Archive for June, 2015

The Holy Translators Sahag and Mesrob

June 25th, 2015    |    No Comments »

The calendar of the Armenian Church lists under the title “Holy Translators” a number of saints, including St. Sahag the Parthian, St. Mesrob Mashdots, St. Yeghishé, St. Movsés the Grammarian, St. David the Invincible, St. Gregory of Nareg, and St. Nersés of Hromgla. Sahag and Mesrob are commemorated as a team, distinct from the rest of the Translators, on the Thursday following the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost.

Sts. Sahag and Mesrob are considered major saints of the Armenian Church because of their efforts to spread spiritual and intellectual enlightenment throughout the Armenian world. Under the sponsorship of King Vramshabuh and Catholicos Sahag, St. Mesrob, inspired by God, created the Armenian alphabetic script in a.d. 406.  His first and fore­most endeavor was to engage himself and his pupils to the task of trans­lating the Holy Scriptures into Armenian.  For a period of more than four decades, Sts. Sahag and Mesrob established schools, educated the young and spread the word of God throughout Armenia and its neigh­boring regions.

Catholicos St. Sahag the Parthian (a.d. 387-438) is a major saint of the Armenian Church and one of the glorious pontiffs to have occupied the throne of St. Gregory, his ancestor.  In the history of our church very few men have held the office of catholicos for such a long period during such a turbulent time.

St. Sahag was the son of St. Nersés the Great and therefore a direct descen­dant of St. Gregory the Illuminator and the Arshaguni royal dynasty.  In his youth he was educated in the West, receiving a solid secular and religious education in Greek.  At a later date he employed his learning in the task of revising and editing the first translation of the Holy Scriptures by St. Mesrob and his pupils.  For this he had at his disposal an authentic copy of the Holy Scriptures in Greek brought from Constantinople.

In a.d. 387, when St. Sahag became catholicos of Greater Armenia, Armenia was partitioned between the Roman and the Persian empires, with the larger part falling under Persian control.  Although Armenian kings ruled in both parts, they were subject to their respective emperors and reigned as governors, but retained their royal titles.  This state of affairs, and especially the Zoroastrian Persian control in the east, did not promise smooth going for the church or for the Armenian people in general.

In these circumstances, the invention of an Armenian alphabet and the founding of a literary tradition was not accidental, but rather a deter­mined effort to confront the difficulties awaiting the church in the future.  It must be noted that the intellectual enlightenment of the Armenian people was accompanied by an intensive effort on the part of Sts. Sahag and Mesrob to proselytize the Armenians in Persian Armenia, as well as in the outlying provinces severed by the Persians.  Their missionary work was also carried out in the neighboring lands.  While St. Sahag worked in Persian Armenia itself, St. Mesrob preached and taught in the outlying provinces and neighboring lands, as well as in the Greek sector of Armenia.

In a.d. 428 the Persians deposed the Armenian Arshaguni king Ardashir and put an end to the Armenian monarchy.  Since St. Sahag was related to the Arshagunis and supported the king, they also deposed him as catholicos of Greater Armenia.  In Sahag’s place they installed first an Armenian priest from southern Armenia, and later two Syrian bishops, one following the other.  These men were given the administrative and judicial responsibilities of the office, while St. Sahag was still recognized by the people as their spiritual leader.  He devoted his later years entirely to teaching and literary activity.  In c. 433, his disciples brought from Constantinople copies of the Councils of Nicaea (a.d. 325) and Ephesus (a.d. 431).  He is probably responsible for the Armenian translations of these, now in the Armenian Book of Canons.

St. Sahag died in 438 and his body was taken to Daron under the care of Tsdrig, the wife of his grandson, St. Vartan Mamigonian.  He was buried in Ashdishad, not far from the church of St. John the Baptist built by St. Gregory.  A magnificent church was subsequently built over the grave itself, and was later enclosed in a monastic complex.  The monastery was destroyed in the Middle Ages, but the saint’s tomb, restored and enclosed within a small structure, was a place of pilgrimage until 1915.

