Darkness: Living Without the Light

Sunset at Lake Sevan – 2014

Sermon at the “Service of Darkness” 
Holy Thursday, 18 April 2019, St. Leon Armenian Cathedral, Burbank, California
at the invitation of His Eminence Abp. Hovnan Derderian, Western Diocesan Primate

by Fr. Vazken Movsesian

From the Father of Light: 
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. … He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. (John 1)
This evening, through this “Order of Darkness” service we recount the Passion of our Lord. Tonight we read the Gospel narrative – from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – of how our Lord was betrayed, denied, falsely tried, convicted, tortured, suffered and ultimate took his last breaths on the Cross.  As we follow the Gospel accounts we confront ever type and manner of human emotion. In this story there is:
• Fear and doubt – In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus ask that this cup may pass away… what is inside that cup is overwhelming, hurtful and poisonous.
• Betrayal – Beginning with Judas’ kiss and continuing through the night until almost everyone deserted him – his friends, family, acquaintances, followers.  
• Loss – Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” (Matthew 26:31)
• Misunderstanding – I have been in your midst healing and preaching and yet you come as if I am a thief… You call me “King of the Jews” – those are your words not mine.
• Denial – Simon, the one that our Lord named “Peter, the Rock” was shaken. He was asked “Were you with him?” And his answer was, “I don’t know him!”
• Hurt – “Could you not stay awake with me?” Not only the physical pain from being whipped and tortured, but our Lord endured the spiritual pain, from a group of people he loved and cared for, who could not even stay awake with him during his hour of tribulation. 
• Abandonment – The same people who, only four days ago, had lined the streets of Jerusalem singing “Hosanna” and ushered him into the Holy City, were now yelling, “Put him on the Cross! Crucify him!” Only Mary Magdelane, Mary His Mother and John continued with him to then stand at the foot of the Cross
• Mockery – Placing a robe on his back and a crown of thorns to mimic his kingship and covering his eyes and beating him saying, “Hey prophet! Tell us who hit you?” 
• Loneliness – From the Cross we hear his voice, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” 
• Injustice – What was his crime? Where was justice this evening? They could not find any crime and so they fabricated, made up, wove together their lies and came up with criminal charges!
Yet, against these horrors, against every human feeling and emotion, Jesus answers as only God can. He gave a Divine response to the human pain. He demonstrated:
• Love: “Greater love has no man than this… that he lay down his life for his friends.”
• Faith: He prays, “Not my will but Thy Will be done.”
• Forgiveness: Because “They do not know what they are doing.”
• And perhaps the most precious demonstration of Mercy: to the guilty, convicted and crucified felon, he promises “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
There are no words to describe the events of this night. They are beyond the understanding of our human comprehension, therefore we refer to it as a mystery. 
The great theologian and patriarch of our Church, St. Nersess Shnorhali (12th century) authored the sharagan “Aysor Anjar” which we sang this evening. Within this hymn we can only begin to come to terms with the enormity of the Passion of our Lord and the profoundness of the message therein. Here, Shnorhali juxtaposes the human expressions next to the Divine commentary. The Hands which had taken the earth and created man, were now being nailed to the cross by the same man He had created. The same face that the angels would protect with their wings was now being slapped and spat upon by His creation. The same One who gave the Law are now being convicted by a Lawless people. Shnorhali gives example after example of the cruelty imposed upon our Lord in terms that emphasize the enormity of this very special evening in history. It is in this context that we come to understand how great and awesome the Mystery the Passion of our Lord is. How horrendous and unspeakable is the betrayal of God, who comes to save the child He once created and now this child not only rejects Him, but beats Him, spits upon Him and tries to do away with any memory of Him. The creation did not want – rejected – its Creator! Everything came into being through Him but the world refused to accept Him! He was the Light of the world, but the world preferred to live in darkness!
Yes, we proclaim this in our Church: We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is of the substance of the Father. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten and not made; of the selfsame nature of the Father, by whom all things came into being in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… for us He [was betrayed, denied, tried and convicted] suffered and was crucified…
And what was his fault? What was the reason for his conviction and sentence to the Cross? 
He loved! He spoke of love. He proclaimed love. He love us so much that he even gave his life for us!
And this evening, when we recount this story with prayers, sharagans and gospel readings, it may be easy – and perhaps tempting – to blame someone else for this injustice. Who is to blame for what happened to our Lord? Who is the betrayer? Judas? Who sentenced him to death on the Cross? The Jews? Pilate?  The Romans? Who? This is the fundamental question for which the Armenian Apostolic Church gives us the Order of Darkness this evening! This evening we are in deep mediation about the Passion of our Lord and within our thoughts we find that there is no one else to blame but ourselves! We cannot look anywhere else but within. We are the ones who betray Christ, we reject the Light and therefore we are betrayed to darkness!
In this physical darkness we are brought to the realization of what life is without Christ! What is life without God! It is in this darkness that every type of evil takes place. It is in this darkness that the seven-deadly-sins take place: pride, envy, anger, sloth, covetousness, gluttony and lust. In this darkness the seven-deadly-sins take body and form and are manifest in the form of war, poverty, disease, dissolution of family, misunderstanding between people – spouses, parents, children. Today there is war, there is poverty and there is disease because the world has rejected the Light! We are in a world that has betrayed God and selected to live in darkness. 
This darkness does not understand the time. It is there whenever people reject darkness. 2000 years ago it was in the darkness that Christ was crucified, 100 years ago in 1915 it was in this darkness that the Armenian people were nailed to our cross, in what Yeghishe Charents describes, “our blood soaked wounds” (արիւնաքամ վերքերը մեր). We know those wounds, because we have seen the Cross!
