Archive for September, 2013

St. Vartan Cathedral: A Message to the World

September 19th, 2013    |    No Comments »

What follows are the remarks of Prof. Mark Movsesian, keynote speaker at the 45th anniversary celebration of St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral, which took place in New York on Sunday, September 15, 2013.

It is humbling to be in the presence of those whose families sacrificed so much to build the cathedral whose anniversary we celebrate today. For 45 years, St. Vartan Cathedral has been the focal point for Armenian Christian life in this city. Its golden dome is a familiar landmark on the east side of Manhattan, known and loved by millions of New Yorkers and visitors. It is viewed from cars on Second Avenue and boats on the East River. It is the first thing one sees as one emerges into New York from the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and the last as one departs. It’s not unusual, when I tell New Yorkers that I am Armenian, that I get the response, “Oh, yes, I know your cathedral, on 34th Street.” I’m sure many of you have had the same experience.

St. Vartan Cathedral is thus part of the fabric of this city. We take it for granted now. But all this was only a dream for the Armenian-Americans who, with God’s help, built this cathedral 45 years ago. For them, the gold-leaf dome, the limestone façade, the graceful bas reliefs, the dignified interior existed only in the imagination. Their project required vision, skill, and courage. They could not be sure, when they purchased the land and arranged the financing, when they engaged the architects, when they approved the plans, and when commenced construction, that their project would succeed. The benefactors and builders had to work on faith that the necessary resources would be given them; that their church would continue to thrive in this new, still not entirely familiar, land; that the Armenians who followed them would preserve this building as a living embodiment of our unique Christian tradition. How proud they would be to know the role the cathedral has had in the last few decades.

I would like to speak briefly about the history of this cathedral, the saint to whom it is dedicated, the reason why that saint, Vartan, was so important to the builders, and why the message of this cathedral remains so important for us in the twenty-first century.

The History

Just after World War II, in 1948, the organizing committee for an Armenian cathedral in America began to buy properties on the east side of Second Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets, then the heart of New York’s Armenian community. It took 10 years to purchase all the necessary land, and in 1958, the cornerstone was laid for the diocesan complex. That building was shortly complete, and in 1960 His Holiness Vazken came from Armenia to visit it, the first time a Catholicos traveled from Echmiadzin to the United States. Five years later, in 1965, groundbreaking took place for the cathedral itself, and three years later, in 1968, Catholicos Vazken returned to consecrate it. The Diocese’s website records his words. “Watching your faces,” he told the assembled congregation, “I am aware of the wave of sacred emotions filling your souls, which have been rendered radiant by the Light Invisible. This is an admirable picture of spiritual grace—a rare moment of spiritual bliss—to which we are all witnesses.”

The cathedral, as many of you know, is modeled on the fourth-century church of St. Hripsime in Echmiadzin. The double-intersecting arches of the interior and the pyramidal dome are typical of our tradition. When one enters the building one is in communion with our past. But the cathedral is not simply a monument to antiquity. It is a living spiritual and cultural center. Badarak is celebrated, beautifully and with magnificent musical accompaniment, every Sunday and on holidays. Cathedral programs—including gatherings for young professionals, events for families, afternoons with the elderly, and a range of musical performances, art exhibitions, spiritual and educational workshops, and ecumenical gatherings—have expanded. Under the leadership of Srpazan and Fr. Mamigon, plans are underway to revive a cathedral parish. There is excitement and great potential.

St. Vartan

Thus the history of the cathedral. What about its name?

There are many saints, in the Armenian and the Universal Church, to whom it would have been fitting to dedicate this place: Mary, the Mother of God, whom we depict above every altar; Thaddeus and Bartholomew, the Apostles, who knew the Lord and brought the faith to our people in the first century; Santookht the princess, the first Christian martyr in Armenia; Gregory the Illuminator, who converted the king and made Armenia a Christian nation; the Holy Translators, Sahag and Mesrob, who rendered Scripture accessible in the Armenian language; Nersess the Graceful; Naregatsi; the warrior saints, Sarkis and George. All these, and others, would have been very appropriate.

But the builders chose to dedicate the cathedral to Vartan. We all know the story of Kach Vartan—“Brave” Vartan. In the fifth century, Armenia was under the control of the Persian Empire. The Persians were Zoroastrians, and they deeply distrusted Christianity. Christianity provided a link to Byzantium, and thus posed a threat to Persian rule. So the Persians attempted to force Armenians to renounce Christianity in favor of the Persians’ own religion.

