Restoring Respect in our Sacred Spaces

Easter Sunday 2019, St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church, Watertown, Mass. (Photo: Garbis Zerdelian)

I have never felt more incomplete walking out of church than I did on Easter Sunday. Something was stirring, and I felt compelled to go back. So on Monday morning, I ran into the groundskeeper, who kindly unlocked the doors to St. Stephen’s in Watertown for me. I slowly returned to the pew I had shared with my husband and three year-old son the day before.

The scent of khoong was still lingering. The pure white Easter lilies that were a vibrant addition on the grand and spirited altar were now in the shadows. I was all alone, grateful and moved by the absolute stillness of the sacred space that once served as the setting for my fall wedding, the joyous summertime christening of our son and the emotional funeral of my husband’s maternal grandmother.

I’m sure the church has faithfully served you and your families in similar ways. It’s our spiritual home, and it’s always been there for us. We are, after all, descendants of the first nation of people to adopt Christianity. But I’m afraid today, we don’t act like it.

This is nothing new. I grew up in southern California, where Easter Sunday was always a circus. The ‘who’s who’ of the San Fernando Valley would don their less-than Sunday best and gather in the courtyard of their respective church to socialize and smoke cigarettes while services were happening inside a jam-packed gymnasium (because the church was far too small to accommodate the masses).

We are, after all, descendants of the first nation of people to adopt Christianity. But I’m afraid today, we don’t act like it.

I was younger then, but those experiences obviously left a lasting impression on me. Now years later and three-thousand miles away in the heart of Greater Boston’s Armenian community, I am witnessing irreverence once again on the Sunday marking Christ’s miraculous resurrection from the dead. Imagine Der Antranig Baljian interrupting the 45-minute Holy Communion procession just to silence parishioners who were drowning out the solemn music of the organ with their private, incessant conversations. That moment was supposed to be a time of renewal for the faithful and the humble ahead of their spiritual union with Jesus Christ. But the meaning of the occasion and the Sacrament that I was preparing to receive were marred by inappropriate murmurings and laughter.

Shortly after the badarak, I was reminded of the Gospel narrative in which Jesus purges the temple of commercial livestock and money changers. “My house shall be called the house of prayer,” said Jesus in Matthew 21. But the church is not just the house of God; it is our spiritual home as well. If we fill it with thoughtless behavior, we make that a nearly impossible ideal. Some churchgoers on Sunday did not even have the self-control to refrain from texting.

By the time my husband returned to our pew after an outdoor break with our son, my disappointment had materialized into tears. I was devastated that this was the conclusion of my 40-day Lenten sacrifice. I was overwhelmed and deeply hurt by the complete disregard for the centuries-old tradition of the badarak. As we approach its 104th anniversary commemoration, I also considered the devout Christians who perished during the Armenian Genocide. As their living descendants, we put on an embarrassing display last Sunday.

I’m not in any position to advise you to be more involved in the church; our newest columnist Stepan Piligian can provide that commentary. And in case you missed it, Der Hayr dedicated his Easter sermon to church attendance as he typically does. My point is this: No matter how many times a year you attend church, I implore you to be respectful and mindful of where you are when you do come. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s Easter Sunday. We all deserve a thoughtful, calm place to practice our faith.

As for me, I eventually made it toward the altar as one of the final recipients of Communion that Sunday morning. Tearfully, I made the sign of the cross and approached Der Hayr, who—with that twinkle in his eye—seemed to say, “It will all be okay.”

Leeza Arakelian

Leeza Arakelian

Assistant Editor
Leeza Arakelian is the assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly. She is a graduate of UCLA and Emerson College. Leeza has written and produced for local and network television news including Boston 25 and Al Jazeera America.

6 Comments

  1. Brava, Leeza. Thank you.

    So often I hear that clergy refrain from instructing (already dwindling) parishioners for fear that they will not return to church.

    We have witnessed in many Armenian churches the posting of advisories such as the one listed below. Now we have to encourage people to read them.

    It is not proper at any time:
    To wear shorts.
    To chew gum.
    To cross your legs while sitting.
    To stretch or place arms on pews or across the back of pews.
    To applaud.
    To stand or walk in the church with your hands in your pockets.
    To carry on long conversations with your neighbor.
    To use your cell phone.

    We have seen other flyers and signs that explain how to properly enter church, make the sign of the cross, light candles, cover heads, sit/stand, accept communion and “mas” and leave the church.

    For what it’s worth, when people approach us to talk during services, we say “not now.” Keep the faith and strength.

  2. The dwindling number of churchgoers in the US is because people would rather sleep in on Sunday. That and Christianity’s rampant homophobia and racism.

  3. Thank you for giving voice to the many, many Armenians who either reluctantly attend worship on major holidays, or who avoid church altogether. We seek the trappings of religion, not so much the heart of faith.

  4. Dear Leeza,

    To you, and for us all, come these glad tidings of great joy:
    Christ is risen from the dead!
    Blessed is the Resurrection of Christ!

    I greatly empathize with every Armenian clergyman on the major holidays in our Holy Church. The perceived order which is enjoyed on most of the regular Sundays is often jolted because of the wonderful return (and yes, it is wonderful, and we must do everything always to welcome them) of so many of our family and friends to the church.

    It is a holiday, and there are many people who have returned in order to rejoice and to share the time with their family and friends.

    (I, for one, would much rather be in the position of attempting to quiet down laughter and good cheer, in great contrast to the feeble attempt to bring comfort to a family and their friends when a young person’s casket is placed inside the same sanctuary. Give me joyful noise. I cannot imagine the heart-wrenching emotions which are expressed in other, tragic circumstances.)

