Monday, November 13, 2006

Armenian Funerals

I went to my second Armenian funeral last week, for the 21 year old deacon who died. The first Armenian funeral I attended was for my grandfather, and it was an Armenian priest that my family had flown into town to do the service. (Hayr Simeon is a great guy, by the way, and I love his philosophy on getting people involved with the church. If you live in the Providence, RI area, you should definitely check out his church.)

The viewing was on Wednesday night, and the funeral was on Thursday. Wednesday night wasn't really a "viewing," though, as the casket was closed, and it was mostly people talking about this young man (some in Armenian, and some in English), like would happen at a regular funeral. Even the Archbishop was there. The church was PACKED both Wednesday night and Thursday morning. I sang with the choir on Thursday- We sang just Kahanayk and Ee Verin Yeroosaghem.

Ee Verin Yeroosaghem is probably one of my favorite hymns in the Armenian Church. The translation is:

In the Heavenly Jerusalem, in the abode of angels, where Enoch and Elijah live dove-like in old age, being worthily resplendent in the Garden of Eden; O merciful Lord, have mercy upon the souls of our departed brethren.

The imagery is so beautiful- angels, doves, resplendent gardens... it's a reminder of beauty in an otherwise pretty gloomy service.

There is a big difference between funerals for old people (like my grandfather) and young people (like this 21 year old deacon). You expect old people to die; that is what happens when you are old. You don't expect young people to die; you expect them to graduate from college, travel, buy first houses, get married, have babies, get promoted, etc. Funerals for young people are shocking to the system. Even if it's not your first funeral for a young person, it's still pretty horrifying. Just seeing all his young friends, only about 5-7 years younger than I am, going through this was just really upsetting. There was a huge HUGE presence of the Homenetmen; they had the flags of all the local chapters, plus another one from elsewhere in the state, on display by the coffin, all the scouts were there in their uniforms, and they had draped a Homenetmen flag on his coffin.

Almost all the service was in Armenian again, except for one of the priests (the former priest of this church), who graciously translated his speech into English. This was much appreciated by me (and I am sure by the deceased non-Armenian friends), not only b/c it meant that I would understand what was going on, but because I didn't really know this young man, so it was nice to hear comments from people who did know him.

I was fine until the end, when his pallbearing young friends went to get the coffin. No one should have to be a pallbearer for their friend at that young of an age. It is just not fair. I started crying, and his mother lost it. The family was practically restraining her from throwing herself on the coffin. She was screaming and crying. Naturally. At first I had kind of a negative reaction to this, but then I thought, "If there is ever at time when screaming and bawling is warranted, it's now. Why should she try to hold everything in? Let her scream and cry." I told my husband this, and he said that he was reminded of the show Six Feet Under- whenever anyone at a funeral starts to lose it, David will hurry them off to the private room off to the side so they don't make anyone uncomfortable, and Nate gets mad, because it is all so fake to stifle grief like that. Death is sad. Let people be sad.

There was a lot of emphasis in the services on "he is in a better place now." This always annoys me, because this is supposed to make me feel BETTER? I am selfish- I want (whoever) here with me NOW. I told my husband that if I die early, my funeral is not to be entirely in Armenian, and that none of this "better place" crap.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Women in the Church

Like other Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic church, the Armenian Apostolic church does not allow women to become priests. Women/girls are also technically not allowed up on the altar, BUT one of the churches I go to has a little girl who occasionally is up there helping, and has girls do the readings sometimes, etc. I don't see any adolescent girls or grown women up there, but considering there are very few youths/young adults of either gender who participate in church, even just by going, so it may not be an age thing.

I surprise myself, but the fact that women are not allowed to be priests does not bother me (although I sometimes think it should...). I think this is due to two things: 1) the nature of the duties of the priesthood and 2) the nature of church life.

