Sacraments of the Armenian Apostolic Church
General Definition of “Sacrament”
A Sacrament is a visible sign of the invisible spiritual grace, a kind of rite or ceremony that symbolizes spiritual blessings outwardly. For example, Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper) is a Sacrament. A Church member receiving Holy Communion renews his inward relation with Jesus Christ. Holy Communion is visible, but renewing the inward touch with Jesus Christ is invisible. One is simply an outward token, but the other is an inward grace that a believer in Jesus Christ will enjoy.
Baptism in the Armenian Church is performed by immersion in water three times, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” In the Greek Church, baptism is also performed by immersion, but in the Roman Catholic Church, and in some protestant churches, baptism is performed by the sprinkling of water, while the above words are recited.
The unbaptized, children or adults, are called “Yerakha,” ( catechuman) in the Armenian church. Those who present th-e “Yerakha” to the priest for baptism, are called “Gunkahayr” (god-father or sponsor). The duty of the “Gunkahayr” is not only to sponsor and assist during the time of Baptism, but to look after the spiritual welfare of the one who is baptized.
Any adult proselyte is entitled to be baptized in the Armenian Church at any age, but the children of Christian parents must be baptized after eight or forty days of their birth, according to the old custom of the Christian Church. This infant-baptism had its origin in the days of the Apostles. When Apostle Paul and Silas were preaching the gospel at Philippi (Macedonia), a certain woman, named Lydia, repented and was baptized with all her household (Acts 16, 15). In the same city, when the prison keeper accepted Christianity, he was baptized, together with the members of his family (Acts 16, 33). When Crispus, the chief ruler of the Synagogue was converted to Christianity, he was baptized, together with at! his household (Acts 18, 8). Of course, there were children in these families and they were baptized along with the adults. Origen, a Church father (185-255) emphasizes infant baptism in his writings as a system that has been originated during the time of the Apostles, in the first century.
The Sacrament of Baptism was established through Jesus Christ, the founder of our religion. When talking with Nicodemus he emphasized to him the importance of Baptism by the following words: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” (John 3, 5). Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River as an example to the Christian people. Following the example of Jesus, baptism by immersion is more biblical than baptism by sprinkling. The Apostle Paul also said of baptism: “Buried with him in baptism wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.” (Colos. 2, 12).
In the olden days the kings and priests of Israel were anointed by holy oil to receive the blessings of the Holy Spirit in order to be able to perform successfully the duties which they had undertaken. At the present time, in like manner, the priests of the Church are anointed by chrism (holy oil – meuron) for the same purpose.
Also at the time of baptism, the Yerakha is confirmed by the priest, after baptism, with the holy oil, in’ order to receive the graces of God, through the descending of the Holy Spirit upon the one baptized. It is not sufficient to be baptized only by water to become Christian, but also by the Spirit at the same time.
According to the words of Jesus “Except ,a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” This is the reason that the Sacrament of Confirmation is performed by the priest immediately after baptism in the Armenian Church.
In the Roman Catholic Church the priest only baptizes the child, and at a later date the bishop confirms him.
Meuron (holy oil of the Church) is composed mostly of olive oil and the oils of the flowers of balsam and the essence of various sweet flowers.
Confirmation is also called “the anointing, or sealing,” according to Apostle Paul, “Now he which established us with you in Christ, and had anointed us, in God; who had also sealed us, and given the earnest of the spirit in our hearts.” (II Cor. 1: 21-22) .
3. Penance (Repentance)
Penance is the result of remorse that man feels deeply in his heart for realizing a wrong act or the sin he has committed. The true repentant really feels the terribleness of the sin he has committed, and therefore he feels sorrow for it heartily, and decides firmly not to repeat again that wrong act, but to walk henceforth in the right way, which is pleasant to God.
The results of true repentance are (1) regret and weeping, as the Apostle Peter who saw the terribleness of the sin he committed, regretted and wept immediately (Matt. 26-75), (2) Confession, as David recognized the sin he had committed, he confessed it to the prophet Nathan (II Sam. 12, 13), and then to God (Psalm 51:3-4), (3) Restoration, as Zaccheus confessed his sin before Jesus Christ and promised to restore fourfold anything that he had taken from any man by false accusation (Luke 19, 1-10).
These practical steps of repentance produce more and better results if the repentant, in the meantime, fasts, reads the Bible, and meditates. When these outward steps have been taken, with true faith and confidence upon God’s unlimited mercy and forgiveness, the repentant sinner feels in his heart a kind of inward satisfaction and heavenly peace that is the, effect of the grace of God.
This Sacrament of Penance is performed in the Armenian Church according to a written formula, through the confessor priest. The Armenian Church is rich by supplications, songs, hymns, and prayers concerning repentance. They are very touching and inspiring and can lead the sinner to repentance when he follows them with sincerity and an open heart.
The Sacrament of Communion was established by Jesus Christ at the time of the last supper. “As they were eating, Jesus took the bread and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took the cup and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink ye all of it. For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.’” (Matt. 26, 26-28).
In the Armenian Church the bread (morsel – nushkar) of the Communion is prepared from unleavened bread which is made of wheat flour and undiluted wine of the grape, consecrated by the Service of the Holy Eucharist (Mass – Badarak).
The Roman Catholic Church also uses the unleavened bread for the Holy Eucharist but puts a few drops of cold water into the, wine. The Greek Orthodox Church puts cold and hot water into the Holy Eucharistic wine, but uses the unleavened bread the same as the Armenian and the Roman Catholic Church. In the Roman Catholic Church those who receive communion, receive only the bread, but in the Armenian Church they receive both the bread and wine at the same time.