Besides being commemorated with St. Mesrob, St. Sahag has a special day designated for himself alone.  That feast falls on a Saturday before the Sunday that is one week before the Great Paregentan Sunday.

The creator of the Armenian alphabet was born in the village of Hatseg, located in the region of present-day Mush.  He was the son of a com­moner named Vartan who was a client of the Mamigonian clan.  As a youth Mesrob had learned Greek, Persian and Syriac, and had ultimately entered the military.  Because of his gift for languages, he became a secretary in the royal chancellery.

Disenchanted with a secular way of life and being spiritually inclined, Mesrob chose to become a priest.  Soon thereafter, gathering a few pupils around him, he went to the region of Koghtn in modern Nakhichevan to lead a solitary life in the wilderness and preach to the people of that region, who were still not converted to Christianity.  During his mission­ary work, he came to realize the necessity of having a literary tradition in Armenian so that people could understand the Holy Scriptures and the liturgy.

These concerns led St. Mesrob to Catholicos Sahag, who took him to King Vramshabuh.  In audience with the king, the two laid out the need for a literary language.  The king commissioned a certain Vahrij to consult a Bishop Daniel in northern Syria, who, rumor held, possessed an old alphabet invented for the Armenian language.  Vahrij sought the help of a priest named Hapel, who contacted the bishop, acquired the alphabet from him, and brought it back to Armenia.

With the arrival of Hapel, St. Mesrob gathered a number of young pupils to test how well this alphabet could express the Armenian language.  He noticed, however, that Bishop Daniel’s letters were not suitable for the phonetic structure of Armenia.  Thereupon, Mesrob took some of the pupils and set off for the great learning centers of northern Syria, in the expectation of finding a solution for his concern.  While he was in the town of Edessa (modern Urfa), he received a vision from God, which showed him the forms of the letters of the Armenian alphabet.  Mesrob commissioned a scribe named Rufinus to draft the shapes of the letters he had created.  While still abroad, he immediately undertook the translation of the Bible, beginning with the Proverbs of Solomon.

On his return to Armenia, St. Mesrob established schools and devoted the rest of his life to educational and missionary work.  His travels took him to the outlying provinces of Armenia, to Georgia and Caucasian Albania, to the imperial court of Constantinople and to the Greek sector of Armenia.  While in Georgia and Albania, he also created alphabets for the Georgian and Albanian languages.

Besides his work as a teacher and missionary, St. Mesrob was a staunch supporter of orthodoxy.  He successfully wiped out the seeds of heresy from Armenia.  As an administrator of the church, he is said to have held the rank of chorepiscopus (a bishop tending to people living in the countryside).  After St. Sahag’s demise he became the locum tenens in charge of the spiritual affairs of the church.

St. Mesrob outlived St. Sahag by only six months.  He died in 439 and was buried in the village of Oshagan.  His tomb is located in a crypt under the altar of the church of Oshagan and is a site of pilgrimage.  The present church over the crypt is a nineteenth-century structure, replacing an earlier church built in the seventeenth century.  We know from historical sources that a chapel had been built on the crypt soon after the saint’s burial.

In our days, it has become an established tradition among the members of the brotherhood of Holy Etchmiadzin that the doctoral staff (the insignia marking the vartabed, or doctor of the church) is bestowed at the church of Oshagan.

* * *
Extract from “The Holy Feasts of Saint Gregory the Illuminator: Celebrating the Life & Lineage of Armenia’s Patron Saint,” by Fr. Krikor Maskoudian (New York: St. Vartan Press, 2003).

Krikor Khanjian’s “Armenian Alphabet” tapestry at Holy Etchmiadzin.

Lessons from our Pilgrimage

June 19th, 2015    |    No Comments »

On Friday, June 12, we woke early and at 3 a.m. we set out for a special Divine Liturgy at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We walked through the dark streets of the Old City of Jerusalem until we reached this holy place—the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and glorious resurrection.

Fr. Hovsep Karapetyan celebrated the Divine Liturgy, and later each of us entered the tomb of Christ to pray.