Some Armenian nobles did convert. But others, led by Vartan Mamigonian, organized a revolt. In 451, at the Battle of Avarayr, Vartan led a vastly outnumbered force against the Persian army. In a letter to the Persian commander before the battle, Vartan and his companions explained that they were willing to resist—and die, for they could hold no illusions about their chances of success—in order to remain Christian:

From this faith no one can shake us, neither angels nor men, neither sword, nor fire, nor water, nor any, nor all, horrid tortures… If you leave to us our belief, we will, here on earth, choose no other master in your place, and in Heaven choose no other God in place of Jesus Christ, for there is no other God. But should you require anything beyond this great testimony, here we are; our bodies are in your hands…  Do not, therefore, interrogate us further concerning all this, because our bond of faith is not with men to be deceived like children, but to God, with Whom we are indissolubly bound and from Whom nothing can detach and separate us, neither now, nor later, nor forever, nor forever and ever.

The Persian army crushed the Armenians at Avarayr. Vartan and eight of his generals were killed. The revolt continued, though, and the Persians eventually concluded that their campaign of forced conversion was too costly and gave it up. Our Church has viewed Avarayr as a great moral victory and has honored Vartan and his companions as Christian martyrs and saints to the present day.

The Message Today

It’s easy to understand, then, why the builders dedicated this cathedral to St. Vartan. First, it was a way of linking the Armenian story to the American. St. Vartan’s story fits very well with foundational American ideals. It would be wrong to understand Avarayr completely in today’s categories, of course; one should avoid that sort of anachronism. But the history of Vartan and his companions resonates with the concept of religious liberty that is so fundamental in American culture. Vartan and his companions were, in a sense, standing up for religious freedom—for the right to worship God. When they told the Persians that they would be loyal subjects, but that they would not give up Christ, they were anticipating, by many centuries, the arguments of waves of immigrants to America, many of whom came to this continent precisely so that they could worship God free from state compulsion. Naming the new cathedral for St. Vartan was thus a way to introduce the Armenian story in terms that American culture would find immediately recognizable.

Second, the choice of St. Vartan also links the cathedral with another, older theme, one that predates America by millennia and which, sadly, continues, in parts of the world, even today. The other epithet for Vartan, besides “brave,” is Garmeer: “Garmeer” Vartan– Red Vartan, as in “bloody.” The story of Avarayr, after all, is a story of blood and sacrifice; of martyrdom—and survival. It is thus emblematic of our history as a Christian people from the beginning.  Many times in our history, it has seemed as though Christianity in Armenia would die at the hands of persecutors: Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Bolsheviks. Always, with God’s help, the faith has survived; not without great cost, but it has survived.

This lesson would have been immediate for the people who founded this cathedral. The Armenian Genocide of 1915, which some of the cathedral’s builders experienced firsthand, and which all of them had heard about from friends and relatives who had survived, was only one of many trials that Armenian Christians have had to endure. Surely, the choice of Brave Vartan, a martyr for the faith whose legacy down the centuries is one of strength and triumph, was meant to associate this new, American cathedral with the message of survival and rebirth.

For Armenian Christians in America today, the future looks secure. We apparently are not called to suffer persecution and martyrdom. For our brothers and sisters in other countries, though, very grave threats remain. Many congregants at St. Vartan today escaped the pogroms that took place in Baku and Sumgait in the 1980s; they know what persecution means. In Syria, Armenian and other Christians are being forced to flee, lest they become victims of a radical Islamism that seeks their subjugation. Our cathedral’s name, St. Vartan, should serve as a reminder to us that in other parts of the world, Armenian Christians continue, to pay a price for their faith. The name of our cathedral is an admonition: We must do what we can to help our brothers and sisters who are persecuted for their religion—our religion–and welcome them when, like our ancestors a few generations ago, they come to America to seek a more stable life. May this cathedral be a symbol of hope to them.

I will close with a true story that makes me very proud of this cathedral, and that I hope will make you proud of it as well. It’s a story that reflects how others see us and this cathedral. As some of you know, I’m a professor of law and religion at St. John’s University here in New York. In connection with my work, I have had occasion to meet many members of New York’s growing community of Coptic Christians. Like Armenian Christians, the Copts, the indigenous Christians of Egypt, have had a difficult history. They are now going through one of their greatest trials, and many are fleeing to the United States. For years, a Coptic congregation used St. Vartan for its liturgies; even now, when New York’s Copts need a space for large church events, they come here.

About a year or so ago, I was talking to a Coptic acquaintance about the difficulties facing his community in America. “We have to model ourselves on you Armenians,” he said to me. “We have to find a way to maintain our distinctive Christian heritage while becoming Americans. We have to show the foresight that you Armenians had in founding institutions in this country.” He paused for a moment. “We need to build a place like St. Vartan.”

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Mark Movsesian is a legal scholar, professor of law, and director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University, New York. His popular writings on issues of religion and law appear at clrforum.org and firstthings.com.

Mark Movsesian.

Mark Movsesian.