Archbishop Khajag Barsamian

A Legacy of Peace

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people..."  (Luke 2:8-10)

The angel promised that his "good tidings of great joy" would one day be known by all people. But the announcement itself, on that glorious night some 2,000 years ago, was made to only a few, humble shepherds, in fields removed from any city or village. To reach the ears of the entire world, the announcement would have to be repeated, from person to person, from heart to heart, from generation to generation.

Yet through all those numberless repetitions, down to the present day, these "good tidings" have never lost their freshness. They have never lost their ability to inspire wonder and love at the news of God's miraculous gift to mankind.

Indeed, the gift of Jesus Christ has inspired the Armenian people to the heights of creativity and heroism, and has sustained us through every trial. At every critical juncture of our history, we have been able to refresh ourselves in the knowledge that our destiny lies with him-through whom death is vanquished, sacrifice redeemed, and despair transfigured into winged hope.

Perhaps that ability to refresh—to renew—lies at the heart of our unusual resilience as a people. We are all profoundly aware that the coming year will mark the 100th year of remembrance of the Armenian Genocide: the terrible cataclysm that very nearly extinguished our people, and still brings pain to every Armenian heart.

Our countrymen in the homeland and the diaspora will memorialize the sufferings of the Genocide throughout 2015. There will be occasions to express our sorrow and loss, our righteous indignation and our sense of historical injustice. All these expressions are of the utmost importance.

But our commemoration will be incomplete if we forget to also pay attention to the miracle of renewal that the Armenian people experienced—and that the entire world witnessed—in the course of the past century. From the threshold of utter death and destruction, the generation of survivors built new lives, planted new roots, contributed in productive ways to the world around them. Most miraculous of all, they passed on their precious Armenian Christian heritage to further generations of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—who will never forget the profound sacrifice, faith, and dignity exemplified by their forebears.

In this way, our Armenian martyrs teach us of Christ's power to refresh the heart, renew the spirit, and make us all worthy to live his gospel. Our Diocese will convey that message in 2015 through our theme, "Living the Gospel of Christ: Legacy of Our Martyrs."

Theirs was a legacy that answered death with life, destruction with creativity.  It is a legacy that endured suffering, but never brought suffering upon any others.  It is a legacy of peace, which should inspire us as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.

And in April of 2015, their legacy will be crowned with the seal of sainthood, as the Armenian Church canonizes the martyrs who died for their faith in the Genocide.  Some of their names are known; others are as nameless as the shepherds who heard the angels on that first Christmas night. But in a truly history-making service at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the souls who died for our Lord during the Genocide will be acknowledged as saints of the church. What a glorious moment that will be!

Above all, the legacy of our martyrs is meant to inspire us, to guide our steps; to help us press on in the dark of night; to comfort our hearts with those "good tidings of great joy"-first announced 2,000 years ago, but as fresh and new as tomorrow.

In this holy season, let us rejoice again in those good tidings, as we proclaim:

Krisdos dzunav yev haydnetzav! Orhnyal eh haydnootiunun Krisdosee!
Christ is born and revealed! Blessed is the revelation of Christ!

—Archbishop Khajag Barsamian

January 2015

  • Living the Resurrection

    As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.  "Don't be alarmed!" he said.  "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified.  He has risen!  He is not here.  See the place where they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'"  (Mark 16:5-7)

    In those days Peter stood up among the believers...and said, "Brothers and sisters...it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us.  For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection."  (Acts 1:15-22)

    As we approach the great celebration of our Lord's resurrection, there is no better guide for our thoughts and hearts than the liturgy of the Armenian Church.  The readings for Easter Sunday are especially instructive.

    From St. Mark we hear the story of the empty tomb: the women arriving to perform the ritual anointing, stunned to see that the stone had been rolled away, amazed to hear an angel declare their Lord's resurrection.  This episode is retold in each of the gospels, confirming the miracle that changed the world forever: Christ had risen from the dead, healing the wound that had severed earth from heaven so long ago.

    The Book of Acts chronicles the story of the Church-the Body born out of Christ's sacrifice-and in this Easter lection we learn the criteria of discipleship.  For in replacing Judas, the disciples were searching for someone who fulfilled two requirements: First, they felt the new disciple should have accompanied Christ throughout his ministry; and second, he should be prepared to witness to Christ's resurrection.

    The disciples were seeking someone who would not just believe and follow, but who would actually live the Resurrection.  What would such a life look like?

    Mary Magdalene's story from the Gospel of St. John, read to us twice on Easter Sunday-at the opening and closing of the day-provides a powerful answer.  Healed by Jesus, Mary is mentioned in all four gospels, and generally listed first whenever the women are mentioned (except when she stands with Mary, Jesus' mother, at the cross).  She was clearly a formidable presence among Jesus' followers.  Most importantly for us, she sets the example for a life transformed by the Lord, having accompanied him throughout his travels and in his darkest hours-even to Jerusalem, where she saw Christ crucified, and laid to rest in the tomb.  Finally, she was the first, according to John, to see the risen Lord and proclaim his resurrection. "Go!" Jesus told her.  And go she did, with the joyful words: "I have seen the Lord!"

    What does it mean, 2,000 years later, to walk with Christ and live the Resurrection?

    Living the Resurrection means to follow Christ daily by opening our hearts to him through the Bible, and through the fellowship of his people, the Church.

    Living the Resurrection means putting off one's old self with its old habits, and putting on a new self-which God is continually renewing in his own image, to bring us to a full knowledge of himself (Colossians 3:9-10).

    Living the Resurrection means loving one another as God loved us, for by this and this primarily will we be known as disciples of Jesus (John 13:35).

    Living the Resurrection means not just hearing the good news, but putting it into practice-walking with the Holy Spirit and bearing the fruits of that relationship: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

    Living the Resurrection means that we not only believe and trust in that miraculous event, but are ready to witness to it-as the disciple chosen to replace Judas was ready.  Do we, as witnesses, truly believe in all the ways Christ is with us, today and always?  Can we, in company with the joyful Mary Magdalene, boldly declare to the world: "I have seen the risen Lord!"

    Our Armenian ancestors were the first people, as a nation, to join in that declaration.  With boldness and joy, and at great cost, they declared that Jesus Christ was the Lord of their lives.  Over the subsequent centuries, millions of Armenians have endured sacrifice-from the plains of Avarayr to the sands of Der Zor-for the love of their Lord and the integrity of their faith.  Preserving the heritage we share with these martyrs is the precious responsibility of our generation, and of all future generations of the Armenian people.

    But as we rightfully honor these martyrdoms, let us also commit ourselves-as they did-to taking up the Lord's cross every day.  Let us dedicate ourselves to our own transformation to glorify God, as He works through all of creation, "groaning with the pangs of labor" (Romans 8:22) to restore the world: an endeavor of divine love that burst forth with renewed vigor from the Cross of Jesus Christ.

    For under its protective and empowering shadow, the Lord's faithful continue to gather in hope and joy.  In this spirit let us live Christ's resurrection this Easter, as we proclaim:

    Krisdos haryav ee merelotz!  Orhnyal eh harootiunun Krisdosee!

    Christ is raised from the dead!  Blessed is the resurrection of Christ!

    —Archbishop Khajag Barsamian

  • Behold, I Make All Things New

    So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the mangerWhen they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.  (Luke 2:16-20)

    On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.  (Matthew 2:11-12) 
     

    These are the most celebrated visitors of all time: the shepherds and the Magi who fell on their knees before the manger bearing a miracle, the very Son of God. Of all the scenes in the Christmas pageant, these are the two reenacted again and again. Over the centuries, how many children, themselves swaddled in shepherds' robes, crowns and headdresses askew, have marched to the crèche where Mary and Joseph stiffly pose before a baby Jesus?

    The audience holds its breath, transported for a moment by the comfortingly familiar sight, by the reverence, by the joy.  The visits associated with Christmas—the angel Gabriel to Mary, the shepherds to the manger, the wise kings to the King of Kings—are so emotionally and psychologically compelling that they continue to be re-imagined in art and music and literature two thousand years later.

    Yet we rarely reflect upon the moments that follow. What was the next chapter of Mary's life, Mary the mother of Jesus, the one who treasured the angels' words and pondered them in her heart?

    In what way did the shepherds "glorify God" when they returned to their fields, praising him for all they had seen and heard?

