Archive for 2015

The Earthquake in Armenia, After 27 Years

December 3rd, 2015    |    No Comments »

It is truly humbling to realize that more than a quarter-century has elapsed since the earthquake struck Armenia on December 7, 1988. It has been 27 years since large areas of Armenia were destroyed; 27 years since tens of thousands of our countrymen perished in the blink of an eye; 27 years since the life of the worldwide Armenian community was transformed, forever.

And it has also been 27 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 27 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, 27 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 27 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

Catholicos Vasken I in Gyumri after 1988 earthquake.

Catholicos Vasken I in Gyumri after the 1988 earthquake.

Promises, Promises

November 5th, 2015    |    No Comments »

Around this time of year, our church calendar prescribes a Scripture reading from the Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 8, which concerns a tragedy in the household of a man named Jairus. It seems that Jairus and his wife had a daughter, and this girl—only twelve years old—had fallen sick and lay dying at the family home.

The response of parents to the prospect of a child’s death is the same now as it has always been: no sacrifice is too great, no probability of cure too remote to shake the parents’ hope that the child might be returned to health. In Jairus’s case, though he was an important man in his community (St. Luke calls him a “ruler of the synagogue”) he did not feel it beneath his dignity to go before a complete stranger who was rumored to have performed some miraculous cures.

That stranger was Jesus Christ. Moved by the desperate father’s plea, he accompanied Jairus home, to attend to the dying girl.

However, as they approached the house, there came news that Jairus’s daughter had succumbed, and that Christ need not trouble himself any longer. Jesus’s response to this grim news is strange, considering the circumstances. He made a promise to the heartbroken father. “Do not be afraid,” he said; “only believe, and she shall be well.”

We are not told Jairus’s reaction to these words; but in his heart of hearts, could he have felt anything other than doubt? “Do not fear,” this stranger says; but how could Jairus not be afraid—how could any of us not be afraid to hear news of our child’s death? As they approached the girl’s deathbed, Jesus made an even more puzzling remark: he insisted that, far from being dead, the girl was merely sleeping. At this, the Scriptures tell us, even his closest disciples—Peter, John and James—could not help but laugh, “for they knew the girl was dead.”

Reading this passage two thousand years after the events it describes, it’s difficult to grasp the significance of the disciples’ laughter. We are so accustomed to hearing the stories of Christ’s miracles that they have become—paradoxically—mundane. We “know” that the story will end happily, and so the impact of the preceding episodes is reduced.

But if we can for a moment put ourselves in Jairus’s place, then Christ’s promise to a grieving father that he need not be afraid must seem like an insensitive joke: empty words and empty consolation.

To illustrate the point, consider something closer at hand. Next week, across America, our country will observe Veterans Day. This day has come to represent a tribute to the courage and sacrifice of soldiers during times of war. We have witnessed such courage and sacrifice in recent years, and so perhaps this day should speak more powerfully to us today than it has before. But Veterans Day first began as a commemoration of the end of the First World War. The leaders of that time consoled a war-weary population by assuring everyone that they had fought “the war to end all wars.” “Do not be afraid,” they promised; “all will be well.”

It was a promise they could not keep. War, it seems, is a perpetual symptom of the human condition. Even the most peace-loving people cannot hide from it, for violence will seek them out, and they will be compelled to take up arms in defense of their lives and liberty. Our generation, like every generation, has been reminded of this, all too well.

Even so, the powers of the world around us—political bodies, diplomats, scientists, educators, business leaders—all continue to offer us promises, in an attempt to dismiss our worst fears. To our fears of poverty they offer a new economics. To our fears of enslavement they offer a new politics. To our fears of mortality they offer a new medical technology. Each time the expectation is bigger; and of course, each time the promise remains unfulfilled.

People have grown cynical as a result of these broken promises. Who today believes anyone when they say: “Don’t be afraid”? Why should they?