The Armell1an Holy Eucharist Service has two parts. The first part of the service begins with the following declaration by the deacon: “Let none of the catechumens and no one of weak faith, none of the penitents, nor the unclean, draw near to this divine mystery.” The second part starts from this point and continues to the end. .
In the early days, in the Armenian Church, the unbaptized (Yerakha), the catechumens and unrepented persons were allowed to be present only during the first part of the Holy Eucharist service. At the end of the first part, when the deacon said, “Go to the doors and pray,” they left the church and stayed out in the church courtyard and prayed. The deacon would then close the church door before continuing the second part of the Holy Eucharist service. At the present time this ceremony is not in practice.
The ceremony of the Holy Eucharist is the most solemn and impressive part of the Armenian Church service. Even foreign visitors regard it as very inspiring and very impressive.
The Holy Eucharist, symbolizes the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Those who receive Holy Communion unite themselves with Jesus Christ spiritually. Only those who have repented and follow the teachings of Christ are entitled to receive Holy Communion. According to the apostolic instructions, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (I Cor. 11, 28-29).
Apostle Paul regarded matrimony a great Sacrament (Mystery) (Ephes. 5, 32) because through holy matrimony husband and wife unite themselves spiritually. The Bible says, “What therefore God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” (Matt. 19, 6). According to the Apostle Paul, “The husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church.” Therefore, the matrimonial union of husband and wife symbolizes the union of Christ with the Church. The husband must love his wife as Jesus loves his Church (Ephes. 5 :22-25).
The Matrimonial Ceremony is called “Crown” (Besak), because married couples wear crowns on their heads during the ceremony. For this reason the bridegroom is called “King” and bride “Queen.” Crown can be substituted by Narod (red and green ribbons with a little cross at the end, This is tied at the forehead of the bride and groom).
In the Armenian Church the priest performs the service of holy matrimony according to the instructions of the Mashdotz (Book of Ceremony). The Mashdotz contains the proper rites and ceremonies for first and second marriages, but the third and fourth marriages can only be performed by the permission of the Holy See, of the Church.
Divorce is not encouraged by the Church, except for fornication. In this case divorce is permitted by the Catholicos.
Marriage with close relatives is also forbidden in the Armenian Church. In the early days the limit was eight generations apart -now it is five. This is very important for a healthy generation, and also in a moral sense.
The Ceremony of Ordination is performed upon the person who resigns from worldly affairs and dedicates himself entirely to the service of the church, as a minister of the gospel, and as a preacher of the good news of salvation. If the candidate for ordination approaches his office by divine calling, inward conviction and a consecration, he receives at the time of ordination the anointing of the Holy Spirit of God, and is endowed abundantly with heavenly graces, which are very important for the office that he undertakes.
A candidate for the holy order is elected by the votes of the people, and then is presented to the Bishop of the Diocese, to receive his ordination. The priest, or any Vartabed (celibate priest) cannot ordain any person for the Church office. Only a Bishop has authority to ordain the deacon and the priest, but the Bishop cannot ordain anyone it the people have not elected him. On the other hand, the Bishop has the right not to ordain anyone if after conscientious examination he finds him unworthy of the high and holy office of priesthood.
There are six minor steps or grades before reaching priesthood. They are (1) Porter’s service (2) Sweeping (3) Acolyteship (4) Reading (5) Exorcism, and (6) Deaconship. Priesthood comes after these degrees, as a seventh degree. The Bishop, as a superintendent over the priests, is also called “Pontiff” or “High Priest.” But the Catholicos as the priest arid head Bishop is called the Supreme head, or the Supreme Patriarch of the Church.
At the present time Exorcism in the Armenian Church is not in practice, and the deaconship has two parts, sub-deacon and deacon. The other four degrees are called chorister (Tubrootune). According to the instruction of the Mashdotz, a sub-deacon is allowed to marry and later on if he wishes he can be ordained a priest, but a deacon cannot marry as he is a candidate for Vartabed (celibate priest). This is the reason that deaconship has two degrees-sub-deacon, and deacon or avak deacon.
During the Apostle’s time there were three holy orders, or ranks, in the early Christian Church-deacons, elders (priests), and bishops, and they wer all married. (I Tim. 3, 2-12).
Now, in the Armenian Church a priest (elder) can marry but a Vartabed (celibate priest) cannot. Because the Vartabed can be ordained a ‘Bishop with the opportunity of becoming an archbishop, and also to be a candidate for Patriarch and Catholicos. The married priest does not have these privileges.
“Archbishopric” is a simple title which is given to the Bishop as an honorary degree, without ordination. In the same manner, “archpriesthood” (Avak Kahanayoutune) is a simple title which is given to a priest as an honorary degree without ordination.
7. The order of the sick or the extreme unction
This is the ceremony which is performed by the minister of the Church for the sick person, who is at the point of death. The important parts of this order are repentance, prayer, and Holy Communion.
The priest of the Church lays his hand upon the sick person and prays that through the sign of the cross he will receive strength from God in order to endure his pains and sickness. At the same time he comforts and admonishes him that he trust in God’s infinite mercy, by repenting and participating in Holy communion, to secure his salvation in order to enter his eternal rest with a peaceful mind and spirit.
The Order of the Sick is referred to in the Mashdotz as “The Order of the Night Hour Prayer,” which is performed upon the person who is seriously sick as a remedy for his pains and for forgiveness of his sins.
As to the Extreme Unction of the sick which is performed in the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Church does not practice it, finding no religious value in it.
The Armenian Church only anoints the hands and foreheads of the clergymen, at their funeral, simply to honor them in regard to their priestly and holy office.