    After the Magi offered their gifts and left for their own country, by another road, how was life different? What did they find in that country and on that road that they would not and could not just a day before?

    All the rest of the New Testament teaches us that no encounter with God leaves a heart unchanged. The bleeding woman who touched Jesus' robe; the leper who returned to his Lord in gratitude; the widow of Nain whose only child was raised up from his funeral bier by the compassionate Christ-all were "reborn" into a deeper faith that translated into a different life.

    The twelve disciples became gifted preachers; the vengeful Saul became St. Paul, the greatest Christian missionary; the prosperous merchant Lydia decided, despite the danger from the Roman authorities, to open her home to Christian fellowship; St. Gregory endured thirteen years of imprisonment to enlighten Armenia.  An endless chain of saintly believers have devoted their lives to the poor and the marginalized , or were martyred for their faith, or walked with love and faith in the Spirit, bearing God's gracious and abundant fruit (Galatians 5:22-23).

    The history of our own people-down to the present day-is a record of those changes, great and small, wrought by the human encounter with Jesus Christ.

    Christ is the miracle that gives birth to the greatest miracle: hearts of cold stone turned into hearts of warm flesh (Ezekiel 36:26); human beings empowered to live the freest, fullest life in Christ.

    In this year devoted to the Diocesan theme of "Living the Gospel of Christ," these Christmas visits are precious reminders that all people who hear the Good News and believe—who worship the Savior with heart and soul—have not simply been invited to follow Him. No, it is not so much an invitation as it is an invasion: God already dwells in our hearts and has claimed us as His own—and there is no going back to the way things were.

    That was the truth exemplified seventeen centuries ago, in the transformational conversion of the Armenian people. And the same truth can shine forth in our own individual lives, when we are changed-made new-by our encounter with Christ.

    And in the manner of the shepherds and the Magi, we turn from the manger to take "another road," glorifying God with every word, thought, action, and breath. Truly, we have already embraced an entire way of life when, in one glorious yearly moment, we join the angelic chorus to exclaim:

    Krisdos dzunav yev haydentsav!  Orhnyal eh haydnootiunun Krisdosee!
    Christ is born and revealed!  Blessed is the revelation of Christ!

    —Archbishop Khajag Barsamian

  • The Earthquake in Armenia, After 25 Years

    It is truly humbling to realize that a quarter-century has elapsed since the earthquake struck Armenia on December 7, 1988. It has been 25 years since large areas of Armenia were destroyed; 25 years since tens of thousands of our countrymen perished in the blink of an eye; 25 years since the life of the worldwide Armenian community was transformed, forever.

    And it has also been 25 years since we witnessed that beautiful outpouring of goodwill from the world, directed towards our people in their hour of profound need.

    The repercussions of that time were so great that they can hardly be enumerated. For the people of Armenia, it was a time of the deepest grief, when the external signs of death and destruction appeared inescapable.

    For Armenians in our Diocese—and around the world—it was a time for decisive action, which drew us away from our long-held parochial divisions, and sharply focused our united hearts and minds on the greater cause of our homeland.

    For all of us, it was a time of beginning as much as an ending: a moment to discover a common purpose, and to embrace anew the faith that had given hope to the Armenian nation in earlier times of peril—a hope so powerfully symbolized in those images of our great Catholicos Vasken I consoling the people amidst the rubble: a father among his beloved children.

    In times of such catastrophe, the purposes of almighty God are deeply mysterious. But with hindsight, we can attest that all of us emerged from the earthquake and its aftermath changed. Armenia itself, once a Soviet republic, was reborn in freedom and independence. The bond between homeland and diaspora was strengthened, and travel to Armenia—once fraught with difficulty—became common and fluid.

    A new generation of Armenians—in our homeland, here in America, and around the globe—was decisively shaped by both the tragedy of a catastrophe, and the blessing of so many helping hands in a time of need.

    And it is not too much to assert that our own souls were deepened in the wake of the earthquake. In the 25 years following 1988, the memory of our sorrow would be re-awakened whenever similar natural disasters struck our fellow human beings in other corners of the world. A sense of solidarity in suffering has inspired our people to provide relief and comfort to these fellow victims of devastation.

    These were not new lessons for the Armenia people. Indeed, they are the lessons our Lord taught us through his holy cross, and his empty tomb; the lessons we embraced as a nation 17 centuries ago; the lessons we carried through the valley of the shadow of death in 1915. They are lessons of suffering and redemption; of the sanctity of life and the power of hope; of the unpredictability of events, and the constancy of faith.

    The earthquake was the way those eternal lessons were asserted in our generation. It falls to us to transmit those lessons to our children, so they may draw strength in their own times of affliction.

    Most of all, we must not lose heart when we feel, 25 years after such an event, that some of those lessons have been forgotten. For they are not lost. The response of our people to the earthquake shows that those lessons and their associated godly virtues are always waiting to be reborn in us, at the right moment, according to God's will.

    Surely the Armenian people have been instruments of His will, through our great afflictions and our great achievements, from the depths of our beings as individuals and as a nation. On this solemn anniversary, we pray that God will remember the precious souls He drew to His kingdom 25 years ago, and that He will bless the land and the people who emerged from, and were changed by, that time of trial.

    May His guiding hand be upon our people now and forever.  Amen.

    —Archbishop Khajag Barsamian

  • Thanksgiving Every Sunday

    Shortly, we will experience one of the most meaning­ful holidays of the year: Thanksgiving. It is a uniquely American holiday—and how wonderful it is to live in a country which sets aside a day out of every year to express thanks for the bounties God has given us.

    Of course, the idea of giving thanks to God during a family meal is hardly foreign to Armenians. Indeed, it seems so natural to us that Thanksgiving has been adopted by American-Armenians as another feast day.  In many households, the traditional ingredients of the Thanksgiving dinner are laid out alongside the delicious items of Armenian cuisine—a marriage of Old and New World flavors which, perhaps, is broadly symbolic of our life in the diaspora.

    But the idea of Thanksgiving has even deeper roots in the Armenian heritage. It is something that graces us every day: an enduring consciousness of the debt of gratitude we owe to God.

    Think of the prayers we recite during our meals. We sit down at the table ready to acknowledge the gifts He provides us:

    Jashagetzouk khaghaghoutyamp zgeragours, vor badrasdyal eh mez ee Dyarneh.  Orhnyal eh Der ee barkevs yur.
    Let us eat, in peace, this meal which has been prepared for us by the Lord.  Blessed is the Lord in all His gifts.

    And before we rise from the table, we give thanks again:

    Kohoutiun yev pars datzouk geragroghin diyezeratz, vor uzmez gereguryatz yev liatzooytz; nma park havidyans.
    Thanks and glory, let us give, to Him who feeds the universe.  For He has fed us, and filled us.  Glory to Him, forever.

    These prayers—and others like them, recited by countless generations of Armenian Christians—are merely the doorway through which we enter a larger world of Thanksgiving to our Lord.

    That world is most powerfully expressed in the Divine Liturgy. You might say that the idea of Thanksgiving is the "backbone" of our liturgy: it's the beam that supports the architecture of the badarak; the common thread weaving all its parts together.

    Among the earliest words spoken during the badarak is Psalm 100-one of the "Thanksgiving Psalms"-which is one of the greatest expressions of joy ever written:

    Aghaghagetzek ar Der amenayn yergeer; dzarayetsek Dyarn oorakhoutyamp.
    Make a noise to the Lord, all the earth!  Serve the Lord with gladness!

    After this beginning, it continues:

    Mdek unt trounus nora khosdovanoutyamp... / Khosdovan yegherook dyarn...
    Enter into His gate with thanksgiving... / Be thankful for the Lord...

    From these early words of joy, the theme of Thanksgiving builds, gains momentum, and has a kind of fulfillment in the sacrament of Holy Communion. After we partake in the Body and Blood of our Lord, two beautiful hymns allow the congregation to express its feeling of joy and gratitude to God. The first of these proclaims:

    Lutsak ee paroutyants kots Der, jashagelov zmarmin ko yev zayruin.  Park ee partsouns geragroghit zmez...
    Filled, we have been, with your good things, O Lord, by tasting of your Body and Blood. / Glory in the highest to you who have fed us...