With this in mind, return now to the Gospel story. When Jairus heard the awful news about his only child, perhaps he, too, was cynical. To his ears, the promise of Jesus must have seemed outlandish.

But Christ took that child’s hand in his own, and before Jairus’s amazed eyes—amid the laughter of the disciples themselves—he restored Jairus’ daughter to life.

Christ’s promises are not like the promises of the world. Where the world can offer only excuses, Christ delivers truth—and hope. Every day he says to us: “Do not be afraid; only believe.” This assurance comes not from an ivory-tower philosopher, who has no knowledge of the real world, but from one who experienced at first hand how truly frightening the world can be. From a man who lived his entire life in the shadow of humiliation, suffering, and death; who bore these things with unshakable faith in the truth of his heavenly Father.

Such faith requires great courage. But for Christians, that courage is not an idle, romantic longing. It is a promise offered by someone who always delivered on his promises—even to the point of returning from death.

This is not to say that we will all be miraculously delivered from our worst nightmares, as Jairus was. God will perform His miracles to suit His purposes, and sometimes His purposes require that we endure terrible sufferings. As Armenians, we can never forget that—especially during this centennial year of the Genocide.

But as Christian Armenians, we must also believe that this life is not the ultimate reality, and death is not the ultimate end. That, too, is a lesson we should take from the past year.

Above all, we may believe this with confidence, for we have the promise of one who has never yet let us down.

Christ made many promises during his ministry. Before he ascended to his Father, he promised that he would one day come again. On that day, he will take the hands of each of his faithful children in his own—from the first martyr to the last baptized soul—and demonstrate once and for all that they were merely sleeping after all.

May all of us be worthy to feel our Lord’s tender touch on that day.

Icon of Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide

October 22nd, 2015    |    No Comments »

The icon of Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide was commissioned by the Catholicos of All Armenians, His Holiness Karekin II, and painted by Tigran Barkhanajyan specifically for the 2015 ceremony of canonization, marking the 100th year of remembrance of the Armenian Genocide.

It is a unique work of iconography, depicting the first “new” saints to be recognized by the Armenian Church in several centuries: the martyrs who (in the words of the official prayer of intercession) “gave their lives during the Armenian Genocide for faith and for the homeland.” The Holy Martyrs are portrayed in the dress typical of the Ottoman empire in 1915, and represent all ranks of Western Armenian society: men, women, children, and the elderly; merchants, intellectuals, artists, clergymen, farmers—all of whom perished in the brutal crime of 1915.

Although the icon directly depicts God the Father and the Holy Spirit, the figure of Christ is not explicitly shown. However, the artist’s intention is that the multitude of figures represents the mystical Body of Christ: his holy Church. In this way, all three Persons of the Holy Trinity are present in the icon.

In the manner of our Lord at his resurrection, the martyrs travel from Death to Life, emerging upon the precincts of God’s heavenly kingdom as the Church Victorious. Their path is bordered by desecrated khatchkars and the shattered remains of Armenian monuments, suggesting the centuries of sacred and material culture lost to the Armenians when they were driven from their historic land.

His Holiness Karekin II and a special council of bishops approved the icon for display as a sacred image. The original is on view at the museum of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, in the Republic of Armenia.

Holy Martyrs of 1915

Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide.

Consecration in the Armenian Church

October 15th, 2015    |    No Comments »

To “consecrate” a person, place or object means to separate it for divine service.  After its consecration, the person, place or object is thereafter distinguished from the ordinary members of its category as holy or hallowed.

In the general vocabulary of Christianity, the term “consecration” is commonly used with reference to: (a) the Eucharist—the act whereby bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ; (b) bishops—the conferment of episcopal authority and rank; and (c) altars, churches, and Eucharistic vessels—the solemn rite of setting these things apart exclusively for the service of God.

The consecration of an icon—the depiction of one or more saints, or of a particular episode from scripture or the holy tradition—likewise sets it apart from ordinary works of art, to serve as a “window” onto the divine, and as a focus for personal devotion.