First, the nature of the priesthood. As far as I can tell, priests in the Armenian church perform many of the same functions of their counterparts in the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, except for one. Sermons. There are still sermons in the Armenian church, but they are significantly shorter and less important than they are in, say, my parents' Southern Baptist church. That is, the Armenian church is NOT about preaching. Some priests are naturally good at giving sermons, and some are not, but you don't have to be especially good at them to succeed as a priest. This means that if someone is called to spread the word of God, or to teach others, etc., there are other venues to do that, probably BETTER venues for doing that, than becoming a priest. The choir serves an incredibly important function in the service- I would argue that they are just as important to the service as the altar boys, so I don't exactly feel that I am being excluded from participating actively in the service the way I might in a Roman Catholic or Protestant church where the hymns are just nice little additions to the service.

There is also complete acknowledgement of the role that women play in generally sustaining the church. Well, this is the case at the two churches that I attend regularly, anyway. Maybe it isn't in other churches. Everyone knows that they might not be up on the altar, but really, there would be no churches without them. The women are the ones who run the church office, teach Sunday School and Armenian School, and coordinate fundraisers, among other things. At a recent Armenian festival at another local church that I don't attend, my husband and I noticed the women running around cooking and serving food (the main way that the festival raised money was by selling dinner!), while the men stood around in black, wearing black vests with SECURITY on the back in big white letters, smoking cigars or drinking. Not kidding. My husband wondered if the festival really needed that much security. I said that probably it was the only way the women could get their husbands and grown sons to help out. "Oh, you can work security!" In both the churches I attend, the Parish Councils have women, so they contribute to running the church as well. The Armenian Church even has a special title for the Der Hayr's wife- Yeretzgin. Jews also have a similar title for a Rabbi's wife- Rebbetzin. Protestant churches don't have this- there is no real recognition of the support and sacrifices that the wife of a minister (because although I know some female Protestant ministers, I don't really see their husbands doing so much of the day-to-day support, coordination, mentoring level that the wives of male ministers often do) makes. I like that the Armenian Church says, "hey, the wife of a priest is a real position of responsibility too!"

While I do have issues with the very old-world view of women in general (particularly when it comes to how sons are treasured versus daughters), I think that church life, and maybe only in church life, are the contributions of women, even though they are separate and not always equal (often they are greater), usually recognized and appreciated for what they are. Plus, since churches are usually on the small side, talent doesn't get lost in the herd, whether it is male or female. Maybe this is why I think that the women are appreciated? They can't afford to piss them off.

This is not to say that I don't think that girls shouldn't be on the altar- I do! I am glad that there are a few churches who break/bend this rule to a certain extent. Or that I don't care that the men are happy to sit around and smoke and drink and wear SECURITY vests rather than pitching in with the real grunt work. I am indifferent about women becoming priests, I think because there are so many opportunities to express a call for anything, and you can still go to St. Nersess seminary and take classes and get a degree if you are a woman (I know they have a layperson's track and a priest track- I am not sure if women can do the priest track, even though they obviously won't become priests).

One positive thing about the Armenian Church is that often they are not big churches, which means that any one individual person has a greater opportunity to make a concrete difference in the environment of a church. Each person can be more welcoming, can reach out to new people/strangers. You can work to organize activities to get people involved. You may not be able to change the entire culture and structure of the church, but you can make the church your own.

It is late. I might go back and edit this post later, for fear that it is incoherent, but I wanted to get it up there. I've been promising it for a while.

Bullet Point Sermons

The sermons at my church crack me up. As I've mentioned before, sermons are not really the main focus in the Armenian Church, so often they are an afterthought.

The priest at the church that I usually attend (I should come up with nicknames for the two churches- maybe later) actually is very good at preaching in Armenian. I don't understand Armenian, but you can tell. Most Sundays, he will read an English translation of his sermon either before, or intersperse the translation throughout the Armenian sermon. He just isn't as comfortable with English.

