lips were pressed together, and her fists were clenched. Ever since the song began she had felt that this whole world was filled with a Magic different from hers and stronger. She hated it. She would have smashed that whole world, or all worlds, to pieces, if it would only stop the singing. The horse stood with its ears well forward, and twitching. Every now and then it snorted and stamped the ground. It no longer looked like a tired old cab-horse; you could now well believe that its father had been in battles.

The easter sky changed from white to pink and from pink to gold. The Voice rose and rose, till all the air was shaking with it. And just as it swelled to the mightiest and most glorious sound it had yet produced, the sun arose.

Digory had never seen such a sun. The sun above the ruins of Charn had looked older than ours: this looked younger. You could imagine that it laughed for joy as it came up. And as its beams shot across the land the travelers could see for the first time what sort of place they were in. It was a valley through which a broad, swift river wound its way, flowing eastward toward the sun. Southward there were mountains, northward there were lower hills. But it was a valley of mere earth, rock and water; there was not a tree, not a bush, not a blade of grass to be seen. The earth was of many colors; they were fresh, hot and vivid. They made you feel excited; until you saw the Singer himself, and then you forgot everything else.

It was a Lion. Huge, shaggy, and bright, it stood facing the risen sun. Its mouth was wide open in song and it was about three hundred yards away. …

“‘Old your noise, everyone,” said the Cabby. “I want to listen to the moosic.”

For the song had now changed.

The Lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song. It was softer and more lilting than the song by which he had called up the stars and the sun; a gentle, rippling music. And as he walked and sang the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool. It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave. In a few minutes it was creeping up the lower slopes of the distant mountains, making that young world every moment softer. The light wind could now be heard ruffling the grass. Soon there were other things besides grass. The higher slopes grew dark with heather. Patches of rougher and more bristling green appeared in the valley. …

All this time the Lion’s song, and his stately prowl, to and fro, backward and forward, was going on. What was rather alarming was that at each turn he came a little nearer. Polly was finding the song more and more interesting because she thought she was beginning to see the connection between the music and the things that were happening. When a line of dark firs sprang up on a ridge about a hundred yards away she felt that they were connected with a series of deep, prolonged notes which the Lion had sung a second before. And when he burst into a rapid series of lighter notes she was not surprised to see primroses suddenly appearing in every direction. Thus, with an unspeakable thrill, she felt quite certain that all the things were coming (as she said) “out of the Lion’s head.” When you listened to his song you heard the things he was making up: when you looked round you, you saw them.

Passage from Incarnate Love

In his book Incarnate Love: Essays in Orthodox Ethics, Guroian cites a passage from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov.  The speaker, Ivan, is the middle son and the novel’s rationalist. At one point, he says to his younger brother:

Alyosha, my boy, so I want to live and go on living, even if it’s contrary to the rules of logic. Even if I do not believe in the divine order of things, the sticky young leaves emerging from their buds in the spring are dear to my heart; so is the blue sky and so are some human beings, even though I often don’t know why I like them. … I’ll get drunk on my own emotion. I love those sticky little leaves and the blue sky, that’s what! You don’t love those things with reason, with logic, you love them with your innards, with your belly.

Dostoevsky, a Russian novelist and philosopher, was arrested and imprisoned in 1849 for being a part of a liberal intellectual literary group, one that Czar Nicholas decided to crack down on as revolutionary zeal was sweeping Europe. Dostoevsky was sentenced to death and suffered a mock execution by firing squad. His sentence was then changed to four years of exile and hard labor at a Siberian prison camp, and it’s popularly believed that these experiences led to his disillusionment with “Western” ideas, his devotion to traditional Russian values, and his conversion to a deep Orthodox Christian faith. On his tombstone is inscribed a biblical verse from the book of John 12:24, which is also the epigraph of The Brothers Karamazov:: “Verily, Verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

Christ Paid the Price for Original Sin of Adam

There are many names and titles for Jesus in the New Testament, from the Son of God, to the Son of Man, to King of the Jews. For the Apostle Paul, Jesus Christ’s resurrection is the moment when he regained the glory that Adam had lost in the Garden of Eden — thus becoming the “new Adam.” The first Adam participated in the Fall from grace, which brought death through sin. With Jesus Christ, the new Adam brought righteousness and salvation. When the New Testament explores the relation between Jesus Christ and Adam, the focus is primarily one of contrast. Adam brought sin into the world, Christ brought justification; Adam was disobedient and gave in to temptation, Christ submitted to God’s will in the garden:

“For just as through the disobedience of the one man (Adam) the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man (Jesus) the many will be made righteous.”
—Romans 5:19

C.S. Lewis hints at Guroian’s characterization of Jesus Christ as the “new Adam.” Responding to an inquiry about the Narnian character of Aslan as a Christ figure, C.S. Lewis wrote in 1958: “If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity … he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like, if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as he is said to have actually done in ours?’ This is not allegory at all.”