    The second hymn is:

    Kohanamk zken Der vor geragretser zmez hanmahagan seghanoh ko...
    Thanks we give to you, O Lord, who have fed us at your table of immortal life...

    After this hymn, the priest recites a prayer of thanksgiving on behalf of the whole parish, calling on the many names of God:

    Kohanam zken, Hayr amenagal... / Kohanam zken, Krisdos takavor... / Kohanam zken, Hokit jushmarid... / Kohanam zken, Krisdos Asdvadz mer...
    Thanks we give to you, Father almighty... / Christ the king... / Spirit of Truth... / Christ our God...

    It is interesting to note that these thanksgiving prayers were not part of the earliest Christian liturgies, which concluded with Holy Communion. But over the course of generations, our ancestors felt a need to give further voice to their deep sense of gratitude following the badarak—and these hymns were the beautiful result.

    But let me return to Holy Communion—or the "Eucharist," as it is called.

    As I said, Communion is the fulfillment of the spirit of Thanksgiving which runs through the entire Divine Liturgy. In fact, "eucharisteo" is the Greek word meaning "to thank," and "Eucharist" actually means "Thanksgiving."

    In the original Greek texts of the New Testament, that word "eucharisteo" appears at the key moments which establish the sacrament of Holy Communion. The Gospel of Mark says:

    When [Christ] had taken a cup and given thanks [eucharisteo], He gave it to them, and they all drank from it.  And He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many."  (Mark 14:23-24)

    St. Paul uses the same word in his reference to the Last Supper:

    The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread; and when He had given thanks [eucharisteo], He broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me."  (1 Corinthians 11:23-24)

    I mention this to show you that this idea of Thanksgiving is more than just a pleasant holiday; it is more than simply a pious tradition, or an inspiration for beautiful poetry and hymns. Rather, Thanksgiving is one of our points of contact with Jesus Christ himself.  It is a spirit that he exemplified, and that he shared with those around him.

    It is, above all, a spirit that he urged his followers to embrace, and act out in their daily lives.

    That is one way in which the Eucharist we take into our bodies on Sunday continues to nourish, inspire, and sustain us through all the other days. Thanksgiving is the spirit that becomes manifest in us, when we fill ourselves at God's immortal table.

    This week, we will all be reminded of the many things we can be thankful for: our families; our health; the blessings of America; our heritage and our homeland. These are all very important. But there's something else for us to be thankful for, too.

    Our Armenian word for the Divine Liturgy is "badarak"—which means, "sacrifice." And this is our most important reminder of why we need to give thanks. It was Christ's sacrifice which brought mankind the gift of salvation.  And for us as Christians, that fact, above all others, is our greatest reason for Thanksgiving.  As the Gospel of John puts it: "God so loved the world that He gave it His only Son" (John 3:16).

    Let us always remember to give thanks for that sacrifice. And let us especially remember this week, when we gather round the table in the company of our loved ones, and bow our heads to say thank-you to God. Amen.

  • A Further Role to Play
    They had witnessed the resurrection of the Lord; received his triumphant assurance about mankind's salvation. Yet the disciples still did not understand that there was a further role for them to play. At their Master's urging they gathered on a mountaintop, and there listened to the last earthly words of Jesus Christ, before he ascended to his Father in heaven:
     
    "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. For lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world" (Matthew 28:19-20).
     
    Christ's final command, known as the Great Commission, marked a turning point in the activity of the early Christians. Previously, Jesus and his followers had never ventured more than a hundred miles from the place of Christ's birth. But now the disciples were commanded to travel the world, spreading the Good News to all nations. The "disciples"—followers and students of Jesus—would become "apostles": teachers, advocates, and living examples who would bring Christ's message—and Christ himself—to the rest of the world.
     
    What they carried with them in their missionary travels-which included travel to our homeland of Armenia-were their personal memories of living side-by-side with Jesus, throughout his earthly ministry. They forged the church as the vessel which would transmit the Gospel message down through the ages. And through it, we too have been given the opportunity to stand alongside those early followers of our Lord. In the mystical setting of the church, we can enter the Gospel stories at the crucial moments of our Lord's ministry.  We can listen to him, and learn from him, as his disciples did.
     
    This is especially true of the profound drama we enter every year during the church's sacred observance of Holy Week. From Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday, each service leads us, in heart and mind, to stand among Jesus and his disciples.
     
    We stand with them in the Upper Room, where Christ taught the deepest meaning of leadership, when he washed the feet of his disciples as a humble servant. Christ asked them to "do as I have done," and he asks the same of us. We are called to serve—and we must consider: How will we serve the Lord—not just today, but in the course of a lifetime?
     
    We follow our Lord into the Garden, where he was abandoned, betrayed, and disappointed by those he loved. With his disciples, we hear his plea: "Stay here, and watch with me." And we learn that we are asked to stay with Christ—against the distractions, temptations, and opposition of the world. We must honestly ask ourselves: Have we lived up to his simple request?
     
    We stand among the crowd at the Crucifixion, viewing with horror and pity our Lord's passion. We are reminded that the burden of suffering has always been felt by God's people—as it was surely felt by our own Armenian ancestors. In their memory, we bear witness that we are called to be at the cross. And having stood in the cross' shadow, we must reflect on the meaning that Christ's crucifixion holds for us, as individuals and as a people.
     
    Finally, we stand at the Tomb—the one place where Jesus is not present. "He is not here; he is risen!" was the angel's amazing announcement to the women who arrived at the tomb early on the first Easter Sunday; and he followed it with these words: "Go and tell the others." At last we stand face-to-face with the miracle of Easter, and its lesson could hardly be more direct: we are commanded to go and tell.
     
    This is the journey of the spirit we should embark upon, as a church, through Holy Week and Easter. It culminates in our proclamation of the Gospel: the Good News of Christ's victory over sin and death. In our own Diocese, throughout the coming months, we will strive to deepen our understanding of the Good News, and equip ourselves to share it with others—in word and deed—through this year's theme: "Living the Gospel of Christ."
     
    In the most basic sense, to live the Gospel is to recognize that there is a further role for us to play in Christ's mission. He invites us to draw near to him as disciples, but he also sends us out as apostles. "Go forth and make new disciples..." said our Lord in the Great Commission. "Go and tell..." said the angel at the Empty Tomb. We are asked to take up this mission as believers who have stood with Jesus and accepted him into our hearts. And as we stand with him, we should be aware that Jesus stands with us, also. For did he not promise that "I am with you always—even unto the end of the world"?
     
    That is the great lesson, the beautiful promise, which unfolds before us during Holy Week. It is the truth we should hold in our hearts this Easter Sunday, as we go forth into the world, fulfilling the angel's command with our joyous greeting:
     
    Krisdos haryav ee merelotz! Orhnyal eh harootiunun Krisdosee!
    Christ is risen from the dead! Blessed is the resurrection of Christ! 


    With prayers,

    Archbishop Khajag Barsamian
    Primate

    Easter 2013


  • A Different Path

    Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.  Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path.  (Matthew 2:11-12 NRSV)

    It began with a star: one that had never been seen before in the night sky, and so was by definition something mysterious and unexpected. To the wise men, scanning the heavens far to the east of Bethlehem, the appearance of this new star was a summons to embark on a journey—although their final destination was something which would reveal itself only later.

    Perhaps it was the wise men's habit of seeking that allowed them to perceive the star in the first place; to see it as something to follow, where others missed its significance. But for whatever reason, they were willing and ready to undertake this unexpected journey. We can imagine that with the star as their guide, every step along the way held a special meaning, a sense of anticipation, precisely because of the mystery awaiting them at the end.

    We who are so familiar with the Christmas story know where the wise men's journey led them: to the infant Jesus Christ. We know from the Gospel that, finding themselves in our Lord's presence, they knelt in worship and opened their precious treasures to honor him. 

    And the Gospel also gives us a fascinating detail, which may resonate with our own spiritual journeys. After being in Christ's presence, the wise men were inspired to travel "by another path": a path different from the one that they would ordinarily have chosen; different from the one that had led them to Bethlehem. Just as there had been a special significance in every step towards the star, so too was there an urgent new meaning in every step of the return journey. This time their destination was perfectly familiar, but the wise men would arrive home changed, having taken a different road in response to their encounter with Christ.

