Archive for the ‘Saints and Feasts’ Category

Re-Introductions are in Order

December 29th, 2016    |    No Comments »

One of the wonderful things about the Christmas season is the way it re-introduces us to such interesting people. And it’s not limited to friends and family: some of the most memorable re-introductions come from the surrounding culture. Who can suppress a warm smile at their first yearly sighting of Santa, Rudolph, and the elves? Or at the Grinch, and the whole Peanuts gang?

But the church, too, is actively bringing some memorable people to our attention in the run-up to Christmas. It shares these vivid personalities with us through the feast days that occupy the weeks in the latter half of Advent.

We’ll meet King David: poet and warrior, fugitive and conqueror; a man of twists and turns who knew both the exhilaration of victory and the desolation of personal loss.

We’ll meet James: the apostle called the “Brother of the Lord,” who after Christ’s ascension led the church in its turbulent dawning days, and became the first bishop of Jerusalem.

We’ll meet Stephen: that fiery speaker who preached the gospel in the public square; who is remembered as the first deacon of the church—and its first martyr.

We’ll meet Peter and Paul: the “odd couple” of the Apostolic Age; rivals in so many matters of practice and policy, yet united in a friendship of the spirit that drew both to the heart of the Roman Empire, to preach and suffer in their Master’s name.

Finally, we’ll meet the brothers James and John: two of the most intimate confidants of our Lord. John in particular left us some of the deepest, most introspective writing in the Bible. Yet to Jesus, he and James were known as the “Thunder Boys”—a name evoking vigor and action (which would also make a great title for next summer’s superhero blockbuster).

These are the stories the church re-introduces to us through the feasts of this week (on December 24, 26, 27, and 29). In this quiet period between the two blessed celebrations of Christ’s nativity, on December 25 and January 6, devote some time to reading and thinking about them. Somehow, getting to know these figures prepares us for that greatest re-introduction of all, when we will once more welcome the infant Jesus into our hearts and lives.

We Bow Down Before His Cross

September 7th, 2016    |    No Comments »

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing. But to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God. (I Corinthians 1:18)

This coming Sunday will be the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: the start of the season of the Holy Cross, one of the five major divisions of the Armenian Church calendar.

The Feast of the Exaltation recalls a story about St. James, the brother of the Lord—one of Christ’s Apostles and the first bishop of Jerusalem. He was the first to exalt a cross in the likeness of the original cross of the Crucifixion, and venerate it as a symbol of the power of God, saying: “We bow down before your Cross, O Christ.” We still recite those words in Armenian: Khachi ko, Krisdos, yergirbakanemk.

From the perspective of that time, James’ act of exaltation could only be called unexpected. After all, to residents of the Roman-dominated world of the 1st century A.D., crosses were instruments of torture and humiliating death. Yet for James, its association with the miracle of Christ made the cross an object of reverence—eventually to become the Christian symbol of salvation and victory over death.

We today can only marvel at the eyes which first beheld the once-fearsome cross, and perceived it as a divine sign of Life. But perhaps we can gain an insight into the Exaltation through another story, about another cross. The story is not a part of our holy tradition (although perhaps one day it will be). For this cross was exalted, not in 1st-century Jerusalem, but in New York City, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

This Sunday marks 15 years since that dreadful event, and we can all remember the horror and outrage we felt as we confronted the incredible loss of life, and the prospect of an evil enemy who would willfully extinguish those lives. One couldn’t help wondering, at the time, whether anything could ever arise to redeem the despair of that day.

And yet, something did arise. Digging amid the ruins of Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers had collapsed only a month before, one of the rescue workers discovered something he felt to be a miracle. Two steel beams from the wreckage had fallen together, and landed in the form of a cross. The cross was set upright in the middle of the wreckage, to cast its shadow—literally and symbolically—over the scene. News spread quickly, and soon firefighters, police officers, and construction workers were making “pilgrimages” to the cross, to pray and reflect on the 9/11 attack.

