Origin – Content – Message
St. Nersess Catholicos The Graceful
Rev. ZAVEN ARZOUMANIAN, PhD
Conversion of Arevortik
Literally “sons of the sun,” were Armenian remnants of the Paulician heresy of the 8th century who worshipped the sun, rejected the hierarchy and the Sacraments of the Armenian Church, of whom St. Nersess the Graceful, the 12th century Catholicos of Armenia (1166-1173), was concerned trying to have them back into the membership of the church. In my opinion the Sunrise Service written by this great theologian Saint offered balanced opportunity for the conversion, equally speaking on their terms, using the same vocabulary, thus making their return smoothly accomplished. I am basing my opinion on the evidence clearly recorded in the “Collection of the Encyclicals” written by St. Nersess the Graceful in reference to the “sons of the sun.” The Collection is well known and published as “Universal Letters of St. Nersess.”
The Sunrise Service is one of the seven daily church services, Midnight, Morning, Sunrise, Midday, Evening, Peace, and Rest services. The last two are sung in the evenings of Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent, while the Sunrise Service in the mornings of the same weekdays, again during Lent. The rest are standard daily services throughout the year. The central message of the Sunrise Service is Jesus Christ the Light of the world and is addressed to the Holy Spirit and in remembrance of the Resurrection of Christ.
The origins of this service go back to the 8th century, as John of Otzoon the famous Catholicos of Armenia refers to it inherited from one of his predecessors Catholicos Ezr. However, as we have it today, composed skillfully and with great talent, text and music, is undoubtedly authored by our great theologian and hymnologist Catholicos St. Nersess Shnorhali (the Graceful) of the 12th century. As well known the Saint has been acclaimed as the talented author of the major part of the Armenian Church hymns and prayers for most of all feast days.
The Sunrise Service is the worship of the Son of God versus the worship of the sun of the universe, cleverly manipulated to convert “the sons of the sun” back into the flock of the Armenian Church, as also verified in the “Collection” of St. Nersess that even those lapsed Armenians had petitioned to the Catholicos to receive them. Those conditions at that time quite certainly substantiated the fact that St. Nersess “made the switch,” and without further alienating the lapsed, wrote anew the entire Sunrise Service, dedicated to the Son of God “the Light of the world.” Lenten season is the most fitting time for the faithful to follow “The Light” and find “The Way.” St. Nersess is the master of poetry and music to such a degree that he interprets the concept of the Light in its most expressive and conducive way.
Obviously the central theme of the service is the LIGHT, repeated 32 times in the entire text, 17 times alone in the beautiful song “Light, Creator of light, First light,” the most popular hymn of the service. At first the sunrise is emphasized then the physical light of the sun is acknowledged which shines equally over the righteous and the sinner, whereby our good and evil deeds are revealed. Consequently, the Divine Light dominates through the Persons of the Holy Trinity, proclaiming the fundamental doctrine of the Trinity as the essence of Christianity.
According to St. Nersess the True Light shines through the intercession of the Saints as a permanent factor leading the faithful to the “Way, Truth, and Life.” This service has the unique nature of not reflecting any negative and sinful action, but only the good and the right. It is curious to note that “sin” and “darkness” are entirely absent from the Sunrise Service, making it a joyful, positive, and a happy worship service.
Four integral parts develop the Sunrise Service, all of them enriched with songs, biddings, and prayers as follows. Ample Scriptural readings have adorned the service, all of them exclusively from the Book of Psalms. No other citations from the Holy Scriptures are found in it, a choice that assures the personal nature of the service.
- The first part has a universal nature inviting “All nations from the East to the West, from the North and the South to bless the Creator of the world.
- The second part is intercessional. The hermits, the witnesses, and the martyrs are called to intercede before God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
- Here the central theme is sung, the Light, invoked as the true expression of the Holy Trinity individually. The attributes of the light is also specified as justice, wisdom, mercy, and peace.
- The last section represents its conclusion with the proclamation of the WAY which is Christ, who is also identified as the “Truth and the Life.”
The underlying theology of the Sunrise Service is based on certain notions, such as, the Holy Trinity and the Intercession of the Saints. Both give the service orthodox authenticity in accordance with the First Ecumenical Councils of the Church. The following theological notions are specified.
- The three Persons of the Holy Trinity appeared simultaneously in the river Jordan at the time of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. The Son in the water, the appearance of the dove as the Holy Spirit, and the Father’s approval of Jesus as his “beloved son.” Characteristically the Sunrise Serviceexposes the Holy Trinity as the fountain of the “True Light,” worshipped the Three in Unity as One God.
- God the Father is the Creator of the First Light and is being worshipped as such. The Son is proclaimed as the “Righteous Sun” whose name was glorified with the Father before the creation of the sun.
- The Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and is worshipped equally as the radiant of the “True Light.”
- The Incarnation of Jesus is proclaimed, mentioned in the first prayer, being “the unlimited God,” has come down to meet the “limitations” of the human life on earth for the sake of our salvation.
- Emphasis is put repeatedly on the intercession of the Saints who collectively represent the hermits, the witnesses, and the martyrs, who are acknowledged at this point as the “champions of the faith” who gave their lives, shed their blood, and were baptized by the “death on the cross” in the name and with Christ the Lord.
The Sunrise Service is a true journey with a specific destination to the True Light, Christ himself. At the end the “Janabarh” (the Way) is sung with deep devotion, which in itself has the message of moving forward as a life-long journey, non-stop, as it were, bearing in mind that the Light is the prime divine element in all its components.
Regarding the intercession of the Saints, born within the bosom of the Church, have become witnesses of Christ, are not worshipped at any point, they are honored, since God alone is worshipped. The Saints have gone through the WAY by their own life-example. Through intercession they lead the faithful to Christ, the Light of the World.