Specifically the feast focuses on St. Gregory's "descent into the pit" — refusing to worship the King of Armenia's personal deity, Gregory was thrown into the pit of a deep dungeon in the year 287 A.D. He was left there for 13 years, miraculously emerging from this living martyrdom with power enough to convince the king and all of his people that they should change their ways and turn to Jesus Christ.
Over the past few weeks, the seminary has been buzzing with activity: the planting of over 40 new trees on the grounds, putting in flower beds, and some decorative work both in and out of doors. One new addition is a small altar or shrine that has been installed just inside the main door to the seminary building. The feast of Sourp Krikor Loussavoritch seems the perfect occasion to proceed with the consecration of the new altar, and a procession forms in the chapel at the end of last night's service of evening prayer — the first vespers of the feast — and it proceeds to the entrance of the seminary and to the new altar there.
A lovely rite of consecration takes place before the altar culminating with the anointing of the icon with Holy Miron — the sacred chrism of the Armenian tradition, which only the Catholicos can consecrate, usually once every seven years, made from the essence of more than 40 flowers collected from the 35 countries around the world where the Armenians have settled. Father Krikor as Dean of the Seminary, presides at the consecration on the eve of his name day, and Fr Tatoul assists him. The late afternoon sun pours through the western windows of the entrance corridor bathing us all in the light — a nice way to start the celebrations for the feast of St. Gregory the Illuminator.
Later in the evening I join the deacons in Fr. Tatoul's room, across the hall from my own, and the new mascot of the seminary, a beautiful puppy, a husky of some sort whom Deacon Khajag has named Gaboudaug — which means something like bright blue eyes … and the name fits! (Pictured here Deacons Rasmig and Khajag, right)
The question of the day in Fr. Tatoul's room, has to do with who will join the annual pilgrimage walk to the Catholicosate the following morning, April 1st — no fooling! Each year many of the older seminarians walk down the 14 kilometres to the Catholicosate from the seminary as a pilgrimage to honour the Feast of St. Gregory the Enlightener. A great fan of walking, I was among the first to sign up for this year's journey; and despite a slow start the sign up grew to include 18 pilgrims altogether.
Just before 5 a.m. this morning, two of the high school seminarians knock at my door. I am ready for them, and we are soon joined by the other pilgrims. After a prayer at the freshly consecrated entrance altar, we head out into the darkness of the early morning — daylight savings comes into effect a week earlier here than in North America — and thus begins the trek down the long Bikfaya hill to the Catholicosate in Antelias. The seminarians begin the walk by singing the "wake-up" hymn from the Sunday Sunrise office of prayer; and with more hymns, prayer and much good fellowship, we make our way down the hill arriving at a local bakery in Antelias, two and a half hours later, where a fresh baked breakfast awaits us!
From the bakery we move onto the Catholicosate, and take some time in the Cathedral to sing the Hayr Mer (Our Father) and to offer the prayers of the first of many pilgrims who will come to Antelias from all around the region over the weekend.
The first of two festival Badaraks (one today and the main event tomorrow) begins a couple of hours later around 10 a.m., joining us for a first experience of the Armenian liturgy are Fr. Nabil and Sarah Shehadi — Fr. Nabil is the Vicar of the International Congregation at All Saints Anglican Church in Beirut (see earlier posts.)
Fr. Sipan, assistant director at the seminary, is the celebrant this morning and only a few are on hand for the Badarak. Tomorrow's liturgy will conclude with the annual procession of the gold and silver encased right forearm of St. Gregory — miraculous symbol of the authority of the Catholicos. This will draw the crowds!
Following the liturgy, the Shehadis have an opportunity to meet Bishop Nareg (left), Ecumenical Officer of the Catholicosate, and my homologue here, Fr. Norayr, Vartabet and Chief Sacristan of the Brotherhood of the Great House of Cilicia (i.e. responsible for the Cathedral) .
After a wonderful lunch at the local Armenian gourmet restaurant, and a short visit to the museum of the Catholicosate, the Shehadis make their way back to Beirut. We will all meet again tomorrow evening when the deacons from Bikfaya will serve as the choir for a service of Anglican Evensong at All Saints Church. The end of a very big weekend, indeed!
In fact, the ceremonies associated with feast of St. Gregory are so lengthy and involved that they can't all fit into tomorrow's schedule. Tonight the community gathered, exceptionally at 7 p.m., to attend to the first hour of tomorrow morning's offices. There were about 150 in the Cathedral for this evening's service, many will stay here overnight, sleeping on the Cathedral floor.