    If it is of any consolation, we have treatises going back to at least the fourth century in which various patriarchs lament the excessive festival attitude of the throngs of people who have returned to the church for a holiday celebration. The similar situation in Watertown and in San Fernando Valley was documented hundreds of years ago in villages and towns across historic Armenia. In other words, the joyful, often unbridled though innocent merriment of Armenians coming to church on a great feast-day may be dated back to Noah and his experience with too much wine to rejoice the landing of the Ark on Mount Ararat (see Genesis 9:20ff).

    We are fortunate to belong to a highly expressive nationality!

    Now, please allow me to share a personal opinion. Whenever I hear about these situations, and after expressing my own level of frustration, I feel that it is important to diagnose the problem, and then to respectfully offer a resolution.

    If we may call it a challenge instead of a problem, then we need look no further for its cause than an absence of education. When someone has a modicum of knowledge, then generally there is a higher correlation of proactive participation. But when someone has not an ounce of information about what is taking place, then there is just as much of a possibility that the person will react out of a sense of awkwardness.

    The members of the Armenian Apostolic Church – both jurisdictions – are woefully under-educated with regard to the theology and liturgical tradition of the Church. Consequently, it is improbable to expect that a person, who has never been properly educated (trained, if you prefer that word) in the Why? and How? in the elaborate ceremonials of our beautiful Church, might be able to maintain a stance which is commensurate with the expectations of those who are fortunate enough to have been educated and trained.

    We therefore come back to the root of the problem, which is also the base of the solution: Sunday School education and adult Catechism (these are separate from continuous education through Bible Study).

    In those locations where a larger percentage of the Armenian population has been exposed to the theology, liturgy, and yes, etiquette, of the Church through Sunday School and adult Catechism, there is a higher probability that a level of poise, posture and decorum will be maintained, especially on the more important holidays.

    When any person is lacking in education and in training, then regardless of the place or situation, the person is unable to properly appreciate the ambiance, and is often unable to respond in a positive manner to the surrounding activity.

    I am less enthusiastic about the posting of “Thou shalt not” lists, and more supportive of methods which will teach and will enhance the congregation’s understanding of Why they are attending the holiday celebration, and then How they ought to approach the activity.

    It will perhaps not surprise some readers when I say that following Easter Sunday services, I have discovered many broken egg shells wrapped in napkins and left in the pews. Foil wrappers from chocolates and chewing gum dispensed inside the church bulletin are also jammed behind the upside-down Badarak books.

    We are all allowed to be frustrated. No clergyman who is in the midst of the solemn distribution of Holy Communion should ever be placed in the awkward position of trying to silence a large group of Armenians.

    But, with all due respect, has the Church effectively taught and explained to that large group, which has taken the time and found its way to the sanctuary, What the meaning of Holy Communion is? For some of the people that day, their participation arises out of some ancient connection to ancestors and tradition. For others, it is an opportunity to “see and be seen”. For still others, there is the notion that receiving Holy Communion on Easter Sunday is akin to the annual registration of an automobile: it is done because there is a perceived requirement, not necessarily because the person has been educated and has been taught about the efficacy of Holy Communion.

    Continuous education is the most important characteristic of the Armenian Apostolic Church. In so many ways, Easter Sunday could be a “teachable moment”, a great opportunity to spend a few moments educating the many people who have made the halfway step of entering through the doors. How is the Church, in turn, welcoming these people into the second half?

    People, and I would like to say, especially Armenians, enjoy learning. The education of people of all ages, therefore, is the first of the “four pillars” of the Church (Acts 2:42): the Teaching of the Apostles; Fellowship; the Breaking of Bread (Holy Communion); and Prayers.

    Easter Sunday is filled with Fellowship. The culmination of the Prayers of the Soorp Badarak is the Breaking of the Bread in the form of Holy Communion. So what is largely absent is opportunity for the Teaching of the Apostles.

    We Americans are familiar with the motto of the Peace Corps: “Give me a fish, and I will eat today. But, teach me how to fish, and I will be able to eat for the rest of my life” (slightly paraphrased for this letter). On Easter Sunday, we are “giving” Holy Communion to hundreds of people who have arrived into our churches. We welcome them! And in all probability, we will next enjoy their Fellowship several months later on Armenian Christmas. In between, though, what are we doing to teach them, to educate them? And by “them”, I especially emphasize their children who are the up-and-coming generation to enter through the doors.

    A modern approach to Sunday School and to adult Catechism could initiate a better attitude in all of our congregations. We must continue to teach our people how to fish. It may not eliminate the gum wrappers in the pews, and it may not reduce the delightful chatter among people who have not seen one another since a sad funeral. But it would certainly raise the level of knowledge and respect for so many appreciative people.

    Tucked away during the “Night of Darkness”/”Khavaroom” service are these majestic words spoken by Jesus Christ to His disciples, which are worth quoting in this context:

    “In the world ye shall have tribuation:
    but be of good cheer;
    I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b)

    Thank you. Leeza, for your continued reverence of the pristine theology and the spiritual liturgy of our beloved and Holy Church. Perhaps more importantly, thank you and your husband for taking the responsibility to educate your children as the next generation in our worshiping community. Let us all join our efforts to extend the distribution of the Light of the Resurrection by living up to one interpretation of a nickname for our Church, “loosavortchagan” – for us to be enlighteners today to those who will benefit from illumination through better education.

    Easter Blessings!

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