    It's an experience many of us can relate to: of being led to some situation we don't expect, and then realizing that the unexpected event has changed us—taken us down a new path. My own path took just such a turn this year, when I led a pilgrimage to one of the most inspirational spots in historic Armenia: the Church of the Holy Cross on the island of Aghtamar.

    Celebrating the holy badarak at Aghtamar was something I had never expected to do, given the realities of our time. And yet this summer, I found that I would have the precious opportunity to do so, and the sense of anticipation gave new meaning to every step of my pilgrim's journey towards Aghtamar island. 

    During the badarak—every badarak—we find ourselves in the presence of the Living Christ: we are, as it were, in the place of the wise men, coming before the Lord to worship him. During the badarak at Aghtamar, that feeling bore down upon me with extra force. And having had this miraculous encounter, I came away from Aghtamar with new eyes, seeing new paths open before me, and before all our people. 

    On my approach to the church, I found myself remembering all the pilgrims of past ages who had come by the same path to worship there. I thought of all the churches built by pious Armenians—from the great monuments of centuries ago, to the sanctuaries that have populated the world, wherever Armenian Christians have settled to live and worship together. I thought of the feelings of faith and foresight, and above all the feeling of love, that every Armenian Church represents.

    These were thoughts of the past. But as we sailed away from Aghtamar island, my mind was focused on the future, symbolized by the open horizon which lay ahead on Lake Van—a horizon filled with potential and hope. I envisioned our communities in America; our miraculous Republic of Armenia—realities of the present day that the pilgrims of former generations could not even have imagined. And I wondered to myself what other miracles the future might hold—new pathways that we today have not even dreamed of, but that God, in His good time, will make plain.

    Such hopes are very much in the spirit of this season, beginning with Advent—the time of anticipation—and continuing after our celebration of Christmas, when we embark on a new year with renewed life and energy.  In the coming year, our Diocese will explore these ideas through the theme, "Living the Gospel of Christ." The life-in-Christ can begin with a spirit of humble seeking, which ultimately draws us into a deeper, personal encounter with our Lord. And having had that encounter, we find ourselves changed, and open to the unexpected new paths that now appear before us. 

    Like the wise men on the first Christmas, we should approach Christ's Nativity with a sense of anticipation and excitement over the mystery that lies ahead. When we reach our destination on January 6—which falls this year on the Lord's Day, Sunday—it will be a chance for us to open the treasures of our hearts before him.

    And it can also be a doorway to a new path: a path that may lead us to familiar places, but that leaves us fundamentally changed, having experienced the miraculous revelation of Jesus Christ—born in the most unlikely of places, for the most unexpected and wonderful of reasons: God's love for mankind.  May we carry that precious miracle in our hearts throughout the coming year, along with the joyous refrain of the Armenian Church:

    Krisdos dzunav yev haydnetzav! Orhnyal eh haydnootiunun Krisdosee!
    Christ is born and revealed! Blessed is the revelation of Christ!

    With prayers,

    Archbishop Khajag Barsamian
    Primate

    Christmas 2013

  • While It was Still Dark
    Jesus said to her, "...Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord!"  And she told them that he had said these things to her. (St. John 20:17-18)
     
    IT WAS STILL DARK, EARLY IN THE MORNING of the first day of the week: a Sunday, close to 2,000 years ago. To most of the world, the sun would rise on a day no different from any other. Only a handful of people would later realize that something of importance had occurred. But those few people understood that overnight, the world had changed.
     
    Three pious women rose early to bear spices and burial ointments to the grave of their departed teacher and friend. But approaching the tomb, they sensed that something was wrong. The grave was open: its sealing-stone pushed away. And inside the tomb they found, not a dead body, but a mysterious figure—an angel—who beckoned them to draw closer. Here is how St. Matthew tells the story:
     
    The angel said to the women: "Do not be afraid.  For I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.  He is not here.  He has risen-just as he said!  Come and see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He is risen from the dead...'" (Mt 28:5-7).
     
    Some 2,000 years later, we use the very same words to remember the miracle of that Sunday morning: Krisdos haryav ee merelotz! Christ is risen from the dead!  And as Christians we celebrate Easter to mark the most important, most joyous, most glorious day in all of human history.
     
    But think again of what it must have been like on that first Easter Sunday. In the darkness before dawn, when the pious oil-bearing women set off on their journey to our Lord's tomb, things must have looked very different.
     
    Two nights earlier, the women had watched in horror as Jesus endured the torments of crucifixion. They had stood in silent witness, as his lifeless body was brought down from the cross, wrapped in a burial shroud, and placed in a tomb. All their hopes and dreams had come to ruin. Their Master was dead.  His mission was over. The salvation of mankind had failed. The women approached the tomb that morning, fully expecting to find Jesus buried within.
     
    But—he was not there.
     
    Instead, the women discovered that their greatest hope had come to pass: "Christ is risen from the dead!"—just as he had promised.
     
    Imagine the overwhelming joy, the incredible sense of hope, the feeling of limitless possibility that swept over the women at that moment. They must have been bursting with excitement—eager to share this news with others.
     
    And indeed it was these women—the first witnesses to the resurrection—who brought the Good News to the disciples. Through them, the Gospel mission began: they were the first link in a great chain of evangelism that would eventually encompass the world, and transform our own homeland with its message of love, hope, and victory over sin and death.
     
    A beautiful service of the Armenian Church shows how very close we still are to these events, despite the obvious gulfs of time and space. Taking place in the early hours of Easter Sunday, the service is dedicated to the oil-bearing women: the "Myrophores" in Greek, or "Yughaperitz Ganaykh" in our own tongue. The Yughaperitz service culminates in a reading from the Gospel of St. John (Jn 20:1-18), which begins "Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark..." and ends with Mary Magdalene's ecstatic announcement to the disciples: "I have seen the Lord!"
     
    And here is the astonishing thing: History indicates that this service originated in the early centuries of the Christian movement, in Jerusalem itself—perhaps at the very site of Christ's tomb!—where the celebrants would gather at dawn, just as the women had done, to re-enact their world-changing discovery. Through this beautiful ritual, preserved over many centuries by the Armenian Church, the voices from that original Easter Sunday echo down to us, as if for the first time.
     
    It is surely significant that the oil-bearing women held no exalted or privileged status in the world of their day.  Indeed, even the disciples refused to believe them when they came to the upper room, breathless, to relate what they had witnessed. Yet it proved that these women, even from their humble station, were the ones who had seen the truth with clear eyes. Certainly it was their humility, their willingness to rise before dawn to perform a ministry of love and respect at a friend's grave, that placed them in the right place to receive this truth. Perhaps it was the same attitude of humble ministry to our Lord which prepared their minds to believe in it, and prepared their hearts to share it.
     
    Armenian history is filled with similar stories of people—often from the most powerless and marginalized stations of their surrounding societies—who saw and heard; who believed and shared; and ultimately who transformed their worlds from within. That is the power and the promise that genuine Christian ministry—the "Ministry of the Faithful," as we have been calling it in our Diocese this year—can bring to our churches and communities, to our families and our individual lives. It starts with those simple announcements of joy and amazement: "He is not here; he has risen!" "I have seen the Lord!" Or in the words of our beautiful Easter greeting:
     
    Krisdos haryav ee merelotz!  Orhnyal eh harootiunun Krisdosee!
    Christ is risen from the dead!  Blessed is the resurrection of Christ!
     
    This Easter, let us proclaim those words loudly, with conviction-to everyone we meet. Even "while it is still dark," let us pierce the darkness with our song of joy. And through it, may our Risen Lord draw forth the transformative ministry that truly brings Light to the world.
    With prayers,

    Archbishop Khajag Barsamian
    Primate

    Easter 2012


  • Man of Faith

    Behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, fear not to take Mary as thy wife: for she has conceived by the Holy Spirit. She shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1:20-22)

    The peaceful image we hold of our Lord's birth gives shape and substance to our sense of Christmas as the season of warmhearted joy. Yet the Nativity story could have been cut off before it had barely begun. It was one man's calling to lift the story out of tragedy, and through his actions to allow the warmth and sweetness of Christmas to prevail. That man was Joseph: the husband of Mary, and the earthly father who raised and instructed Jesus.

    Joseph the Carpenter is an indistinct figure in three of the four gospels. He doesn't appear at all in Mark. In John he's only present in the "family name" of our Lord: "Jesus son of Joseph." In Luke he's cast as a witness: a pious bystander standing off to the side, who "marvels" as divine revelations unfold before him. That is certainly the image reinforced in our traditional Nativity tableau.