What is always so funny to me is that the English sermon can always be summed up in one or two bullet points. I make a point to come home and tell my husband what the bullet point for the week is. They are usually very good messages, although unlike at most Protestant churches that I have been to, unconnected to whatever the Bible reading of the day is. I am not sure if the Armenian sermons can be summed up quite so nicely.

Recent bullet points:

  • God Gave You Brains: Use Them (Or Lose Them).
  • Nobody Is Perfect, followed a few weeks later by
  • Be Above Average

And my personal favorite of all time:

  • God Doesn't Like Losers

Sliding Doors

Do you have anyone in your life that looms large, even in their absence? This is my grandmother, a woman whom I never met. My mother was very close to her; she considered her mother her best friend, and she was just torn apart when her mom died of cancer. It was one of those situations when the cancer was diagnosed very late, and she was gone within a couple of months.

From all reports, everyone loved my grandmother, and she was the glue that held the family together, and to a certain extent, the glue that held my mother together. When she died, the family came apart; my mother came apart. Both held themselves together reasonably well, but like the bowl you drop and try to repair, only to find that you are missing a small yet crucial piece that you just can't find anywhere, neither were ever quite whole again.

My mother came apart right away, but the family took much longer. My mom has said that she never had anything bad happen to her before her mother died, and it was a serious shock to the system. She said that she slept with the hallway light on for two years. I was born a few years after my grandmother died, and my sister within two years after my birth, and this was also very traumatizing for my mother; although the birth of children was very joyous for her, she was very upset and angry because she had always imagined her mother there helping her, and instead, she was all alone. Although she had a sister, a sister-in-law, and an aunt who were all nearby and alive when my sister and I were little, for several reasons, these were not trusted sources of support. My mother eventually developed agoraphobia. I didn't realize this at the time; all I knew was that every time we were supposed to go do something fun (go shopping, etc.), mom got sick, and we couldn't go after all. Yet she was never incapacitated when we had to do boring, decidedly un-fun things, like cleaning. My mother eventually got treatment for this when I was about 12, and it completely changed everyone's lives.

Sometimes, I imagine what my life would be like if my grandmother had not died at the untimely age of 52. I imagine my life just like the movie Sliding Doors, where you see how Gwyneth Paltrow's character's life unfolds when she misses the subway train, and also how it would unfold if she made the train. What if my grandmother was still alive today? It would be theoretically possible, if not for the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. She would be 84 today. Not young, but still young enough to possibly be around. My grandfather (her widower) only died 2 years ago, at the age of 99.

Here are the main things that I think would have been different:

  • My mother would have been more relaxed. Although my dad helped out a lot at home, and did his best to give my mother breaks when he could (especially on weekends), having her mom around to help would would have really given my mom some time for herself that was hard to get.
  • My parents might have had a stronger marriage. My mom refused to leave us with a babysitter, and she didn't depend on her other family for help. For sure, my grandmother would have pitched in and taken care of us so my mom and dad could have had some alone adult time together.
  • My mom probably would not have been agoraphobic. Although our childhoods were pretty good, anxiety is no fun for anyone. The plus side of the agoraphobia is that I have a lot of good memories of doing things with my dad, who pitched in and picked up the slack when it came to grocery shopping and errands, and I remember doing a lot of these things with him. So maybe the flip side of the "my mom wouldn't have been agoraphobic" would have been a less-close day-to-day relationship with my dad when I was growing up. Maybe not, though.
  • For sure, my sister and I would have spoken Armenian. Or at least understood it.
  • I think, that had my grandmother been alive, I may have made the same choice that many of the young people in my church have made when it came to college. I bet I would have gone to school much closer to home. This isn't for sure, but I could see it happening for a variety of reasons, because some of the reasons that I went away to school might not have been there, and other reasons might have been around to hold me closer to home. Probably not in my hometown, but maybe I would have gone to school in one of the schools in my region, much like my best friend, who went to a decent private university six hours from home. This is the biggest change in my imaginary Sliding Doors life, and perhaps the most intellectually interesting, because staying closer to home, rather than going far away like I did, would probably have had much different consequences in what I studied, where I lived, whom I ended up marrying, etc.