Following services, we visited the Armenian Patriarchate for a lecture on the history of Armenians in the Holy Land by author and historian Kevork Hintlian. It was inspiring to learn that our ancestors have had a presence in the Holy Land for centuries. We also considered what Armenians today can do to support the Armenian Patriarchate and the Armenian Quarter.

On Saturday, we saw an ancient mosaic floor decorated with motifs of birds and grapes. Dating to the 5th or 6th century, the mosaic floor is the only remaining section of the Armenian Church of St. Polyeuctos. An inscription on the floor reads: “To the memory and salvation of the souls of all Armenians, whose names are known to God alone.”

We also visited the Pool of Bethesda and St. Anne’s Church, the site of St. Mary’s birth.

In the Upper Room, the site of the Last Supper, we reflected on Christ’s final evening with his disciples: “He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’”

Coming to the Holy Land and walking in the footsteps of our Lord brought us closer to our faith. We are looking forward to sharing our incredible experience with our parishes back home.

—Michael Salama is among the pilgrims on the 2015 Youth Leadership Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The Garden of Gethsemane

June 12th, 2015    |    No Comments »

On Thursday morning, Fr. Hovsep Karapetyan celebrated the Divine Liturgy at the Church of St. Mary in Jerusalem. This ancient church, built at the site where Mary was buried by the apostles before her assumption into heaven, belongs to the Armenians and Greeks, and Armenian services are held here every day.

In his sermon, Fr. Hovsep spoke about Mary’s humility, and he encouraged us to think about what lessons we might draw from her life of service and purity.

At the Mount of Olives, we visited the Church of the Ascension and were amazed by the breathtaking views of Jerusalem stretching before us. At the Roman Catholic Pater Noster Convent—where the Lord’s Prayer is inscribed in 62 languages, including Armenian—we spoke about how Jesus taught his disciples to pray. As we sang the “Hayr Mer” together, we felt Christ’s presence among us.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, we made our way through the olive trees to the Church of All Nations. Tradition tells us that Jesus prayed here prior to his betrayal and arrest. Here, too, we paused to pray and to consider the momentous sacrifice our Lord made for humanity. We found shade under the olive trees for a Bible study on Christ’s night in the Garden of Gethsemane.  “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he told his disciples. “Stay here and keep watch with me’” (Matthew 26:38). But as he prayed, Peter, James, and John fell asleep.

The day concluded with a visit to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, where we were received by His Beatitude Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem. He spoke to us about his duties as the Armenian Patriarch and current issues that face the Armenian community in Jerusalem, and he answered our questions about some of the holy sites we have been visiting in recent days.

—Melanie Panosian and Nazley Wilson are among the pilgrims on the 2015 Youth Leadership Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Pilgrims in prayer at the Church of St. Mary.

Pilgrims in prayer at the Church of St. Mary.


The group visits the Pater Noster Convent, where the Lord’s Prayer is inscribed in 62 languages.

The group visits the Pater Noster Convent, where the Lord’s Prayer is inscribed in 62 languages.

Visiting the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem

June 11th, 2015    |    No Comments »

On Wednesday, we visited the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem. As we walked the narrow streets and alleys, we saw history written all over the walls and our faith embedded in each rock.

At Sts. James Cathedral in the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, we marveled at the beautiful rows of hanging lanterns. We reflected on how blessed we are, as Armenians, to have our own historic quarter in the holy city of Jerusalem.

A special part of our visit was the baptism of one of our pilgrims at Sts. James Cathedral. Fr. Hovsep Karapetyan served as the “godfather” of the baptism, and we all raised our voices in singing the Lord’s Prayer in this magnificent sanctuary.

—Aline Grigorian and Nicole Kashian are among the pilgrims on the 2015 Youth Leadership Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Fr. Hovsep Karapetyan takes pilgrims on a tour of the Armenian Quarter.

Fr. Hovsep Karapetyan takes pilgrims on a tour of the Armenian Quarter.

Faith vs. Fear

June 10th, 2015    |    No Comments »

On Tuesday we traveled to the city of Tiberius, from where we took a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Fr. Hovsep Karapetyan spoke about the significance of Christ calming a sudden storm when he was crossing the sea with his disciples.