In that bleak landscape of despair, the “Hero’s Cross,” as it came to be called, became a source of spiritual strength. At a blessing service before that site, a Franciscan friar offered these words: “Behold the glory of the cross at Ground Zero,” he said. “This is our symbol of Hope. Our symbol of Faith. Our symbol of Healing.”

Perhaps that’s the divine message St. James intuited, when he first raised the cross some 2,000 years ago. It’s the message of many beloved Armenian sayings: Khachi ko, Krisdos, yergirbakanemk (“We bow down before your Cross, O Christ”), and Sourp Khachn yeghitsi eents oknagan (“Let the Holy Cross be my support”).

And it is certainly the message St. Paul wished to convey, in the words which began this essay: “To those of us who are being saved, the cross is the power of God.”

As we pray for the souls of those who were cruelly taken from this world on September 11, 2001, and as we ask our Lord to grant peace to those who have suffered loss and hardship in the long aftermath of that day, let us also bow down before the Cross of Christ: the unexpected sign of God’s love for, and solidarity with, mankind—which exalts us, even in our pain and suffering.

And let us always proclaim that through the Cross, God has truly revealed His power to the entire world.

The “Hero’s Cross” at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.

The “Hero’s Cross” at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.

Between Crown and Sword

July 7th, 2016    |    No Comments »

On Saturday the Armenian Church will observe the Feast of St. Thaddeus the Apostle and St. Sandukht the Virgin. The story of these two saints sheds light on the early days of
Christianity in Armenia.

Imagine a time of great political and military struggle, a pagan kingdom ruled by a powerful royal family—this was once Armenia. The kingdom strongly clung to the inherited pagan practices until a strange man ventured to Armenia.

His name was Thaddeus. He was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. He preached in people’s homes, in hidden underground chambers, in marketplaces, and in the streets. The Holy Spirit spoke through Thaddeus, bringing the words of Christ to his followers. People listened intently, eager to hear; moved by the Good News, many converted.

Rumors of this unusual man reached a young girl named Sandukht, the daughter of Armenia’s king Sanatrouk. Sparked by curiosity, the princess disguised herself as an ordinary woman and followed her nurse to a Christian gathering.

Sandukht learned about Christ, and when her nurse confessed her commitment to the Christian faith, the princess promised not to tell her father. Intrigued, Sandukht continued attending the Christian gatherings.

The Christian faith made such an impact on Sandukht’s life that she decided to convert.  She declared her belief in Christ and was baptized, and a sign from heaven designated her as a holy virgin. But when the king’s spies reported the news to her father, Sanatrouk was enraged. In an attempt to dissuade his daughter, he promised to allow her to marry the man she loved—an exceptional horseman named Zareh—and to enjoy life in a comfortable palace, surrounded by endless riches.

Sandukht was not tempted by the lure of this extravagant life. Infuriated by his daughter’s stubbornness, Sanatrouk sentenced the princess to jail. Even Zareh could not change Sandukht’s mind. He visited her in prison, begging her to return to him and to her old faith, but nothing could sway Sandukht.

Meanwhile, the news of Sandukht’s imprisonment spread throughout Armenia. Increasingly, people began to accept the Christian faith, and they prayed for Sandukht’s release.

Moved by his love for his daughter, Sanatrouk summoned the princess to his palace to give her one final chance to renounce her new faith. He asked his daughter to choose between the crown and the sword—either she would renounce Christianity and serve as a pagan princess or face death. Sandukht chose the sword, knowing that Christianity would soon blossom in Armenia. Sanatrouk pitied his daughter, but he could not bring himself to turn back on his word.

The young princess was subjected to torture and ultimately ordered to be executed. During this difficult time, she drew strength from St. Thaddeus, who encouraged her to be firm, reminding her that she would soon be with her Savior. Shortly after Sandukht’s death, Thaddeus was also executed by the king.

Zareh was among the many Armenians who were moved by Sandukht’s faith, and who also converted to Christianity. King Sanatrouk continued the orders for the executions of Christians, including Zareh. Their sacrifice planted the seeds of the Christian faith in Armenia—a faith that 300 years later would become the foundation on which Christian Armenia was to be built.

