The Armenian Church has three services on Maundy Thursday, symbolising three different events in the last days of the earthly ministry of Christ. The morning service commemorates The Last Supper, at which Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist by giving Holy Communion to His disciples.
During a Passover meal, Christ broke and distributed unleavened bread and shared the wine with His apostles, identifying these elements as His Body and Blood. Through this sacrament, mankind participates in the Kingdom of God.
In the afternoon the Washing of the Feet (Vodnleva) service takes place, commemorating the humility and service of our Lord Jesus Christ in washing the feet of His disciples. During this service, twelve young men beautifully portray the Apostles while the celebrant portrays Christ himself, taking off his outer robe and washing their feet as a sign of humility and servitude. During this time also, olive oil or butter is blessed and used for the anointing of feet. The faithful are given a portion of this oil to bring to their homes at the conclusion of the service.
As per the Gospel of John, on the evening He was betrayed, Jesus “poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around Him” (John 13:5).
“When He had finished washing their feet, He put on his clothes and returned to His place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them…. ‘Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet’” (verses 12, 14).
In the days of dusty roads and open-toed sandals, feet often became dirty, and it was the job of the lowest servants to wash the guests’ feet. But Jesus set an example of service by doing this job himself, despite the protests from Peter.
When Jesus said, wash one another’s feet, He meant, serve one another. Jesus is saying that we should humble ourselves and be willing to do even menial tasks for one another.
When we serve one another throughout the year, helping one another with real needs, we are obeying the spirit of the law of Christ.
A sombre Vigil service is held in the evening, commemorating the betrayal, arrest, trial and suffering of Christ. Khavaroom (Darkness) is undoubtedly the most spiritually compelling and moving of all the Armenian Church’s services. It consists of an elaborate Night Service (Keesherayeen Zham) plus the Morning Service (Aravodyan Zham), liturgically part of Good Friday, but in actuality performed late on Holy Thursday.
During Khavaroom, we keep vigil along with the Apostles, who did so while Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Seven passages are read from the Gospel which reflect the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal of Judas, the commitment of Jesus to the crowd, His standing before Annas and Caiaphas, His being struck and mocked, Peter’s three denials and regret. The readings from the Gospels are interspersed with the readings of psalms and the singing of hymns (sharagans) written by St. Nerses the Graceful.
The readings are as follows: John 13:16-18:1; Luke 22:1-65; Mark 14:27-72; Matthew 26:31-56; Matthew 26:57-75; John 18:2-27; John 18:28-19:16.
The service starts with thirteen candles: one large central candle, with eleven smaller lit candles and one smaller black candle unlit. The unlit candle symbolises Judas Iscariot, who would betray Christ that evening. Six candles sit on either side of the central candle. The thirteen candles are placed before either a cross or a painting of the Crucifixion at the center of the altar. Following each Gospel lesson, the candles are extinguished two by two. A single candle is left to remind us of Christ’s singular presence in the darkness and the fact that Jesus was left alone to die on the cross. The faithful listen to each Gospel reading, usually on their feet. In some Armenian Church communities, the faithful tie seven hitch knots on a white thread, one for each Gospel reading. After the service, they tie it on their wrist and keep them tied for forty days until Christ’s ascension.
After the Bible readings, the final candle and all the lights of the church are extinguished and “Glory to God in the Highest” (Park ee Partsoons) is sung. In some places, the clergy then chant Der Voghormia forty times in a particular plaintive tone. While not mentioned in the rubrics for the Khavaroom service, the beautiful hymn “Where are you, my mother?” (Oor es Mayr Im) is often sung after Park ee Partsoons, whilst the church is still dark.
At the conclusion of the service, the Worship of the Holy Cross (Khachi Ko Krisdos Yergirbakanemk) is conducted.
Traditionally, Armenians have always attended Khavaroom in large numbers. In many places throughout the world, this important vigil service can be of great length, lasting into the late hours of the night and thus for practical purposes, it has been condensed to a more suitable length.
Holy Thursday is beyond a doubt the longest and weightiest liturgical day of the year, one very close to the hearts of the Armenian people throughout the centuries. The service of Maundy Thursday prepares us to remember the suffering and crucifixion of our Lord on Good Friday.