I don't think that all these changes would have been for the better (some would have been for sure), but like all imaginary lives, we will never know for sure what would happen.


One of our 21-year-old altar boys died yesterday in a freak motorcycle accident (really, it was a freak accident). The people at church are devestated. I didn't know this young man or his family personally, although, since the church isn't that big, we all know each other by sight or interact together, etc.

He was not only a deacon up on the altar, but he was also a scout leader for Homenetmen (co-ed Armenian Boy Scouts- they really are Boy Scouts; they are affiliated in some way with BSA, although they are co-ed, and not really a Boy Scout troup), so all the kids in scouts have had their worlds torn apart as well.

We had a prayer service tonight; the funeral will be later on in the week, but they haven't figured out whether it will be Thursday or Friday. The church was packed with people- many young people in high school and college were there, and everyone was just sobbing. It really took me back, in a bad way. I was in their positions five years ago, and I just wish I could take away their pain. They are all in for a long, painful road.

I am trying to come up with ways to help; the Homenetmen families are doing food, so even though I am not a Homenetmen family, I am going to get on board with that. I think the family also doesn't have a ton of money, so I am going to ask at the church if they are starting a fund/collection/etc. for the family, since funerals are expensive.

It is just so sad; I especially feel for the friends and the kids that he was close to. They are too young to have to deal with this.

I wish that I could share the message at the prayer service tonight, but it was all in Armenian, so I'm no help there. The priest was sad, though- he choked up at one point. You could hear the whole congregation sobbing quietly at that point. I am going to have to get to church early on Sunday; the parking lot was full tonight, and I think it will be the same on Sunday for Hokehankist for him.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Armenian Opera

Last night, there was an "exciting Armenian concert" (as the fliers put it) featuring two classically trained Armenian opera singers from New York City. I wouldn't have gone, but the youth choir was asked to sing with the singers when they performed Yerevan Erepouni. In traditional Armenian style, it was all very last minute, as I just go the phone call late Saturday afternoon.

It was another interesting experience with Armenian diaspora culture. One of the singers was better than the other (in my opinion), and I can't say that I loved every song, but it was nice.

Feast of the Evangelists

Saturday was the Feast of the Evangelists, namely the authors of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Unfortunately, I can't tell you any more about it than that, because the Eastern Diocese's website is down, and the priest only gave the barest of English translations during the sermon. This is something I have been thinking about in the last few days- church just doesn't seem very spiritual to me nowadays. I go, I sing the songs, I have fun talking to people, I feel a little smug because now I know what's going on, and I go home.

I think that part of this is the lack of emphasis on sermon-giving in the Armenian church (more on this in my "women in the church" post that I swear I will finish and post soon), and part of it is the fact that our priest is way more comfortable in Armenian than he is in English.

I introduced myself to someone who has started singing in the choir. She is a third-generation American, full Armenian, who grew up in Pasadena, which is a pretty serious Armenian community (not like Glendale, but you are still pretty plugged in). She doesn't speak or read Armenian, and we were comparing notes about how un-fun it is to go to church and feel excluded. She seems to feel that our church is not that welcoming to people who don't speak Armenian, maybe because she grew up in a big Armenian community where she didn't need to know Armenian, while I have had lots of experiences feeling totally rejected from different Armenian churches. In comparison, my current church is very friendly!

We started discussing my never-ending undercurrent concern about getting youngish people involved. She thinks that we need to be more welcoming to people who don't speak or read Armenian. I would agree with that, BUT it's hard to teach old dogs new tricks. I would like to see more English in the service, specifically good sermons in English, and the confession also in English. I think that this is probably too much to ask of the current priest, but a girl can dream, can't she?

In the meantime, we may try to think of ways that we can get people involved that ARE things that we can organize and do.

Friday, October 20, 2006


I have been working on a post on women in the church for a while. I hope I will finish it sometime this week.