    But in Matthew's gospel we truly get to meet Joseph, and even to listen in on his thoughts. His is the story that actually begins the New Testament. And this tells us something about the way the earliest Christians regarded Joseph. To them, understanding his role was the first step in approaching Jesus.

    With evident respect, Matthew assures us that Joseph was "a just man." Alongside this, there are suggestions that Joseph's natural inclinations tended towards caution and timidity. But three visionary dreams from "the angel of the Lord" effect an amazing turn in his personality. Joseph becomes a man of action, undertaking swift, daring measures to protect his wife, rescue the infant Jesus, and defy the malignant powers arrayed against the Holy Family.

    At three critical junctures—standing by Mary in her time of pregnancy (Mt 1:24); preemptively stealing away from Bethlehem to escape King Herod's wrath (Mt 2:14); and returning from Egypt to take up a new life in Nazareth (Mt 2:21)—Joseph's actions turn the tide of the story, allowing it to move forward. But what impels him to act? Not some native cunning or energy, but rather his trust, his confidence, in the messenger of God. In this way, Joseph is revealed as the quintessential man of faith.

    Reading Joseph's story as Armenian Christians, one can hardly overlook the arresting parallels with our own forebears: Armenian parents who lived near the turn of the last century. They, too, were roused from slumber due to some premonition of danger. They, too, gathered up their children, and left hearth and home seeking refuge in a strange land. All of them were trying to escape death on a mass scale, just as the infant Jesus was. Many of our ancestors did not survive. But we today are the living testament of those who did: who found salvation and a new life. This parallel is a reminder of how people living centuries apart found courage within their hearts, because of their faith.

    After his dramatic role in Jesus' youth, Joseph as a character recedes from the gospels. But not before he leaves an indelible impression on the rest of the narrative. It would have been Joseph who taught Jesus how to practice his trade, how to manage a household and the affairs of commerce, how to perform the pious offices of the Jewish religion. The gospels testify to Jesus' profound familiarity with these things later in life; they are the inheritance Joseph left to his son. Tradition has it that Joseph died while Jesus was still relatively young; and the gospel accounts leave tantalizing clues about the way this emotional passage may have had a meaningful effect on our Lord's later ministry.

    A recurring theme in Jesus' teaching concerns the tenderness of a father: often a father who has been separated from his son in some way, but whose love never dies. We see it in parables like the Prodigal Son, and especially in Jesus' beautiful descriptions of God's loving concern for mankind. This theme in Scripture seems to originate with Jesus: search the Old Testament and you will find nothing quite like it. Of course, God was always the Father of Creation (as Jesus would teach in the Lord's Prayer); but He never knew the experience of having a father until, incarnate as man, He came under the tutelage of Joseph. So perhaps this touching emphasis in the adult Jesus' message owes something to the gentle, fatherly ministry he received as a boy from Joseph the Carpenter.

    One could hardly imagine a more consequential effect of one man's humble ministry to Jesus Christ. And Joseph's beautiful example should stand before us, as we try in our own ways to be faithful to our Lord, and take up his ministry in the world.

    That is the intention behind this year's Diocesan theme, "The Call to Serve: Ministry of the Faithful," which emphasizes the precious, indispensible contributions each person makes to the ongoing life of our church.  The manners in which we serve our Lord, his church, and each other can be rich and varied.  But common to every ministry is that it begins with profound faith in God, and trust in His call to us.

    Here again our exemplar is the man of faith, Joseph. And our own ministry, like his, holds consequence. We already noted that while Joseph is absent from most of the Gospel, his influence re-emerges every time someone refers to "Jesus, the son of Joseph." It is as if people in those early days first encountered Jesus by knowing his relationship to Joseph. Surely the father's reputation for justice and goodness persuaded doubters to listen to Jesus, and consider his words. The lesson for us today is profound. For to the world at large, we—Christ's modern followers—are an entry point for getting to know Jesus. Our own faithful ministry, humble though it may be, has the potential to open the door for others to come to our Lord.

    Let us be mindful of that role in the days to come, as we proclaim Christ's birth to the world. 

    And as we rejoice in the birth of Jesus, in the devotion of Mary, and in the blessing of God's love for mankind, let us find inspiration in the man of faith, Joseph, whose tender ministry allowed the first Christmas, and every Christmas, to ring with joy and peace.

    Krisdos dzunav yev haydnetzav! 
    Orhnyal eh haydnootiunun Krisdosee!

    Christ is born and revealed! 
    Blessed is the revelation of Christ!

    January 2012

  • Ten Years After September 11, 2001

     On Sunday, September 11, 2011, the faithful of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America are joining our voices with millions of our fellow Americans—and with people around the world—to offer prayers on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America.

    Like so many others, with the approach of this milestone I have tried to recollect what it was like on that day a full decade ago. Americans of our generation have taken to greeting every 11th of September in the same way—and I imagine we will continue doing so for the remainder of our lives.

    I vividly recall the spontaneous gathering in the sanctuary of St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York City, on the afternoon of September 11, 2001.  I recall looking out from the altar, and seeing all manner of people: familiar faces alongside new ones from off the street. A number of people had narrowly escaped the disaster zone, and bore traces of dust and debris from the collapsing Twin Towers. They had instinctively come to a place of peace and prayer, like so many others in that great march northward through the city, which choked the streets around us with the refugees from southern Manhattan.

    Although we did not know it at the time, three hours earlier, in the very midst of the terrorist attacks, others had followed the same instinct. On Flight 93, a young man facing what he knew to be the final minutes of his life, spoke on a cell-phone to a telephone operator he had never met. He asked her to pray with him, and together they recited the 23rd Psalm. Having uttered these words, Todd Beamer and the brave passengers on the doomed Flight 93 proceeded to take the plane back from the hijackers, de-railing the terrorists' plan, at the cost of their own lives.

    This was only one of the many stories—heart-breaking and inspiring at the same time—which we learned in the aftermath of 9/11. Ten years later, those stories have become a part of our national culture: a part of America's own story. Perhaps for that reason, the personal, human toll of that day has receded into the background: a part of history we all share, but take for granted.

    But on this solemn, milestone anniversary let us promise never to forget these stories, or the people who lived them. Let us never forget the families of those who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks—among them, people from our own community. Our thoughts are with them, as with all who have suffered and sacrificed in the long aftermath of that day.

    Let us vow that their examples, their sacrifices, have not been made in vain; that each of us, to the best of our ability, will continue the struggle to preserve freedom, justice, and true peace against those who do not hold life sacred. And we pray too that—should we ever face our own fateful hour—God will summon from us the same courage He drew from our lost countrymen, on that terrible day ten years ago.

    Above all, as I search these ten-year-old memories, the words of the 23rd Psalm impress themselves upon me, as they did so powerfully on that day:

    The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures.
    He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.
    He leads me in the path of righteousness for his name's sake.

    Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I fear no evil; for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
    You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
    You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.
    Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
    And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
    (Psalm 23)

    May we all likewise dwell in our Lord's house, now and always. May He keep watch over the souls He drew to His kingdom on 9/11, and bestow His peace on their loved ones. May He grant guidance to our leaders, and strengthen the resolve of those who stand in defense of our country. And may He always shed His shining grace on the United States of America.

    With Prayers,

    Archbishop Khajag Barsamian
    Primate

  • "I Have Overcome the World" (Easter 2011)

    IT WAS THE LAST NIGHT OF HIS EARTHLY MINISTRY: his last chance to savor the fruits of mortal living; to speak freely, and openly, to the people he loved.  And our Lord Jesus chose to spend those precious hours in the company of his friends, breaking bread at the supper table, offering prayers to God.

    On that night, Jesus spoke to the disciples tenderly, as a father to his children. But he was a father burdened with sadness, and with an urgent desire to give his loved ones the resources they would need to carry on.  "Little children," he called them, "I am with you only a little while longer." He explained that, like lost children, they would soon find themselves searching for him; but "where I go, you cannot come." Nevertheless, he enjoined them to "love one another; as I have loved you" (Jn 13:33-34).

    St. John's Gospel records for us Christ's words: a long and often cryptic speech, which the disciples could only dimly understand. For Christ, the specter of his arrest and crucifixion stood before him; but before he was parted from his followers, he wanted to let them know that his passage of pain and suffering would not be the end.