Yes, this story is out of the confines of time and history. What happened 2000 years ago, what happened in 1915, continues to happen today. Look around you. You see nothing. We are in the dark. We have been betrayed to live in a world where God is rejected, where Light – God – is not given a place. And because you cannot see anything in this darkness, just listen. Our ears are sharpened to hear our Lords words, “Where are you my mother?” We hear the voice the mother on the road to Der Zor as she buries her child in the unforgiving desert sand, calling “Where is my child?” And the voiceless cry of the child, “Where is my mother?”
Today, refugees from the Middle East, from Syria, from Africa, from Central or South America, are on the run to rid themselves of pain, suffering and torture are calling out, “Where is my God? Why have you forsaken me?” And we hear the question, “Where is my mother?”
We as the Armenian people ask this same question because for 70 years we were told there is no God. We were told that the darkness is the way of life. We looked for life in the darkness and did not find it. Darkness is life without Light – without God. And… that is where we find ourselves today: In a life that is driven by egotism, that is built on materialism and so filled with the evil of these menaces that there is no room for God! Our children ask, “Where are you my mother? Where are you my father?” They ask for our time and we have other pursuits which take us away from the most precious gifts of God: our children and our families. We have left the Middle East to get as far away as we can from bullets and death, and we come here only to enter the horrendous flow of accumulating material wealth, feeling good with the consumption of drugs and alcohol, and losing our children to these evils. We escaped the bullets in the Middle East only to die on the streets of Los Angeles in an overdoses, shooting or victims of the white massacre.
Jesus looks at us as he did to Peter. We are scared to answer the question, “Were you with him?” What will people think if they know I am a Christian? What will they say if they know that I go to church and pray? Like Peter, it is so much easier to say, “I don’t know him!” And so when we betray God we are betrayed to darkness. 
Illness and Death take over. We misunderstand one another. Gossip sounds like truth. We believe in the tangible items that are here today and gone tomorrow. We lose faith. We give up our freedom and turn into slaves of darkness. And, because there is no light, we can’t find our way out. There’s no direction and therefore no hope. 
(It is a custom for the congregation members to hold a piece of string throughout this evening and to tie knots as they listen to the gospel narrative.) Like the small pieces of string we hold in our hand, we sew knots and more knots to stay awake through the night with the Lord. Each one of those knots is the hurt, the pain and the humiliation of our Lord, and a reminder of our rejection of the Light of the World. We ourselves are knotted. Our lives are knotted. Those knots prevent us from the best we can be in this life. They tie us up so much so that we lose our freedom. We turn into slaves of darkness. We feel pain and can’t enjoy the life that God has given us. 
But tonight, there is a message that comes to us from the darkness. It’s the Lord’s voice we hear, telling us that we are not alone. At the foot of the Cross, says the Evangelist St. John, there were a few women, including the Blessed Mother Mary and “the disciple whom he loved.” Jesus, from the Cross, unites the Asdvadzadzin with the disciple into the first Christian community, that is the Church! (John 19:27)
And so too, tonight, even in this darkness, we are safe. We have gathered and are praying in this truly sacred space. The Christian community – the Armenian Church – is at the foot of your cross. She stands with us during our greatest struggles. Like the Asdvadzadzin, who stood with her beloved son, during the worst of all times, the Church is at the foot of our crosses. She is there to comfort us and to help us during our pain and our suffering. She stood with the first Christian martyrs, she was with Vartan Mamigonian at the Battle of Avarayr. She walked with us through Der Zor. She stayed vigilant through the years of occupation by the Soviets. The Church does not abandon us! She waits for us to express ourselves, that we are the Children of God, that we have needs that can only be fed by the Church. We hear the voice of our Lord who says, stay awake, because the prince of this world has come. 
And so, this evening, standing in the darkness in this church there is an opportunity presented to us for self-evaluation. We all are aware that this darkness is temporary. We know there is a victory before us. If the question is given to us like it was to Peter, were you with him? In a loud and bold voice we need to answer in the affirmative: Yes! I was next to Jesus Christ. I was standing with him!
Our Mother, the Holy Church, has instructed us with the message of the Cross. We know the power of the Cross because she has given us the good news of the Cross. Today the Mother Church bears witness to the true miracles that are all around us. Because, in fact, you – those of you congregated here tonight – are proof of the greatest of all miracles: Resurrection! Just 100 years ago if someone would have said that in the town of Burbank – exactly on the other side of the Earth from Armenia, that the Armenian people would be standing up from the ashes of Genocide, singing their holy Sharagans, reading the Gospel in their native language, celebrating their Holy Week in packed churches with their sacred liturgies, people would have said it would only be possible by a miracle of God. 
And that’s exactly how we have gathered here this evening: by a miracle of God. Our Mother, the Holy Church stands with us during our crucifixion and is here to witness to our resurrection!
Two days ago, the world saw the images coming out of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. We witnessed the shining cross that was glowing in the midst of all that was burnt around it. This was a miracle. And it is the big miracle of us being here, and the little miracles of a cross shining with hope, that when put next to each other, combine to proclaim that God is with us! 
Tonight I invite you to seek the miracle around us. Do not opt for nor let the darkness rule over you. Our Lord Jesus Christ says, “I am the Light of the World. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Yes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”
Actual Sermon as delivered on Holy Thursday


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