Two Scriptures
Guroian’s idea that nature and scripture interpret one another hearkens to a quote by Francis Bacon that Charles Darwin included as an epigram in his 1859 publication of The Origin of Species:

“To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.”

Passage from The Fragrance of God

Guroian refers to the essay “The Temple Transparent” in The Fragrance of God. Here, Guroian describes how his gardening is a form of worship in which God continually reveals His Mystery:

The sun rode low in the east, just high enough, however, to illuminate the wooded hill and pasture on the far side of the stream. The light, as in a Byzantine icon, seemed to issue not from an external source but from within temple walls. I missed this scene last fall. While our home was being built, I dug in dozens of shrubs and perennials and hundreds of spring bulbs on the backyard slope. But I worked late in the day, at sunset, when shadows shrouded the wood and pasture. My wife, June, and I moved in on Holy Week. By then, the daffodils that I had planted were spilling down the bank out back like yellow paint from a tipped-over bucket. And the maple trees were opening their clenched fists and drawing a sylvan veil over the temple sanctuary.

In late November, the entire Blue Ridge rises transfigured. As the leaves fall from the trees, the summer veil is lifted, and darkness is made visible. Through temples transparent, saints and sinners see into secret earthen sanctuaries. I am reminded that when Jesus died on the accursed Tree, the curtain of the Temple tore open, and the Holy of Holies was shown.

Quote from Guroian’s Writing
Krista cites a passage from Guroian’s book, The Fragrance of God:

Our culture is visually oriented, and becoming even more so with the advent of the home computer and the Internet. In the Christian religion, sight has frequently been proffered as a metaphor for the experience of God. The medieval theologians spoke of the “vision of God” as the summum bonum, the highest good of the Christian life. They singled out sight as the “mystical” sense, the one that draws us deepest into communion with God. Dare I contend with souls so wise? For I have a notion that smell, not sight, is the most mystical sense. The garden has persuaded me of this.

Incense used in most traditional Eastern Orthodox churches is made of a variety of aromatic ingredients including frankincense (a fragrant gum resin from East African or Arabian trees), styrax (a resin from trees of the witch-hazel family), benzoin (a resin from trees in Southeast Asia), and cascarilla bark (a west Indian shrub). During services, the incense is dispensed by means of a censer which is a brass, silver, or gold bowl where the incense is sprinkled on top of burning charcoal to create a vast quantity of smoke. A deacon or other clergyman swings the censer — suspended from chains — towards something or someone, typically an icon or person, so that smoke travels in that direction.

Incense has been used for thousands of years in many ancient cultures. The ancient Egyptians performed religious rituals with incense and smoke before the cult image of the sun god Amon-Re while performing mortuary rites, when the souls of the dead were thought to ascend to heaven in the flame. For Christians, the scent and smoke of the incense symbolizes the ascent of the prayers of the faithful.

Quote from Guroian’s Writings about Rose
Krista cites a passage from the first chapter of The Fragrance of God by Vigen Guroian:

The metaphor of the vision of God was always liable to the criticism that it misrepresents divine mystery by promising too much. But it is not so with smell. Much like the rose I sensed in the nursery, God is mysteriously present in our lives. Although I had forgotten the scent and the rose was out of view, its fragrance awakened me to its presence. We may not see God face to face, or tangibly experience him in other ways; nonetheless, he avails himself to us as he did to Adam and Eve in the Garden.

Reading from Armenian Apocryphal Adam Literature

Apocryphal literature takes the same form as books of scripture but was excluded from biblical canons for various reasons. In the last century, apocryphal Adam literature has taken an increasingly central role in the study of ancient Judaism and Christianity. The story of Adam and Eve is symbolic of the human condition that gives this literature its special role. Medieval Armenian texts about the first humans reveal an imaginative and creative literary approach to theological concepts.