    "These things I have spoken to you, that in me you might have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation," Jesus warned. "But be of good cheer: I have overcome the world" (Jn 16:33).

    It must have been hard to believe this assertion at the time.  But it was true.  On Easter Sunday, Christ was raised from the dead—and the old world, long held hostage by sin and death, was overcome, and vanquished.  Nearly two thousand years later, we still re-live the things Christ said and did during his Last Supper: through the Holy Badarak, we place ourselves in the position of his disciples, and listen as our Lord speaks to us.

    From the depths of his love, Christ speaks to his children in many ways.  Perhaps he is telling us something again, in the rare coincidence of dates we will experience this Easter.  In our church, we are accustomed to joyously celebrating Christ's victory over death one week, and then mourning in remembrance of the Genocide on Armenian Martyrs Day, a few weeks later. But in 2011—for the first time ever—the two observances will fall on the same date.

    On the face of it, they seem like two completely opposite occasions: one a celebration of unconquerable life, the other a memorial of unimaginable death.  Yet probe more deeply, and it becomes clear that the Easter story comprehends both things. The path to the glorious resurrection passed through death; God chose this path of suffering for His son, to overcome it on behalf of all mankind.

    That is the great promise of eternal life we aspire to as Christians, and celebrate on Easter Sunday. It is our assurance that misery, sorrow, and death are not the end—not the ultimate reality.  And we, as followers of the risen Christ, are not victims of death. To the contrary, we have been liberated from its power precisely because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.

    But consider: How much of this understanding comes through in our typical commemorations on April 24?  Too often, the overriding theme is not the Christian promise of overcoming death, but rather the notion of victimhood: of our helpless victimization in 1915—and our continuing victimization today.

    It is, of course, a fact of history that those who perpetrated the Genocide did so in order to eradicate the Armenians. And they proved all too capable of inflicting untold misery and pain on our people—with effects that are still felt 96 years later.

    But it is equally a fact that many of those who suffered and died in 1915 did so with the full hope and expectation that they would someday join our Lord in his resurrection. They faced the prospect of death with the assurance that it would not be the end. They had faith that through Christ they would share in his final victory, and be liberated from subjection. Every Armenian living today has a story to tell—recollected from a parent or grandparent—which testifies to this profound truth.

    We Armenians are ever obliged to seek justice on behalf of those who endured our history's darkest episode; and April 24 will eternally stand as the day we remember them. Yet it is important to remember them as they actually were: to remember their hopes and prayers, their courage and strength, their will to survive and build anew.

    Surely that is the positive legacy they wished to leave for their descendents. Our martyrs understood that Christ was speaking directly to them when he said: "In the world you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer: I have overcome the world."

    Perhaps this is the lesson we are meant to receive, when circumstances this year force us to confront Easter and Martyrs Day together. Christ himself was no stranger to pain and sorrow, to torment, exile, and loneliness.  Indeed, in the gospels, it is almost as if he speaks with the voice of our martyrs—anticipating the terrible experiences we know all too well from our forebears.

    And yet Christ's story—like theirs—is the exact opposite of victimhood. "I have overcome the world," he said to those he loved, on the night before his ordeal of suffering. That is the promise we should all hear, as we confront our own Golgothas, great and small. It is the faith for which Armenian martyrs throughout history—including those who endured the horrors of the Genocide—gave their very lives.

    It is the message that should ring in our ears, this year and every year, when we hear the mysterious words that have always allowed our people to overcome:

    Krisdos haryav ee merelotz!  Orhnyal eh harootiunun Krisdosee!
    Christ is risen from the dead!  Blessed is the resurrection of Christ!

      —Archbishop Khajag Barsamian  

  • To Serve Him Without Fear (January 2011)
    Blessed be the Lord God of Israel! For he has visited his people, and redeemed them.
    He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David ...
    to enable us to serve him without fear... 
    (Luke 1:68-74)

     

    Try to envision the scene in the hill country around Bethlehem, on the night when Christ was born. In a few words, Luke's gospel paints such a vivid picture of the shepherds out in the open fields. We can see the flicker of campfires; hear the gentle sounds of animals and men at the hour of sleep.

    Suddenly, a new element enters the picture. Something descends from the heavens—and it's heading towards them. Struck with terror, the shepherds think: "Is this the end?" Yet their nightmare fears do not come to pass. Instead, they find themselves surrounded by an unearthly light. And from out of this light comes an angelic voice.

    "Fear not," is what they hear.

    What an unexpected announcement this is. In the context of the time, fear was precisely the emotion to show before a heavenly being. The human relation to the pagan deities was one of fearful subordination, where man tried to appease their anger, or offered sacrifices to buy off their careless whims.

    By contrast, the evangelist Luke impresses on us the dawning of a whole new relationship, where people can approach God without fear; where they can stand in His presence and not be afraid. The Nativity itself underscores this point: when the shepherds put aside their fear, and answer the call to draw near to God, what do they find? A newborn child: something to approach with feelings of love, wonder, joy, reverence—anything but terror. The shepherds would never have discovered this beautiful truth, had they permitted fear to have the last word.

    Luke gives us three examples of heavenly messengers in the early chapters of his gospel. And each time, the message is the same. The first involves the elderly, childless Zacharias, husband to Elizabeth, and the future father of John the Baptist. "Fear not, Zacharias," an angel says, "for your prayer has been heard" (Lk 1:13). The second angelic appearance is to the Virgin Mary, who feels troubled despite the angel Gabriel's friendly salutation. "Fear not, Mary," he reassures her, "for you have found favor with God" (Lk 1:30).

    Finally, we are given the shepherds, who were "sore afraid" to see the glory of the Lord. But again, an angel allays their concerns: "Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people" (Lk 2:10).

    It's wonderful how Luke weaves the story together from these strands: an elderly couple, praying for a child of their own; an innocent girl, emerging from the shelter of youth to be betrothed in marriage; the rough, rustic shepherds, who make their life among animals in the fields. What might they all have in common?  Certainly, as Luke shows us, one common thread is the fear they all felt when they encountered the messenger of God.

    And such fear is warranted, is it not? To draw near to God ought to be frightening: something potentially dangerous, one would think. At the very least, it should make a person question his worth, his competence, his fitness to be chosen.

    Yet the angelic message tells us something different: Fear not. Do not be afraid. In the largest sense, this should be understood as an attitude for living: Do not live in the shadow of fear. The angel Gabriel tells Mary, "With God, nothing shall be impossible" (Lk 1:37)—and with that kind of assurance, we really have no business allowing fear to dominate our lives.

    Yet "Fear not" has a more specific meaning, too, as a motto about drawing near to our Lord: about being drawn into God's plans, and being appointed to contribute to His will.

    When one is called by God, it is natural to feel nervous, or unworthy. But the Nativity story shows that when God calls us, such fears are immaterial. We may worry that we're too old (as did Zacharias), or too immature (as did Mary), or too undistinguished in stature (as the shepherds surely felt). But God had called all of them, in spite of these things.

    Above all, God sent His only Son, and gave us the gift of salvation, "to enable us to serve Him without fear" (Lk 1:74)—as Zacharias joyfully sang, when he finally accepted his role in God's plans.

    In the coming year, our Diocese will explore the way God calls each of us, and any of us, to draw nearer to Him. Our focus will be on the lay ministries of the church, in which every person, from every walk of life, is called to give of himself or herself in the service of our Lord.

    Even when God extends such an invitation, however, there are many people in our world who decline to answer. "Am I worthy to do so?" they may ask. "Am I wise enough?" "Do I have enough time?" "Shouldn't I be better prepared or educated for such a role?" These are not unimportant matters; they are the fears we bring to the situation—just as Zacharias, and Mary, and the shepherds brought their own. And yet, the messenger of our Lord—whether speaking as an angel, or as a voice in the heart—says the same thing to us as he said to them: Fear not.

    On the night when Christ was born, the people attending him were not exalted figures; they were not confident in their worthiness to be called before God. Still, these were the people on whom our Lord Jesus first smiled. The same will be true for us, when we draw near to our Lord—and discover the joy that dispels all fear.