In the meantime, I have been working on making a MIDI file of Yerevan Erepooni that I can use for choir rehearsal. When I do, maybe I will post it.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


Today, I sang my first solo in 19 years- my first solo in front of other people, that is, since 99% of my solos are in the car or shower, and the other .8% are at karaoke. Most of the church (read: the elderly) were at a church trip to a local resort/gambling town, so there were 3 women singing today. None of the regular soloists were there, so there was an opening! I think I did okay.

I sang the first two lines of Miayn Soorp, which is just "miayn soorp, miayn der" (loosely translated: "You are the only holy one, the only God").

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Archbishop Visit

Today, we had not one but TWO Archbishops conducting service today. One was our regular Archbishop of our own diocese, and another Archbishop from Etchmiadzin, who is the brother of one of our church members.

Last year, the "Archbishop Sunday" (as I call it in my head) was the second Sunday that I attended this church. Last year, they ordained several altar boys and deacons, but not today.

Our Archbishop commended our church for having such a high number of kids and youth involved in the church. He said that it's not like this at every church, and I have seen this first hand! It is certainly not like this at the other church that I go to. There are plenty of kids in Sunday School, but everyone on the altar is a grown man. This is something that I have been talking about with some of the other youngish (21+) people who go to this church- there are maybe five of us? Two of us are in the choir, and two are on the altar, and one is in charge of Sunday School. We may set up some social activities in order to encourage people to get/stay involved, maybe even have a "Liturgy 101" class so people feel comfortable and understand what is going on.

The Power of the Diaspora

Yesterday I realized how strong the Armenian Diaspora really is. I was talking to my mother, and I was telling her what songs we were learning in Junior Choir, and she knew them ALL (I don't think she knew Mer Hayrenik, though. She knew another song called "Anoush Hayrenik."). I was really surprised. My mother grew up in Damascus, but I don't think anyone from my church is from Damascus. Many of them are from Baghdad (both recent immigrants as well as people who have been in the US for 30+ years), or Iran, or other places. I just know that no one has said, "Hey, I (or my mom or dad etc.) am from Damascus!" And they all know the same songs. Not just that, but their KIDS, who were born in the US, ALSO know the same songs. The Armenian Church is a very important part of the strength of the diaspora. I think this is why I have always been drawn to it.

I know that there is a big difference between the Armenians who come from Turkey and the Middle East (often via Turkey anyway), and those who come from Armenia proper (especially if they lived there during the Soviet era), but I think my church is quite good at bridging the distance between the two, since we do have religion in common, even if the language, customs, and language are different.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Junior Choir

So, the other part of Armenian Church, besides the Church part, is being Armenian. Sometimes, when doing things in the Armenian Church, it is less about Church and more about Armenian. I am a member of the "junior choir" now - pretty laughable considering that I am close to being 10 years older than most of the members, who are all high school students- and I am learning songs that I have never heard before, but apparently are die-hard Armenian mainstays. One is the Armenian national anthem- no surprise that I don't know this, since my mom immigrated to the US from the diaspora, not Armenia itself, and she came over way before the breakup up of the Soviet Union. How would she know the Armenian national anthem? Did Armenia even have a national anthem back in 1969? (maybe... I have no idea). We are also learning (well, I am learning, since everyone else seems to know it already) Yerevan Erepouni. Thank goodness I read music, is all I have to say! The choir director kept asking, "Do you know this song?" I didn't know ANY of them. I just said that I could read music, and I could read English, and beyond that, nothing. However, he really needs altos. Altos are prized commodities in choirs, because everyone wants to sing soprano because it's easier, and you get more glory. I wouldn't say that I'm the best alto ever, but I'm decent, and can contribute a lot. I think this is why the director has let in an almost-28-year-old into a "junior choir" full of mostly high school students. My 26 year old friend is also a member, so at least I'm not the only one.

