Wednesday, January 10, 2007

On Being A Visitor

While we were away last week, I took the opportunity to visit a local Armenian Church to celebrate the Theophany, and get my yearly rationing of holy water. I was pleasantly surprised at how friendly and welcoming this church was. This is the first time I've been to an Armenian Church where someone actually talked to me first. I admit, I was shocked. Before I even sat down, someone came over to introduce himself and ask me where I was from, etc. Turns out there had been a young adult party at his house the night before, and he also had another person there who was in town for the same conference that brought me to the area.

Since I like to give credit where credit is due, the church I visited was St. James Armenian Church in Evanston, IL. They have a young priest (a "Deacon-in-Charge" actually, which seems to be the step before becoming a Der Hayr? Not sure.), but on Sunday, they had a visiting priest from Detroit conducting Badarak.

In my regular church, the way they get through the service in the fastest way possible is to leave things out. For instance, instead of starting with Khorhoort Khoreen (Profound Mystery), we start with Miadzin Vorti (Only Begotten Son). This visiting priest, who was not very young (to be polite), had been around (in a church way), so his method of keeping the service snappy was to say the whole thing very, very fast. I was following along with the pew book (the brown one!), and it was tough. He was going FAST. Not just normal quick conversational speed, but the speed you hear when someone is saying the fine print at the end of a radio commercial.

Because it was Christmas, church was packed. It wasn't a big church (at least, the sanctuary wasn't big; the building itself seemed like it had lots of room), and you could tell by looking at the outside of the church that it hadn't originally been an Armenian church. If an Armenian church is built to be an Armenian Church, it is built in a very specific style. However, Armenians are a resilient people, so we will happily take a church that used to be Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, or whatever this denomination used to worship there, and make it our own. On the inside, it looked like the other Armenian churches that I had been to. You have a place to light candles (where in the church this is located seems to vary from church to church), a raised platform where the faithful go up and receive communion and where the priest gives his sermon (this is one step up higher from where the congregation sits), and then you have the altar, which is raised up much higher than the congregation. You have to climb several steps to get up there, usually 3-5. You have the curtain that gets closed during part of Badarak (or the whole Badarak, as happens during Lent), the marble-looking altar thing (surely it can't really be marble, can it?), the gold crosses, the picture of Jesus and Mary (this church had a very European, Vermeerish looking picture instead of a more traditional Eastern-style, 2-dimensional iconograph).

When Badarak started, I was the only person in the congregation. No real surprise, since Armenians always run late. The church gradually filled up, and I ended up sharing my pew book with a Northwestern Ph.D. student originally from Glendale. I could tell from the way she was sneaking looks at my pew book that she needed one too, so I asked her if she wanted to share. Even though I have been attending church regularly for over a year now, I still need the book to know where we are, what is happening.

On the train from downtown, I was cramming like crazy to learn the two lines I needed to learn. First was the Christmas exchange. It goes like this:

Armenian #1: Krisdos dznav yev haydnetsav! (Christ is born and revealed among us!)
Armenian #2: Orhnyal eh haydnotyoonun Krisdosee! (Blessed is the revelation of Christ!)

I figured that I didn't really need to wish anyone Merry Christmas, so all I had to learn was the response, which was the same as the other exchange I was trying to learn last minute, the exchange for the Kiss of Peace. Protestant/Catholic churches also do some kind of passing/exchanging peace, usually consisting of shaking the hands of your neighbors seated around you and saying "Peace be with you." In the Episcopal churches that I have attended, Exchanging the Peace practically turns into coffee hour, with everyone going all over the church to say hi to their friends, talking to random strangers, and it tends to go on for 5 minutes or so, until the priest reins them all in.

In the Armenian Church, despite our deserved reputation for being loud, noisy, and social, we are very regimented when it comes to the Kiss of Peace. The deacon-in-charge (not always the priest) usually goes down, and starts the chain by "kissing" two of the other deacons, who then go out and distribute the "kiss" in the manner of playing Telephone down each row.

Let me clarify. There is no actual kissing involved. It's basically the miming of a European-style, double-kiss greeting on both cheeks, but instead of kissing, the person doing the kissing whispers Krisdos ee mech mer haydnetsav (Christ is revealed among us).

Then, the person receiving the kiss whispers back the same line you reply with for Christmas: Orhnyal eh haydnootyoonun Krisdosee. After you receive the kiss, you turn to your neighbor, move your face from one of their cheeks to the other, whispering Krisdos ee mech mer haydnetsav, and they reply back Orhnyal eh haydnootyoonun Krisdosee, and repeat.

The reason why I don't know these two lines is because a) Christmas only comes once a year, so it's not like I get to practice and b) with the Kiss of Peace, being in the Choir gets me out of participating, so I never had to learn. (It is kind of a relief- one fewer thing that I have to screw up on a regular basis). On the one hour train ride from downtown Chicago to Evanston, I kept repeating (sometimes out loud, but quietly) "Orhnyal eh haydnootyuonun Krisdosee! HaydnooTYUNun. HaydnooTYUNun. HaydnooTYUNun." And then I get to church, and I STILL screw it up. No one seemed to mind, though, and when the "kisser" got to me, he said it in English to make sure I understood.

Afterwards, I went up to the Deacon-in-charge and told him that he had a very friendly church, and I was very impressed. He asked my name, and I told him, and then he asked my last name. I repeated my very, very WASPY, not Armenian at all, last name (both married and maiden name are this way), and added "I am only half Armenian." He told me that did not matter at all, and not to even mention it, I was still Armenian, etc. My sister, in all of her experiences with the youth programs with the Eastern Diocese, has said that this attitude of "We're all Armenians!" is not universal, so I admit that I kind of expect it wherever I go. I'm only half, I don't speak much Armenian, etc. I told him "Keech me ge khosim." (I speak a little), and hey, he was happy.

My husband and I are just starting the process of finding out where we will be living starting next year. I am pleased to realize that everywhere he is interviewing is no more than about an hour away from an Armenian Church, and most are much closer than that.

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