The Armenian Church’s understanding is no different in substance from that of other traditional churches.

Setting Aside a Place for Holiness

For example, when a site is chosen to build a new church, the plot of land (or foundation) must be set apart as holy ground; this distinguishes the new structure from a simple meeting or assembly hall, as a place where sacred functions—most notably the Eucharist—will be enacted. Later, when the church (or more precisely, its altar) is erected, the altar itself will be consecrated, to distinguish it as the hallowed “table of the Lord.”

The consecration of a church (an act reserved to the bishop) differs from its blessing or ‘dedication’ in that it is held to be an irrevocable act: once consecrated, the building can never be secularized.  The destruction of a holy altar by vandals or military forces—as happened to countless Armenian sanctuaries in Ottoman Turkey during the period of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923)—is therefore more than merely an unfortunate act of barbarity or cultural intolerance: it is an act of sacrilege, a defiance and denial of God.

Whether it involves an altar, a person, or an icon, the Armenian consecration service involves a series of prayers, blessings and symbolic acts—including the anointment with chrism in the names of Apostles.

Saints and Sainthood in the Armenian Church

October 8th, 2015    |    No Comments »

What does it mean to be a saint?

The Armenian word for saint is sourp, which means “holy.” The word holy, in turn, derives from an Indo-European root for wholeness, worthiness, and being set apart for God.

In the New Testament, St. Paul uses the word “saint” as a general term to refer to the members of the church community broadly speaking. For him, the simple fact that people believed in Christ identified them as holy and as set apart from the mass of humanity—that as, saints.

In the early days of the institutional church, the designation of “saint” was mostly reserved for martyrs: in a time of persecution, those who had died for their faith were seen as giving the most profound human example of holiness.

But as persecutions receded, the church began to use the word “saint” more broadly, to describe people who led impressive lives, or exhibited exemplary Christian virtues, but who were not called to sacrifice their lives in Christ’s name. Ascetics, scholars, kings and queens, mystics, and simple folk came to be considered as saints. Saints were understood to be those believers who were so united with Jesus Christ that the life of Christ was visible in what they did and taught.

Scripture, as part of the Holy Tradition of the church, is a good place to begin looking for insights into the meaning of sainthood. Here are a few passages to consider:

  • 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:18—We as God’s people are all called to be saints.
  • Psalm 97:10—Saints are those who praise the Lord’s name, who hate evil.
  • I Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:1—Saints are those who are faithful to Jesus and are part of church communities.
  • Psalm 16:3; 97:10—The Lord delights in the saints, guarding them and promising deliverance; not worldly deliverance, for we are not guaranteed safe passage in this world, but eternal deliverance.
  • Ephesians 1:18—Saints pass on God’s glorious inheritance of new life in Him to others.
  • Ephesians 2:19—As Christians, we are fellow-citizens with all the saints, other true believers.
  • I Corinthians 6:2: Having lived deeply in Christ, saints will share in the judgment of the world.
  • Revelation 5:8b—The prayers of the saints are precious, and are heard by God.

As members of the Armenian Church, we venerate the saints. It should be noted that veneration is not worship. Worship is reserved for God alone. When we venerate saints, we are honoring them, admiring them, and giving them reverence.

The Armenian Church calendar commemorates saints on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. On such days, we include their names in liturgical prayers and hymns as we remember them and ask them to pray for us.

Specific saints are named during the Divine Liturgy. We worship God together with them, and we ask that they be remembered by Him. In other liturgical services (such as the “Hours”), we ask the company of saints in general to pray for us.

We should also read their stories. The Lives of the Saints (Haysmavoork) is a collection of stories about our saints, once read daily prior to certain liturgical services. By becoming familiar with their stories, we can be inspired to live holy lives as they did.