“Why are you so afraid?” Christ asked them. “Do you still have no faith?”

We reflected on what it means to stand in faith with Christ, and on how our faith can help us overcome some of our most basic human fears.

Later we had a fish lunch by the sea. We were reminded of Christ’s miracle of multiplying five loaves of bread and two fish to feed a crowd of thousands.

At the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, we thought about Mary’s realization that she had been chosen by God to be the mother of his son. Recalling the Angel Gabriel’s words—“Behold,” he told her, “you shall conceive and bring forth a son, and call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and be called the Son of the Highest…and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”—we were encouraged to think about how faith helps us overcome fear.

The day concluded with a Bible study on the Mount of the Beatitudes.

— Christina Haroutunian and Lillian Assatourian are among the pilgrims on the 2015 Youth Leadership Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Pilgrims on the Sea of Galilee.

Pilgrims on the Sea of Galilee.

An Extraordinary Moment at the Jordan River

June 9th, 2015    |    No Comments »

On Monday morning our group set out for Jericho and the Jordan River. Fr. Hovsep Karapetyan performed a “Blessing of Water” ceremony and we engaged in a Bible study on the significance of Christ’s baptism.

As we read from the Gospel of Matthew about the Holy Spirit descending in the shape of a dove, we noticed a group of beautiful white doves flying over us. It was yet another reminder to us that we have been walking in Christ’s footsteps here in the Holy Land.

Our next stop was Qumran, the archaeological site where the Dead Sea scrolls were first found. Later we descended 1,300 feet below sea level to what is the world’s deepest salt lake, enjoying a quiet afternoon at the Dead Sea before heading back to Jerusalem.

On the return trip through the Judean desert, we stopped in the shadow of the Mount of Temptation. Our group discussed how Christ was tempted by the devil, and considered how we can turn to scripture to help us overcome the temptations we face in our own lives.

—Adrian Stepanian and Greg Marifian are among the pilgrims on the 2015 Youth Leadership Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Pilgrims take photos at the Jordan River, where they took part in a "Blessing of Water" service.

Pilgrims take photos at the Jordan River, where they took part in a “Blessing of Water” service.


The group learns about the Dead Sea scrolls.

The group learns about the archaeological site at Qumran.


Pilgrims pose for a group photo in the Judean desert.

Pilgrims pose for a group photo in the Judean desert.

Pilgrims Arrive in the Holy Land

June 8th, 2015    |    No Comments »

A group of 21 youth leaders from 20 parishes throughout the Eastern Diocese set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land on Friday, June 5. Participants will be blogging daily from the pilgrimage.


As our group gathered at New York’s JFK airport to embark on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we immediately bonded over the excitement we anticipated for the coming days.

Arriving in Jerusalem, we were warmly greeted by our tour guide Ghazar Kevorkian. The Rev. Fr. Hovsep Karapetyan, our trip leader, and recent St. Nersess Seminary graduate Arpi Nakashian, a Jerusalem native, gave an overview of our pilgrimage, and we spent time getting to know each other better over a family-style dinner.

Later that evening, we enjoyed Jerusalem’s unique “Light Festival,” which showcases creative illuminations of buildings in the Old City.

Our next excursion was to Bethlehem, where we visited the Church of the Holy Nativity. It was moving to take part in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy at the site where Christ was born. As we sang ancient Armenian hymns in the humble grotto of our Lord’s birth, we reflected on the story of the Nativity and the gift of salvation God gave mankind.

Later that afternoon, we gathered for Bible study at the Shepherd’s Field: the site where the angels brought “tidings and great joy” to the shepherds. In our Bible study we considered what it might have meant to the shepherds to be in God’s presence. We concluded the session by singing “Sourp Asdvadz” in one of the caves at Shepherd’s Field.

Returning to Jerusalem, we attended the kindergarten graduation ceremony at the Sts. Tarkmanchatz School in city’s Armenian Quarter. What a delight it was to see the children singing and dancing to our traditional Armenian music.