Also, they ALL speak AND read Armenian! I am seriously the only one who can't do either. Oy. I guess I'll start picking up more musical terms. I do know "Meg! Yergu! Yerek!" so at least I know when to start singing. I am literally amazed that all these kids know Armenian. The choir director's wife explained to me that all these kids have grandparents who speak it to them, and that's why they know it. Makes sense. I didn't have a grandparent to speak it to me.

Feast of the Holy Cross of Varak

Today, as I discovered in church, is the Feast of the Holy Cross of Varak. This celebrates the appearance of a relic of the Holy Cross (Sourp Khatch- the same one that we celebrated 2 weeks ago) on an altar in a monestary on Mt. Varak. Mt. Varak is in "historic Armenia," which means that it is not in the actual country of Armenia, but rather in modern-day Turkey.

We had a visiting priest today. Our regular priest was out of town officiating a family wedding. I wish I was able to have an Armenian wedding! The cost would have been prohibitive- we would have had to fly a priest in, put him up somewhere, find a church, pay rental fees, etc. So we just got married at the Baptist church my parents go to for $250. We could have gotten married out here, but this presented a whole other set of money issues. Weddings are MUCH more expensive out here, everyone would have had to fly out here, etc. It was more practical to get married in my hometown. God was still at my wedding, even though it was Protestant and in English.

It would have been a fight on some other levels with my odar husband, because it would have meant that he couldn't have his Jewish best friend as our best man. So... probably for the best that it didn't work out.

I actually missed our regular priest- the visiting priest's English wasn't as good, and he didn't really give a sermon at all, only a brief explanation of what we were celebrating, but Badarak today wasn't really any different than Badarak on other days.

Today was also the first day of Sunday School for the kids. They go to Sunday School during the service. My church is very open and friendly to kids- Der Hayr is a married priest, and has 2 teenage kids, so he is all about young people. This church apparently has a tradition of being welcoming to kids, young people, and newcomers, dating back to the former parish priest, who was born in the US, raised in Glendale, and just really loves kids and young people and is really passionate about getting people involved in the Armenian Church.

I am passionate about it too, but need to find the energy and strength to translate that passion into concrete service. I especially feel called to help make the church more welcoming. By "the church" I mean "the church" in general, not my specific church. I have some ideas for the other church I go to near my university, which isn't as friendly or young as the one near my husband's university.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Taking Visitors

My mother-in-law was visiting us this weekend, and she wanted to go to church with me. Her biggest complaints were:

1) The service was not in English


2) It was impossible to follow along with the Badarak book. My church doesn't have the nice, new brown ones; it has the older blue ones. The new brown ones are easier to follow.

Afterwards, I introduced her to the choir director, and when my MIL started talking about how she wished the sermon was in English, the choir director very adeptly handled her complaints, by stating that we have a lot of people who don't speak English, and the service is in Classical Armenian anyway, which isn't what people speak, and perhaps it would work better if she looked at it as art, as a performance, rather than a religious ceremony.

She also said that if we did everything in the book, we'd be there for four hours! Hee. So true.

I elected to not sing with the choir yesterday so I could help my MIL follow along with the service. I think this was good- otherwise, she would have been completely lost.

It is kind of difficult to understand what is going on if you don't have someone to explain it to you. As a newcomer, I found that singing in the choir was by far the easiest and fastest way to get on board with what was going on.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Armenian Church Vocabulary

If you are like me, you know very, very little Armenian, either liturgical or conversational. This post will help you out with some of the vocabulary you will need to know to get along in the church:


If you are visiting the Armenian Church for the first time, people will probably assume you know Armenian, and try to talk with you. In my regular church, people are happy if you even just know a little. This list will also help you out if you are an odar (outsider, i.e. a non-Armenian) dating an Armenian. If you are lucky (like me), you will be familiar with the pronunciation, and can pronounce "gh" and "kh" etc. This is all Western Armenian, by the way.