Above all, the saints dedicated themselves to Christ. Having been transformed by his truth, is Truth,  they becamethey became his hands in the world—even dying for their faith. The manner of their lives poses a timeless question for us: How prepared are we to live for our faith?

More Than Just Paintings: Icons in the Armenian Church

October 1st, 2015    |    No Comments »

What are icons, and how are they used in the Armenian Church?

Simply stated, an icon is an artistic image, likeness, or representation of someone or some event. Often they are paintings depicting Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, angels, or biblical scenes.

But an icon is more than just a painting. Icons are images of the holy which provide access to the holy. They are hung and displayed in churches and homes, sometimes illuminated with candles or oil lamps. During liturgical services, they are venerated with incense. Sometimes a candle is placed in front of an icon of a saint, in which case it is customary to ask for the intercession of that particular saint. We bow before them and even kiss them in reverence of the holiness they represent.

Wall-paintings, mosaics, and stone carvings give us our earliest depictions of Christ, Mary, and the saints. From these early efforts, Christian art developed and the church accepted sacred imagery as objects of veneration. With the growth of Christianity in Armenia holy images proliferated, and praying before them became a popular expression of piety. The internal and external walls of Armenian churches became adorned with images, particularly with images of the cross, of Christ, of the saints and Biblical scenes.

Eventually a theology of icons in the Armenian Church developed. A treatise written around the year 600 and attributed to Vertanes Kertogh, Locum Tenens of the Catholicate at Dvin, describes holy images as having an educational and inspirational purpose, serving as kind of visual theology. Vertanes’ treatise is the oldest defense of icon veneration preserved in any language.

When speaking of images of Jesus Christ, Vertanes emphasizes that Christians do not worship the material artwork, but Him whom the image represents:

“When we prostrate ourselves before the Holy Gospel, or when we kiss it, we are not prostrating ourselves before the ivory and the paint, purchased from barbarian countries, but before the Word of the Savior which is written upon the parchment…. By the same token one bows before the icons not because of their pigment, but because of Christ, in whose name they have been painted.”

In the eighth century St. John of Odzoon (Catholicos at Dvin, 717-728) developed an even deeper, mystical theology of icons in the Armenian Church tradition. He explained that it is possible to represent the image of God because of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Since God took human, material form in the person of Jesus Christ, when bowing down before an icon of Christ, we are actually bowing before Christ enthroned; while looking at the visible, we recall to our mind the invisible.

Although there have been times when the veneration of icons was in dispute among Christians, or suppressed by non-Christian foreign powers, today in the Armenian Church the practice of painting, consecrating, and venerating icons endures. This devotional practice reflects a deep Christological understanding of holy images. Consider the tradition of placing an image of the Virgin Mary and Infant Christ over the altar table where badarak is celebrated. The image of the Mother-of-God and Christ Child glorifies the virtue of her consent to become the “living temple” of the Incarnate Lord. Through Mary, the gift of salvation entered the world in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. What better image to place above the holy altar, where the gifts of bread and wine become the Body and Blood of our Lord?

The theology of icons and the practice of image-veneration developed in the Armenian Church over the centuries, becoming more defined and focused through the writings of our Armenian Church fathers.

They teach us that icons are not merely visual aids or decorations, but are reminders that all things fashioned by the Creator are transfigured through the power of God. They are powerful spiritual signposts to enhance the faith of all who encounter them in our churches.

Adapted from Art in the Armenian Church: Origins and Teaching, by Fr. Garabed Kochakian (1995).

Faithful venerate the icon of the Holy Martyrs.

Faithful venerate the icon of the Holy Martyrs.

Happy Armenian Independence Day

September 17th, 2015    |    No Comments »

On the third Saturday in September 1991, people across Armenia left their homes to do something they had never done before: vote in a referendum. Old and young alike crowded voting stations, determined to make their voices heard. Even newly married couples, still attired in wedding garb, set aside time to cast their vote.