—Lilit DerKevorkian and Vrej Pilavdjian are among the pilgrims on the 2015 Youth Leadership Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Awaiting their departure at JFK airport in New York, pilgrims gather for a group photo with the Rev. Fr. Hovsep Karapetyan.

At JFK airport in New York, pilgrims gather for a group photo with the Rev. Fr. Hovsep Karapetyan.


Fr. Karapetyan celebrates the Divine Liturgy at the site where Christ was born.

Fr. Karapetyan celebrates the Divine Liturgy at the site where Christ was born.


Pilgrims enjoy an evening in Jerusalem.

Pilgrims enjoy views of Jerusalem from the rooftop of their hotel.


A Season of Beginnings

June 4th, 2015    |    No Comments »

This time of year—the end of spring and start of summer—is a special time in the Armenian Church calendar.  In quick succession, we observe our Lord’s Ascension, Pentecost, St. Gregory’s release from the pit, and the birth of Holy Etchmiadzin.

What these all have in common is that they mark beginnings: the beginning of the Apostolic mission, the start of the Christian church, the re-birth of Armenia as a Christian nation, and the founding of its greatest institution.

During the season when the natural world seems to start anew, we are reminded that the church, too, had its beginnings.

It’s hard for us to imagine today, but there was indeed a time when Christianity itself was new and untried: in its infancy, so to speak.  The Apostolic epistles, in the latter part of the Bible, open a window onto the church’s infancy period.

St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy gives just such an insight into the early days of the Christian movement.  Paul writes to Timothy much as a teacher might write to a beloved former student: offering advice and the wisdom of experience.  Here’s what he has to say:

“I urge you to tell certain people not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies, which only promote speculation instead of the divine training in faith.  Because the aim of our teaching is love, which issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.”  (1 Tm 1:3-5)

From this letter, we infer that among the Christians of Paul’s time—the generation following Christ’s resurrection—there was some confusion about what the Christian message meant.  Some people had become absorbed in technical doctrines, or devoted themselves to myths, or tried to find some secret meaning in the sequence of generations.  St. Paul tells Timothy that this kind of thing is little more than guess-work; and at worst it’s a distraction from the central teaching of Christ, and the central obligation of every Christian.

How fresh and timely Paul’s words are, despite the passage of two thousand years.  His message is clear: “Forget about arguing over minor points of doctrine.  Our goal as Christians is simpler and deeper than this: it is to love each other.  And the source of that love is a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.”

Elsewhere St. Paul makes the same point a bit differently.  “So what if one has prophetic powers?” he asks; “or if I understand all mysteries; or even have enough faith to move mountains?  If I don’t have love—then I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2).

This message of love is the beginning and ending of the Christian story.  Because of His love for mankind, God became incarnate as Jesus Christ.  Because of His love, God lived among His creations, cared for their needs, healed their afflictions, taught them the word of Truth.  Because of His love, God sacrificed Himself on the cross, as a ransom for our salvation.  Because of His love, He rose from the dead, and promises to share that victory with all who honor Him, on the day of His judgment.

As Armenians, we should feel humble gratitude that our tradition has upheld this teaching.  We must uphold it as a lamp to guide our fellow Christians, and to illuminate the world.

The uniquely Armenian “Feast of Holy Etchmiadzin” is a reminder of this sacred role.  As the story goes, St. Gregory the Illuminator was granted a vision of Christ, who descended from the heavens, and struck the ground with a great hammer.  The earth quaked, and a great church arose out of the rocky soil: Holy Etchmiadzin, which means “the place where the Only Begotten Son came down.”

We are reminded that Etchmiadzin was first established in the landscape of St. Gregory’s heart, before it was carved out of the rock and stone of Armenia.  And we might humbly say that the name “Etchmiadzin”—“Christ came down”—is also written on each of our hearts, as the children of the first Christian nation.

And as we saw in St. Paul’s letters, the simple meaning of that name is Love.  Love is the way of life embodied in the name “Holy Etchmiadzin.”  It calls to us today.  And in that call, we can hear an echo of the voice of God.

Holy Etchmiadzin by an unknown artist (1870s).

Holy Etchmiadzin by an unknown artist (1870s).