Palm Sunday's Children
April 9th, 2006 - Post No. 47
Spring has certainly sprung in Lebanon, Palm Sunday morning dawns with warm air and the songs of birds. Click to hear them sing -- recorded from my room at the seminary, overlooking the city of Beirut in the distance below. After breakfast the seminarians board the bus, or the van or the Volvo station wagon (where I ride) to make the trip to the Catholicosate for Sunday services.
Excitement is very much in the air, as we arrive at the Catholicosate. Suzy from the Bookstore has set up an outdoor stall and to help with sales she has recruited the two Aprahams, both Fr. Norayr's nephews, nicknamed Apo (left) and Apik (right) -- very fine young men, both from Syria, Apo from Aleppo and Apik from their ancestral village Kessab. There must be something in the water in Kessab, the folks I meet from there are all first rate!The stars of the day are the children of the community, and they start arriving well before the beginning of the Badarak (the Divine Liturgy). Like the girl pictured here, children come in colourful clothes with long candles -- the decoration on this candle looks homemade. The children are excited to join the Palm Sunday procession and afterwards to receive a personal blessing from his Holiness Catholicos Aram, as is the custom here on Palm Sunday morning.
The celebrant this morning is Bishop Nareg, the Ecumenical Officer at the Catholicosate and a very fine person, highly respected in the community. Here his deacons assist him as he robes for the liturgy.
The Cathedral and objects like the bishop's crosier, pictured here, are all decorated with olive leaves and blossoms, as is the custom for Palm Sunday in the Middle East. Tall palm branches are used to decorate the ends of the pews and the doorways of the Cathedral. Olive leaf crosses are available at the entrance to the Catholicosate. These are made from two leaves, pinned together to form a cross.
With the focus on children, it follows that Palm Sunday is very much a family affair and a huge event in the life of the Armenian community here. Before long the large courtyard of the Cathedral is teaming with families with children and grandchildren ready to join the celebration.
Shortly after the beginning of the liturgy, the procession forms in the Cathedral, makes its way out the centre doors, and proceeds through the crowded courtyard to the street beyond.
As the procession moves through the many gathered for the celebration, the faithful come forward, bringing their children with them to reverence Bishop Nareg's hand cross with a touch or a kiss.
The weather today is, as the French say, "au rendez-vous" -- much improved from the week before when the procession for the feast of St. Gregory the Illuminator had to be cancelled because of heavy rain.
Today's sunshine has encouraged a huge turnout from the local Armenian community, and the children are very clearly the main event! A joyful time for all concerned.
As the procession moves on out the back gate of the compound onto the street, soldiers from the Lebanese Army are on hand to direct traffic, closing the street and clearing the way for the procession.
The bells of the Cathedral ring out throughout the neighbourhood and provide a cheerful accompaniment for the procession.
The procession works its way along the south wall of the compound and back through the main gate of the Catholicosate. From the balcony of his residence, the Catholicos gives his annual address to the many Armenian families gathered below.
Joining his Holiness on the balcony are friends and family, the Armenia Ambassador to Lebanon, the Bishop of Cyrus, and dignitaries from the Armenian community and beyond.
Bishop Nareg and his attendants pause at the entrance to the Cathedral, facing his Holiness, to listen to the address, before returning to the Cathedral to proceed with the celebration of the Palm Sunday Badarak.
Once his Holiness finishes speaking and the Badarak resumes, a crowd of children and their parents gather at the foot of the stairs leading to the second floor landing of the residence, where his Holiness awaits to give the children his blessing and a gift.
Children of all ages are brought to meet the Catholicos, and the atmosphere in his residence is quite festive indeed! The children seem entirely pleased with the prospect of meeting his Holiness, some have brought gifts, while others are happy to watch and wait. The main entrance has two large staircases one leading up to the left the other to the right and joining at the second floor landing of the residence and the line going up forms to the right, while the left side is reserved for the downward trek.
Sitting on the landing, his Holiness greets the long line of children, who come forward one by one with their parents to meet the Catholicos, kissing his hand as is the Armenian way. In return, his Holiness gives each child a blessing and a small gift -- the gifts are wrapped and egg shaped, perhaps a head start on the feast next week!
The hand kissing seems natural and easy for the children, and it looks as though they learn the routine at an early age! The excitement in the eyes of the children might be compared to joy of youngsters waiting to meet Santa Claus, but with what might also be described as an awareness of the sacred clearly visible in the eyes of the children.
Outside the atmosphere is decidedly festive. I stop to visit with this group of Armenian writers from Los Angeles who have been attending the Pan-Armenian Writers Conference over the weekend.
There is an impressive variety of decorations for the hand candles the children carry. Dolls and toys seem to be the preferred choice today.
Not everyone can fit in the Cathedral for the ongoing celebration of the Badarak, so after taking the children to meet his Holiness, most of the families linger in the courtyard enjoying the sun, which is quite hot this morning, making more than one participant reach for a refreshing drink of bottled water.
Meanwhile, inside the Cathedral, the liturgy continues. Still only the celebrant actually partakes of the sacrament of Holy Communion. The Lenten tradition for the Armenian Orthodox is to wait to receive Communion anew on the great Feast of the Resurrection, only one week away.
After the Badarak, I am pleased to introduce Mihran Minassian -- my guide when I visited the Old City of Aleppo -- to Dr. Isabel Kaprielian and her husband Stacy Churchill.
Mihran is the archivist for the Armenian Diocese of Aleppo, and Dr. Kaprielian is here doing research on Armenian genocide orphans who ended up in her native Canada. Dr. Kaprielian is the author of a recently published history of Armenians in Canada entitled, Like Our Mountains (McGill-Queens University Press, 2005). She and her husband have been busy all week, exploring the archives of the Catholicosate, and they look forward to doing the same when they visit Aleppo this week. It turns out that Mihran shares Dr. Kaprielian's interest in the orphans of the genocide, and arrangements for working together in Aleppo quickly take shape.
History also had a part to play in the celebrations today. Family after family took time to visit the Genocide Memorial Chapel for a time of family prayer and to have their picture taken there.
On this first day of Christianity's holiest week, the Armenians here today, celebrating their newest generation, as a resurrected people, gave powerful perspective to the traditions of the week that lies ahead and the greatest of all Christian feasts that awaits.