Earlier that year, Soviet Armenia had already decided not to participate in a referendum announced by Mikhail Gorbachev to preserve the Soviet Union, favoring instead to hold a vote on whether Armenia should secede from the USSR. Now the time had come for that crucial vote, and for the first time in seven decades, the future of Armenia rested in the hands of its citizens.

Of the country’s eligible voters, 95 percent took part in the referendum on September 21, 1991, and 99.5 percent voted for independence. Two days later, on September 23, 1991, Armenia’s parliament officially proclaimed the republic “ankakh petutyun”—an independent state.

Appropriately, it was the date of the referendum—September 21—that was reserved for future Independence Day celebrations. For on that day the decision of the Armenian people was bold and unequivocal. For the first time in generations, Armenians were at the brink of a new beginning, and together they took a courageous leap into statehood.

We salute the people who showed such faith and foresight on that day 24 years ago. We wish you—and the citizens of our free homeland—a happy Armenian Independence Day.

A newly married couple cast their ballots in Yerevan on Sept. 21, 1991.

A Spark of the Divine

August 12th, 2015    |    No Comments »

The blessing of grapes is a sweet reminder that the church embraces all the joys of life. But that’s only part of what we learn on the Feast of the Holy Assumption, which the Armenian Church will celebrate on Sunday, August 16.

At first glance, it seems to tell the story about the death of a pious soul—St. Mary, the Holy Mother-of-God. But look deeper and you’ll recognize a very special, very familiar, kind of love: a love stronger than death itself.

Click here to read more.

“The Dormition of the Virgin,” by Lilit Amirjanyan. From “Armenian Miniatures: Biblical Illuminations of the 20th and 21st Centuries” (2007)

St. Gregory the Illuminator’s Sons & Grandsons

July 23rd, 2015    |    1 Comment »

The calendar of the Armenian Church singles out four members of St. Gregory’s family—his two sons, Sts. Arisdagés and Vrtanés, and his grandsons, Sts. Krikoris and Husig—and assigns them a special day of commemoration called “The Feast of the Sons and Grandsons of St. Gregory.”

The day of commemoration (according to the present calendar in force since 1774-75) falls on the Saturday before the Third Sunday of Transfiguration, which this year will be observed on Saturday, July 25.

The descendants of Armenia’s patron saint carried on his missionary work throughout Armenia, helping to cement the nation’s Christian identity. Click on the following links to learn more about the sons and grandsons of St. Gregory.

Arisdagés, the youngest son of St. Gregory, represented the Armenian Church at the Holy Council of Nicaea.

Learn About the Transfiguration on Your iPad

July 10th, 2015    |    No Comments »

On Sunday, July 12, the Armenian Church will observe one of its five major feasts: the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The observance recalls Christ’s ascent up Mount Tabor, accompanied by his disciples John, James, and Peter. At the mountain’s summit, to the disciple’s frightened amazement, Christ was transfigured in a blinding white light; the Old Testament figures Moses and Elijah emerged from the mists of time to confer with the Lord; and the voice of God boomed from out of the heavens to affirm Jesus as his Son.

Jesus was characteristically reticent about the episode: he urged the disciples not to speak of it. But the gospels recorded it for posterity, and the church—including local Armenian parishes across the Diocese—celebrates it every year.

To learn more about this feast day, download the Diocese’s Transfiguration iBook. It is packed with interactive features, including:

  • Video: watch the story come alive on your screen
  • Music: listen to the hymns of the Transfiguration in a virtual sanctuary
  • Audio: listen to the Transfiguration story in English and Armenian
  • Photo galleries: explore artists’ renderings of the events on Mt. Tabor
  • A “Lexicon” page: learn Armenian words and names associated with this feast day

A version of the book is also available for non-iPad users; click on the following links to view it in your browser or to download a PDF.

A page from the "Transfiguration" book. The book is available for free download on the iPad.

A page from the “Transfiguration” book. The book is available for free download on the iPad.