The first Adam and Eve texts were published in Armenian in 1898 and translated to English only in recent decades. Recent studies by Michael Stone, professor of Armenian Studies and Religious Studies at Hebrew University, and W.L. Lipscomb discuss the events which took place in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. In one text, titled “Adam and Eve and the Incarnation,” the serpent tells Eve, “God was a man like you. When he ate of the fruit of this tree he became God of all.” In another, “The History of the Creation and Transgression of Adam, the serpent states, “God was like you, because he had not eaten of that fruit. When he ate it, he attained the glory of divinity.”

These extra-canonical texts indicate that Christ’s resurrection and ascension into heaven would ultimately result in the restoration of Adam’s inheritance lost in his fall from grace and his return to Paradise. As Stone writes, “The significance here is that Adam’s restoration to his pre-mortal inheritance, where according to these texts he once reigned under God as a king and at God’s specific command was even worshiped by the angels, suggests a return to a state where he could again receive such adoration, a state clearly suggestive of deification.

Guroian finds solace in these texts, and recounts one of the stories in The Fragrance of God:

After Adam and Eve were beguiled by the serpent and ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree, God commanded his angels to remove them from the Garden, and to guard the paths to it with a fiery sword. And so Adam and his wife were banished from the Garden and its light and abundant life and entered a place of darkness and gloom. They remained there in misery for six days, without anything to eat and no shelter. They wept inconsolably over what they had lost and where they were sent.

But on the seventh day, God took pity on the couple. He sent an angel who removed them from the dark place and led them into this bright world. The messenger showed them trees from which they could eat and satisfy their hunger. And when Adam and Eve saw the light and felt the warmth of this world, they rejoiced with exceeding gladness, saying, “Even though this place cannot compare with the home we have lost and its light is not nearly as bright or its fruit half as sweet, nevertheless, we are no longer in the darkness and can go on living.” So they were cheerful.

If you’re interested in reading another extra-canonical Armenian text, see The Penitence of Adam. The introduction is informative and side-by-side translations of Greek and English are interesting to compare.

Persecution of Armenian People  

The Armenian genocide refers to the deportation, starvation, and killing of Armenians by Turkish authorities of the Ottoman Empire. The genocide was planned and carried out during the First World War (1915–1918). The vast majority of the Armenian population was forcibly removed from Armenia and Anatolia to the Syrian Desert. A renewed effort between 1920 and 1923 resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Armenians — more than half the Armenian population.

April 24th marks the memorial date for victims of the Armenian Genocide. On this day in 1915 hundreds of Armenian leaders were murdered in Istanbul….

Treasury of Hymns
In the 7th century, several Armenian composers brought Armenian hymnography to the peak of its development, including Komitas Aghtsetsi, Anania Shirakatsi, Barsegh Chon, and Sahak Dzoraporetsi. More recently, Komitas Vardapet took Armenian musicology to a level of great renown by applying musical styles from the 19th and 20th centuries in an unprecedented way. Listen to the full range of his compositions — choral and solo arrangements, instrumental, songs with lyric poems and more.

Reading from Inheriting Paradise
At the end of his essay “Lenten Spring,” Guroian recounts an Easter story about turtles in his garden:

Several summers ago my children found two turtles and put them in the vegetable garden. During a thaw the next February as I was digging up the soggy soil where the peas go, I lifted a heavy mound with my shovel, and then another. The two turtles had burrowed down for winter sleep, and I had rudely awakened them too soon. So I carried them to a corner of the garden where I would not disturb them and dug them in again. When my wife said that she feared the turtles might be dead, I said I did not think so (though I wasn’t as sure as I sounded). I insisted that in spring they would come up. And they did in Easter week.

Lilies and hyacinths signify the resurrection, and I can understand why. But I have a pair of turtles that plant themselves in my garden each fall like two gigantic seeds and rise on Easter with earthen crowns upon their humbled heads. With the women at the tomb, I marvel. For “Christ did arise, Christ did awaken/Out of the virgin tomb, out of the tomb of light” (Armenian Ode for Ordinary Sundays). And he leads us back, back into the garden of delight.

Photo:  Armenian Orthodox Christians celebrate Pascha in the Church of St. Hripsime in Echmiadzin, Armenia.  Nicholas Babaian
(photo: Nicholas Babaian/Flickr)