    May this thought encourage us, and embolden our hearts, as we recite our age-old Christmas greeting:

    Krisdos dzunav yev haydnetzav!  Orhnyal eh haydnootiunun Krisdosee!
    Christ is born and revealed!  Blessed is the revelation of Christ!

    —Archbishop Khajag Barsamian  

  • Thanksgiving Every Sunday (November 2010)

    Shortly, we will experience one of the most meaning­ful holidays of the year: Thanksgiving. It is a uniquely American holiday—and how wonderful it is to live in a country which sets aside a day out of every year to express thanks for the bounties God has given us.

    Of course, the idea of giving thanks to God during a family meal is hardly foreign to Armenians. Indeed, it seems so natural to us that Thanksgiving has been adopted by American-Armenians as another feast day.  In many households, the traditional ingredients of the Thanksgiving dinner are laid out alongside the delicious items of Armenian cuisine—a marriage of Old and New World flavors which, perhaps, is broadly symbolic of our life in the diaspora.

    But the idea of Thanksgiving has even deeper roots in the Armenian heritage. It is something that graces us every day: an enduring consciousness of the debt of gratitude we owe to God.

    Think of the prayers we recite during our meals. We sit down at the table ready to acknowledge the gifts He provides us:

    Jashagetzouk khaghaghoutyamp zgeragours, vor badrasdyal eh mez ee Dyarneh.  Orhnyal eh Der ee barkevs yur.
    Let us eat, in peace, this meal which has been prepared for us by the Lord.  Blessed is the Lord in all His gifts.

    And before we rise from the table, we give thanks again:

    Kohoutiun yev pars datzouk geragroghin diyezeratz, vor uzmez gereguryatz yev liatzooytz; nma park havidyans.
    Thanks and glory, let us give, to Him who feeds the universe.  For He has fed us, and filled us.  Glory to Him, forever.

    These prayers—and others like them, recited by countless generations of Armenian Christians—are merely the doorway through which we enter a larger world of Thanksgiving to our Lord.

    That world is most powerfully expressed in the Divine Liturgy. You might say that the idea of Thanksgiving is the "backbone" of our liturgy: it's the beam that supports the architecture of the badarak; the common thread weaving all its parts together.

    Among the earliest words spoken during the badarak is Psalm 100-one of the "Thanksgiving Psalms"-which is one of the greatest expressions of joy ever written:

    Aghaghagetzek ar Der amenayn yergeer; dzarayetsek Dyarn oorakhoutyamp.
    Make a noise to the Lord, all the earth!  Serve the Lord with gladness!

    After this beginning, it continues:

    Mdek unt trounus nora khosdovanoutyamp... / Khosdovan yegherook dyarn...
    Enter into His gate with thanksgiving... / Be thankful for the Lord...

    From these early words of joy, the theme of Thanksgiving builds, gains momentum, and has a kind of fulfillment in the sacrament of Holy Communion. After we partake in the Body and Blood of our Lord, two beautiful hymns allow the congregation to express its feeling of joy and gratitude to God. The first of these proclaims:

    Lutsak ee paroutyants kots Der, jashagelov zmarmin ko yev zayruin.  Park ee partsouns geragroghit zmez...
    Filled, we have been, with your good things, O Lord, by tasting of your Body and Blood. / Glory in the highest to you who have fed us...

    The second hymn is:

    Kohanamk zken Der vor geragretser zmez hanmahagan seghanoh ko...
    Thanks we give to you, O Lord, who have fed us at your table of immortal life...

    After this hymn, the priest recites a prayer of thanksgiving on behalf of the whole parish, calling on the many names of God:

    Kohanam zken, Hayr amenagal... / Kohanam zken, Krisdos takavor... / Kohanam zken, Hokit jushmarid... / Kohanam zken, Krisdos Asdvadz mer...
    Thanks we give to you, Father almighty... / Christ the king... / Spirit of Truth... / Christ our God...

    It is interesting to note that these thanksgiving prayers were not part of the earliest Christian liturgies, which concluded with Holy Communion. But over the course of generations, our ancestors felt a need to give further voice to their deep sense of gratitude following the badarak—and these hymns were the beautiful result.

    But let me return to Holy Communion—or the "Eucharist," as it is called.

    As I said, Communion is the fulfillment of the spirit of Thanksgiving which runs through the entire Divine Liturgy. In fact, "eucharisteo" is the Greek word meaning "to thank," and "Eucharist" actually means "Thanksgiving."

    In the original Greek texts of the New Testament, that word "eucharisteo" appears at the key moments which establish the sacrament of Holy Communion. The Gospel of Mark says:

    When [Christ] had taken a cup and given thanks [eucharisteo], He gave it to them, and they all drank from it.  And He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many."  (Mark 14:23-24)

    St. Paul uses the same word in his reference to the Last Supper:

    The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread; and when He had given thanks [eucharisteo], He broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me."  (1 Corinthians 11:23-24)

    I mention this to show you that this idea of Thanksgiving is more than just a pleasant holiday; it is more than simply a pious tradition, or an inspiration for beautiful poetry and hymns. Rather, Thanksgiving is one of our points of contact with Jesus Christ himself.  It is a spirit that he exemplified, and that he shared with those around him.

    It is, above all, a spirit that he urged his followers to embrace, and act out in their daily lives.

    That is one way in which the Eucharist we take into our bodies on Sunday continues to nourish, inspire, and sustain us through all the other days. Thanksgiving is the spirit that becomes manifest in us, when we fill ourselves at God's immortal table.

    This week, we will all be reminded of the many things we can be thankful for: our families; our health; the blessings of America; our heritage and our homeland. These are all very important. But there's something else for us to be thankful for, too.

    Our Armenian word for the Divine Liturgy is "badarak"—which means, "sacrifice." And this is our most important reminder of why we need to give thanks. It was Christ's sacrifice which brought mankind the gift of salvation.  And for us as Christians, that fact, above all others, is our greatest reason for Thanksgiving.  As the Gospel of John puts it: "God so loved the world that He gave it His only Son" (John 3:16).

    Let us always remember to give thanks for that sacrifice. And let us especially remember this week, when we gather round the table in the company of our loved ones, and bow our heads to say thank-you to God. Amen.

    —Archbishop Khajag Barsamian

  • September 11 Memorial

    What follows is the text of the homily delivered by Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, during a memorial service in solemn observance of the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America.  The service was held on Sunday, September 8, 2002, at St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York City.  It was sponsored by the Standing Conference of the Oriental Orthodox Churches of America.

    IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, THE SON AND THE HOLY SPIRIT.  AMEN.

    "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures.
    He leads me beside still waters.  He restores my soul.
    Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil.  For thou art with me."   (Psalm 23:1-4 RSV)

    How famous are these words of Scripture.  I have recited them countless times during my lifetime.  And yet they spoke to me--to all of us--with new force, new meaning, new clarity, beginning one year ago.  So many things changed with it.

    For on that terrible day--September 11th, 2001--we received a glimpse of a literal valley of the shadow of death. With our very eyes, we saw it come into being, where once there stood two gleaming towers.

    With our own eyes, we witnessed evil--evil of incredible proportions.  And in that moment, as we heard reports of disasters in Washington and Pennsylvania --who among us did not feel fear?  Fear of what it all meant.  Fear of what was to come next.  Fear for the lives of the thousands of innocents caught in the unfolding tragedies.

    The victims of September 11th lost their lives in an instant.  But let us never forget that the way they died was the result of long planning, to the smallest detail.  At any time during that period, the perpetrators had ample opportunity to acknowledge and repent the evil embodied in their plans.  But they did not.  They continued with their diabolical project, knowing full-well what the outcome would be--hoping and, most ghastly of all, praying for the maximum possible disaster, the maximum possible loss of life.

    Truly, such hate-filled evil is something to fear.  It is something to shake ones very faith.  Today, even after the passage of a whole year, one still trembles to think of the magnitude of what we witnessed.  Standing at Ground Zero, as we did earlier today, one trembles with rage, to know that you are standing on the final resting place of thousands of innocents, whose mortal remains are beyond recovery.

    It is natural to look on all of this and ask, Where was God on September 11th?  Indeed, that is a question I heard frequently in the days and weeks following that day of infamy.  In truth, it is a question that may not have a completely satisfying answer.