Eenchbes es/ek? - How are you? ("es" is "you are" informal, "ek" is "you are" formal. It's like tu/usted in Spanish)
Lav em - I am fine
Shad lav - very well
Paree looys - good morning
sireli - dear ones (you will sometimes hear the priest address the congregation as "sireli")
shnor hagalem - thank you
Keech keedem - I know a little (as in "I know a little Armenian")
chem keeder - I don't know
Ayo - yes
Voch/che - no. There is some disagreement among my sources about which to use when. Voch seems to be the formal "no" and che (literally "it's not") is the informal "no," but according to my mother, her mother wouldn't let them say "voch" because (and I'm translating loosely here) "brats say voch." Not sure what the real story is there, but "ayo" seems to be more helpful anyway, although knowing "che" will help you pick out the negative expressions in a conversation.
aysor - today

This is enough to get by. People will know you don't know Armenian, but they will appreciate your efforts nonetheless.


The liturgy is in Classical Armenian, which apparently isn't much like either Eastern or Western Armenian. Here are some terms that will help you understand what the heck is going on during the Badarak.

Badarak - literally, "sacrifice", but used to refer to Armenian church service.
Der Hayr/ Soorp Hayr- the priest. Der Hayr is a married priest, and Soorp Hayr is a celibate priest. Soorp Hayr may also possibly refer only to those celibate priests who have achieved a particular level in the hierarchy, but I am not sure about this. I don't think that this is the case, but it's possible (hey, we're all learning here)
Der voghormia - Lord, have mercy. This gets used A LOT in the service.
Soorp - Holy
Khatch - Cross
Hayr Mer - Our Father (the Lord's Prayer
Adzvadz - God
Hoki - spirit
Hokehankist - literally "spirit rest," hokehankist is the service after the Badarak said in memory of those who have died. You have it said a certain period of time after the death (40 days?), and then every year.

The Feast of the Holy Cross (Soorp Khatch)

Today is the last major feast of the calendar year- the Feast of the Holy Cross, or Soorp Khatch. Soorp means holy, and khatch means cross. This is a name day for anyone named Christopher, Christian, Christine, Christina, etc.

My first clue that something was going on was this huge tray of basil up on the altar (not on the altar, but on the "stage" (for lack of a better word) where the priest and the deacons are during the service. I asked one of my fellow choirmembers (who are always so sweet to explain things to lil' ol' ignorant me) what it was, and she explained that today was the Feast of the Holy Cross. She also said that basil is used because that is what they (the apostles? Mary?) found growing at Christ's tomb.

This feast is important because it reminds us that the cross is important to Christians because it reminds us of Christ's sacrifice. The Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church (in the USA) provides a nice description of the significance of this feast, and one of the historical events that it celebrates.

The cross is important to all Christians (well, perhaps excepting those who go to nondenominational megachurches, who shun religious symbolism like crosses and crucifixes because they make people "uncomfortable."), but especially to Armenians, who even have their own style of cross. If you go to Badarak, you will see people crossing themselves all the time. The priest is always turning around and making the sign of the cross over the congregation. The act of crossing yourself is very important.

Sometimes it is hard to distinguish what rituals are based in religion, and what is mere tradition, but one of the other traditions of the day is eating harisa- this is a porridge of pounded wheat and meat, which is not nearly as gross as it might sound. Traditionally, it's made by the community, and people take turns stirring it over the night. I don't know much more about it than this.

If anyone else knows more about this, please jump in with the comments. I would like this blog to teach and inform as well as to be a place where I can learn as well.

A Year in the Armenian Church

This month marks one year since I started attending the Armenian Church on a regular basis. Let me begin at the beginning.

While I was baptized into the Armenian Church as an infant, I grew up in a city without its own church. We would have a visiting priest come through about once a year to celebrate the Badarak (mass), and until my mom got mad at the visiting priest, we went once a year. After that incident, my family never went again, until they got a different visiting priest, which was after I went off to college.

