The Sunrise Service is one of the seven services found in Armenian Church breviary (Jamagirk):
Arevakal (sunrise) one unit;
Jashu service at noon, and Yeregoyan (evening service)
Khaghaghagan and Hanksdyan services (Peace and Rest).
The last two are specifically for Lenten season.
The Sunrise Service is performed traditionally during Lent, on the mornings of Wendesdays and Fridays for six consecutive weeks. Here in this country for convenience we sing it on Sundays, following the closed Badarak. By virtue of its message the Sunrise Service is performed during Lent, the message being Jesus, the Light to the World, versus the sinful darkness of the World. However, the traditional title of the service prescibes that the Sunrise Service is addressed to the Holy Spirit in view of the Ressurection of Christ who appeared to the disciples.
The first mention of the Sunrise Service in the history of the Armenian Church is made by Catholicos John of Otsoon, the Patriarch of the Armenian Church during the 8th century, who reports that one of his immediate predecessors, Catholicos Ezr of Paraznakert had initiated the Sunrise Service during the 7th century. In its present structure and form, however, this service is obviously the composition of St. Nerses Shnorhali, the talented Catholicos of the Armenians who lived in the 12th century and enriched both the hymnal and the breviary of the Armenian Church most elaborately.
To render the history of the Sunrise Service more complete, we may look into the causes which brought about its formation and its canonization.
In my opinion St. Nersess Shnorhali reacted to the activities of a certain sect, known as the Arevordik (sons of the sun), who claimed to be Christians, but who emphasized the sun worship. They were the remnants of the early midieval Paulician and Tontrakian sects and were not in communion either with the Armenian or the Byzantine Orthodox churches, basically because they rejected the sacraments of the church, the priestly orders, and the apostolic succession.
Nerses Shnorhali, in fact, has included in his famous Indhanrakan (collection of Encyclicals) the possibility of the conversion of the Arevordik, the sons of the sun. My opinion holds ground even more when we consider the fact that a group from this particular sect had requested Catholicos Nersess Shnorhali to receive them back into his flock. Subsequently, besides formulating conditions and devices for the lapsed to return canonically back to the Armenian Church faith, St. Nersess composed this beautiful Sunrise Service and then provided it with an inspiring music as a substitute, as a positive compromise, to win over those who had gone astray. He simply juxtaposed the Son of God Jesus and the sun of the universe and underlined the shining of the intelligent light, above and beyond the physical light of the sun, in a deeply spiritual perspective.
Central Theme of this service
It is exclusively the light. The word Looys (light) occurs in the Sunrise Service 32 times, of which 17 alone are part of the distinctive hymn which begins with Looys, Ararich looso, arachin Looys (Light, Creator of light, primal light).
As an introduction the sunrise is proclaimed which is for sure the creation of the Creator. The background of the service being the physical light of the sun which shines both on the righteous and the sinners, and which makes manifest the deads of men, good and evil alike, the essence of the Sunrise Service is the shining of the divine light through the three Persons of the divine light through the tree Persons of the Holy Trinity. This divine light is identified by St. Nerses Shnorhali as the ‘’intelligible light’’ which becomes brighter and more meaningful to us on earth through the intercession of the saints.
Whereas the transitional theme of this service is found in the prayers addressed to the saints, the conclusive theme is a direction toward the way Janabarh, the Truth and Life. For a change this is the only service where we do not find a dichotomy of the two opposing forces: light and darkness; sinfulness and righteousness. There is only one use of the word Khavar (darkness) and one use of the word Meghk (sin), a case which makes the Sunrise Service the more pleasant, positive and sustaining service.
The intelligible light is its central theme, which isat the same time the light of God, above and beyond the sun light, both of which however make manifest our daily lives and our deeds, leaving behind no room for darkness, except of darkness becomes our choice. The central theme of the intelligible light is preceded by the profession of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and by the intercession of saints, and finally is concluded in the finding of the true way.
The structure of the sunrise service
This service has a particular order to it. It starts with songs, goes to a litany by the deacon, and a prayer by the priest, and that comprises one set. There are four of those sets. It is noticeable that the Sunrise Service does not include any Scriptural reading as such, particularly from the New Testament.
There are, instead, scattered verses from the Book of Psalms. Those four sets of Hymns, litanies and prayers are identified as follows:
The first set: is universal by nature: ‘’All the nations of the earth shall be blessed in Him… From the East to the West, from the North to the South all nations and peoples, bless the Creator’’.
The second set: is intercession by nature: The martyred saints and the beloved of the heavenly Father are sought. Prayers are addressed to them and the key-word is Parekhosetsek (intercede ye, 0 Saints).
The third set: comprises the central theme itself, i.e. the light as the expression of the divinity through the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The attributes of this light are righteousness, wisdom, mercy and peace.
The fourth set: comprises the conclusive theme, i.e. the way, coupled with the truth and the life, all three identified with our Lord Jesus Christ. Purely a spiritual journey, an ascension from the earth to heaven.
The Theology of the sunrise service
Theology being the science of Christian religion and particularly the dealing with the knowledge of God as gained from his works through the Scriptures, the Sunrise Service is substantiated by the Theology of the Holy Trinity and by the intercession of the saints. Basically these two theological elements permeates the Sunrise Service. Let us outline each very briefly.
The Holy Trinity: the unity of deity in three persons as its three different ways of manifestation comprise the theology of the Trinity. At the scene of our Lord’s baptism in Jordan all three were present at the same time: Jesus was being baptized, the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove, and the Father witnessed His Son’s baptism.
In this specific service the three persons are individually mentioned and worshipped without however losing sight of the unity of the deity; in both cases, individually and in unison, the most Holy Trinity is identified as the source of the intelligible light for mankind.
The Father is addressed as the Creator of light and the primal light. The Son, born of the light., is identified as the righteous sun, whose name is praised with the Father before the sun. Hence, we have essential theological notion of Christ’s pre-existence before the times. The Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, is confessed as proceeded from the Father. And finally the one and indivisible Trinity is glorified by those born of earth.
The doctrines of the Incarnation, the coming of God in the human flesh, is mentioned in passing in the second half of the first prayer, where the infinite God is referred to who came into finitude for our sake.
A greater emphasis is put on the doctrine of the intercession of the Saints. Sainthood has a special significance in the ancient churches and consequently is an integral part of their Theology. In the Sunrise Service hermits of God, champions of faith, martyrs of the Christian churches are grouped as saints and are repeatedly praised as the ones baptized in their blood together with Christ into the death of the Cross.
Historically sainthood was the birth of the earliest persecutions of Christianity and of the subsequent defense of it, which resulted often in martyrdom. Although saints as such came out of the experience of the early church, as a historical and liturgical phenomenon, its roots can be found in the Holy Scriptures.
The following terms have to be considered first: The title itself: Saint, which is properly given to those human members recognized by the Church by canonization.
To honor a saint, is important to specify, not to worship a saint, since worship and adoration are offered to God alone. Saints are worthy of the glory of God for their faith and for their pious life. There is an explicit distinction made by the Church between worshipping, which belongs to God alone, and the honoring which belongs to the saints. Thirdly, saints are the intercessors, the mediators, between God and men, both for the living and for the departed. Through the intercession of the saints Christians benefit from God through Christ, the sole Redeemer. Intercession is limited to mediation, nothing else.
Vartabed Zaven Arzumanian