    And yet, as this year has progressed, it has become more and more clear to me that, even in our country's darkest moment, God's hand was there, to affect the outcome.  Consider this: Fifty thousand people worked in the Twin Towers.  Many thousands more were in the surrounding areas, in the Pentagon, and on Flights 11, 77, 93 and 175.  On September 11, 2001, we desperately wondered whether all of those people might have perished in the attacks.

    But somehow, despite the horrible loss of three thousand lives, the vast majority of people escaped to survival; several are in this sanctuary today.  Somehow, the towers stood long enough for most people to evacuate.  Somehow, ordinary people found the courage within themselves to rescue others they had never met before.  Somehow, men and women were willing to sacrifice their lives, so that others might live.

    How do we account for these facts?  They are mysteries.  And in the final analysis, I believe, they were miracles: signs of God's presence, left for us to see.  They were God's reminders to us that,  "Even though we walked through the valley of the shadow of death, He was with us."

    Where was God on September 11th?  He was with us, even then.  He was with those brave firemen, policemen and emergency workers, who risked and sacrificed their lives to save others.  He was with the countless souls who stayed at the disaster zones for weeks on end to aid the recovery effort.  He was with the great-hearted people of America, who found renewed solidarity and resolution in the aftermath of the attack.

    He was with people of good will around the world, who extended their sympathy and support to America across physical and cultural distances.

    He remains with us in the persons of the bereaved families, who have borne their personal tragedies with dignity, strength of character, and faith.  Our sanctuary is graced by a number of such families today, and we are humbled by their presence among us.

    And ultimately, we have faith that, in their final moments, God was with the departed, as well, taking them out of our lives for reasons we cannot know, and may never fully understand.  On this day, one year later, we remember them with tearful prayers: three thousand victims, each with his or her own circle of loved ones.  We ask our Lord to grant them repose, and to console their families.  And we offer a special prayer for the members of our own "family": our departed Syrian, Ethiopian, Coptic and Armenian brothers and sisters, and their loved ones gathered here today.  God is with you all, today and always.

    We have become accustomed to those words, as the faithful of the Oriental Orthodox churches.  For all of us have been afflicted by tragedy in our own lives and histories.  We have witnessed natural disaster, war, political upheaval, exile, famine, genocide--evils of every natural and human kind.  We migrated to this great country of America largely to escape those evils; and to see such destruction visited upon our adoptive home is heartbreaking in the extreme.

    But the lesson of our survival from ancient times is the lesson we must take with us today, and share with our brothers and sisters of all backgrounds.  It is the lesson of love: Love handed down from parent to child, from generation to generation.  Love that binds together individuals, families, communities and nations.  Love that overcomes all differences, dispels the darkness, and heals our wounds.

    Love exemplified, first and foremost, in Jesus Christ, God's only begotten Son, whose love for us stood firm in the face of terror and death--and emerged victorious beyond death.  Christ Himself is our highest assurance that God is always with us.  And if He is with us, then, "Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we need fear no evil."

    Let me extend my deep gratitude to Archbishop Karim [of the Syrian Orthodox Church], Archbishop Matthias [of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church], and Bishop David [of the Coptic Orthodox Church], and to all our brothers in Christ.  I also wish to acknowledge the noble sentiments expressed by our respective patriarchs, and published in the program booklet.  Finally, let me thank all of you, for sharing this day with us: a day of sorrow, but also a day of hope.  May God truly be with all of us, and may He always keep watch over this great country of America.  Amen.

  • One Extraodinary Act

    We greet the Third Millennium of the advent of Jesus Christ.  What better way to express our joy than with the words that have inspired mankind for two thousand years: "Krisdos dzunav yev haydnetzav!  Christ is born and revealed!"

    Who could have predicted that history would turn out this way?  Yet here we are today, two thousand years after that blessed birth, still meeting together in love and fellowship in the institution, which Christ Himself established.  The legions of Christ—churches, clergy­men, faithful men and women around the world —are still on the march, still hard at work, still continuing our Lord's mission. 

    All of this came about because of Christ's life and teaching.  All because of God's extraordinary act!

    Inspired by that act throughout these two millennia, ordinary people have found the strength to use God's gifts in extraordinary ways.  Our own ancestors were drawn into the movement, and performed amazing deeds on our native soil.  In Armenia, God's extraordinary action forged an entire culture, inspired our people to great heights of creativity, and consoled us in our hours of darkness.

    Human power can be used for good as well as evil.  We must choose, with our free will, to direct that power onto the right track.  And in order to make that choice, we need to return to that extraordinary action God took two thousand years ago, in Bethlehem.

    The empty canvas of the 21st century now stands before us.  We can choose to paint it in any way we like.  Let us choose to begin painting with bold strokes.  Let us resolve to illustrate the next century with extraordinary actions.  Let us promise that we will not sit on the sidelines and leave the work to others, but that we will turn our own hands to the challenges and opportunities of this new era.  This, indeed, will be the greatest contribution we can make to our Church, our community, our nation, and indeed to the world.

    And so I ask each of you: How will you take advantage of this unique moment in history?  Will you be satisfied with business-as-usual?  Or will you take the risk of bold, creative action?  We were set on this path two thousand years ago, by one extraordinary act of God.  He asks us to respond in kind.  May He always guide and strengthen us, as we labor to perform His will.

  • A Light for Revelation, and for Glory to Thy People (Excerpt from 2006 Christmas Message)

    "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel." (Luke 2:29-32)

    "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." (Matthew 5:8)

    THE SETTING WAS THE GREAT TEMPLE IN JERUSALEM, and the occasion was the presentation of a newborn child in the House of God, a ritual performed forty days after birth, in accordance with the Hebrew Law. For the numerous people typically milling about the area, the arrival of a new father, mother, and baby was a most common sight. But this was no common child. As he was carried past them on that day, the onlookers had no idea that the Lord of the Temple was being brought—at long last—to the Temple of the Lord.

    For good reason, as we know from the Nativity story, the parents did not want to draw the attention of others. But someone noticed, nonetheless: the man Simeon, righteous and devout, who had received a divine assurance that he would not see death before he had seen the Savior. Gazing upon that babe in arms, Simeon realized that he was beholding the very thing for which he had hoped and prayed all his years. This was, in fact, the completion of his life. "Now I can die in peace, Lord," he sang, "because I have seen your salvation."

    At that very hour, the prophetess Anna approached the Temple. At eighty-four years of age, she too was approaching her life's completion. We are told that her marriage had been cut short in her youth, and that she had lived the vast majority of her life as a widow—certainly not an easy existence, then or now. And yet Anna, like Simeon, would go to her grave happy, having witnessed the world's redemption in the eyes of a newborn child.

    Christmas, of course, is the joyous season: the traditional Nativity story is filled with references to the joy felt by those who beheld Christ's birth, from the shepherds, to the wise men, to the heavenly hosts. But there is hardly a more poignant testimony to the depth of that joy than this story of Simeon and Anna: two pious souls who have completed their life's course; who know they will never live to experience the deliverance of the world; and yet who are happy just to know that God has fulfilled His promise of love.

    It is a rare and even mysterious thing to encounter such purity of heart. We are told that Joseph and Mary-hardly strangers to miraculous sightings—could only "marvel" at the scene unfolding on their son's presentation day; and we can imagine, perhaps, that as they returned home to Nazareth in Galilee, they understood more deeply that they were carrying the weight of the world in a precious bundle of swaddling clothes. Years later, grown to manhood and setting forth on His ministry, Jesus would pronounce a special blessing on the pure in heart—a blessing that was truly fulfilled, albeit in a most unexpected way, for Simeon and Anna.

    As it was forty days after Christ's birth, so it is two thousand years later. The season of our Lord's nativity is still the pre-eminent time of year when the generations intersect: when those who are completing their course through life gaze upon those who are just beginning. The newborn Jesus can still inspire in us the very summit of selfless love, where we find joy simply in the prospect of the happiness of others—without thought, really, for any benefit we might receive in return.

    And without losing any of its marvelous character, true purity of heart seems at Christmastime to be more attainable, both for ourselves and for the world. One message of our Lord's birth is that such feelings are not the sentimental illusions of a season, but rather our deepest glimpse into the eternal Truth, awakened in us by the sight of God. For many people, alas, this insight will prove fleeting, and they will re-enter the fog of worldly concerns. But as Christians we are called to carry the light of this Truth within us—and to shine with that light for the benefit of those around us—every day of the year, until life's completion.

    January 2006