Service once a year also means that we didn't have things like Armenian Sunday School. We did have Armenian School for a while when I was little, but it was excruciating. I was only 3, and there were probably 10 of us in one class... ages 3 (me, the youngest) through age 12. Can you imagine? Who decided to structure that class?

When I was little, there was a sizable Armenian community in my hometown, and sometimes the local newspaper would cover our Armenian picnics, baptisms (there was a whole article on my baptism in the newspaper, and a picture of my sister's), and other events as part of their community coverage. At one point, they did an article on Armenian School, on the front page of the style section. There is this great picture of the teacher looking down at me and another girl (who was 4), and an older boy. I am looking up at her with this incredible crazy look of total defiance, which is hilarious to me, because that expression sums up how I felt about this class.

I don't remember too much about it, but I do remember that it was incredibly boring. I was a really bright little girl. Really bright. And what would we do in Armenian School? We would go around and recite the numbers in order. Every lesson. The teacher would start, and then we'd go by age and say our number. So the teacher was "meg" (one), and since I was the youngest student, I would always have to say "yergu" (two). Every lesson. Yergu. Yergu. Yergu. For a bright little girl in the prime time for language learning, this was excruciatingly boring. One day, I decided that I was tired of saying yergu, and I decided that I would say another later number that I liked better instead. I think it was "yota" (seven). The teacher was furious! I am sure she thought I was stupid and disobedient, but really, I was trying to spice up my lesson. Armenian school ended shortly after that.

To sum up, I knew only a very few words of Armenian (what I would call "toddler Armenian"- anything a mom would say to her toddler), and even less about the Armenian Church. Since I am only half Armenian ("odar"- outsider - is one of the words that I knew, since that describes my dad), all I really had was my name (thanks Mom! She informed my dad that since we were getting his incredibly WASPy last name, she was giving me and my sister Armenian first names), the food (naturally), and my membership in the Armenian Church.

As an aside, the Armenian Church really knew what they were doing when they combined Baptism and Christmation (first Communion)- none of this confirmation at age 7, or adult decision to be baptized, or anything that would risk your membership in the Church after your parents managed to get their acts together long enough to get you baptized. Your parents get pissed at the church and quit taking you? Or they die and can't take you? Or you move away to a place where there is no church? No problem! Once they've got you, they've got you! This actually makes this much, much easier for people like me, and I'm sure this practice is rooted in historical context.

I have wanted to learn more about the Armenian Church since going to my cousin's Greek Orthodox wedding nine years ago. This cousin is not Greek at all, but my aunt and uncle go to the Greek Orthodox church as the closest proxy to the Armenian church around. (We went to various Protestant churches, if we went at all) Orthodox weddings are SO different, and it was fascinating. I have always been drawn to learning about religions, and the rituals of the church were really captivating.

At college, I thought I might get involved with the Armenian Club, which did exist, but wasn't that active. I didn't have a car, so never managed to go to services. After I got out of college and started working, I tried a couple of local Armenian churches in the city where I was living, but I didn't find them tremendously welcoming, I had no idea what was going on, I couldn't follow along, I didn't understand Armenian and there was NO English at all, it took forever, the churches weren't close to my house, etc. So I decided not to go anymore.

Then I moved out to California, which is Armenian Central, and I decided to give the Armenian Church another try. I went to the one that was local to my university (I'm not in LA or Fresno, so I don't have a ton to choose from), and same old same old. I didn't go back. Then, after getting married, I got up the nerve to try the Armenian Church close to my husband's university (in a totally different part of California- long story), and with minimal effort on my part (this is very important and will be another post later), I discovered that it was a very friendly place. After getting the hang of that church, I started going to the other church close to my university when I was in the area. It's not the most friendly church, but it's not bad and it helps me feel connected.

It has been almost a year since I started attending regularly, and I decided I would try to blog about the next year in the Armenian Church. I hope it will be a year, anyway- we will be moving after my husband graduates in about 9 months, and I hope we end up somewhere with an Armenian Church! That is 9 months away, though, and I will cross that bridge when I get to it.