This week, consider the sacrifice of these martyrs and the lessons their lives bear. Think about St. Sandukht’s strong faith despite her father’s efforts of dissuasion, and reflect on the role of this same faith in our lives today.

—Kiersten Johnston interned in the Diocese’s Communications Department three summers ago

St. Thaddeus, St. Sandukht, and other imprisoned Christians by the 19th-century Italian artist Juliano Zasso.

Sunday of the Advent

March 11th, 2016    |    No Comments »

Early in our journey through Great Lent we observed the Sunday of the Expulsion, which retold the story of mankind’s first disobedience, our exile from paradise, and the beginning of humanity’s long history of separation from God.

In a nice expression of symmetry and resolution, Lent concludes with the Sunday of the Advent (March 13): that is, the coming of Jesus Christ, through whom God entered human history and restored what had been lost in the exile from Eden.

The Advent calls to mind the birth and revelation of our Savior, his subsequent sacrifice for mankind, and his victory over sin and death. As the last Sunday of Lent, this day is especially devoted to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, reminding us that he is our eternal Lord and King, and that just as everything once began with God, so too will everything one day end with Him.

Click on the following links to learn more about Lent in the Armenian Church, and to view our archived Lenten video series.

Sunday of the Judge

March 1st, 2016    |    No Comments »

A common image runs through the Gospel reading for Sunday, March 6—the Sunday of the Judge, in Great Lent.

In one parable, our Lord tells the story of a widow who would not cease calling on a judge for justice—and we are meant to think about our own prayers to heaven. In a second parable, a Pharisee and a tax collector pray in the Temple, displaying very different attitudes towards God.

Both of these stories are offered in the context of Jesus telling about the end of the world, the coming of God’s kingdom, and the judgment of all mankind.

Listening to these passages, we are forced to realize that as human beings, every day, we stand before God. Indeed, one day, at the coming of His kingdom, we will stand before Him as our judge. And so we must ask ourselves: How should we stand before God?  How should we prepare to show ourselves to Him?

Sunday of the Judge

Sunday of the Steward

February 25th, 2016    |    No Comments »

The steward is a figure who comes up in many of Jesus’ parables—a “stock character,” we might say, who would have been very recognizable to Christ’s listeners.

What did stewards do, in the time of Jesus?  What made them so interesting to our Lord?

They were, first of all, servants. But a special kind of servant: They were caretakers, or business managers, as we might say today. They were not owners; but the true owner, the master, had given the steward responsibility and authority. And to be given such things meant that the steward was in a position of trust.

Clearly, Jesus saw this special relationship of “stewardship” as symbolic of the greater dynamic between God and man. In the deepest sense, we are not the owners of the good things in our lives: our families, our healthy bodies, our heritage, our church. To be sure, we are indeed responsible for all these things, and we cannot neglect our responsibility. But our highest responsibility is not really to satisfy ourselves, but to please God.

Jesus’s parable about an unjust steward who was accused of cheating his master (Luke 16:1-17—the reading for the third Sunday of Lent) is famous for being difficult to understand.  But it gives us some very concrete clues about what it means to be a “good steward.”

Jesus tells us: “He that is faithful in a little, is faithful also in much” (Lk 16:10).  He asks: “If you have been dishonest with another man’s belongings, who will give you something of your own?” (Lk 16:12).  And he concludes with the famous saying: “No servant can serve two masters” (Lk 16:13).

These words of wisdom should be “food for thought” for us, during our journey through Lent.

But the most important words in the parable come at the very beginning, when the Master asks the Steward: “What is this I hear about you? Give me an account of your stewardship” (Lk 16:2).

Surely, this is the larger point Jesus was making throughout his teaching on stewardship.  God has entrusted us with many serious responsibilities.  He has given us many beautiful gifts and blessings.  But we are called to make an account.

When our Master does so, will we show ourselves to have been good stewards?  Or neglectful ones?

But let’s return for some final thoughts on the parable of the Unjust Steward.  As mentioned, it’s difficult to understand.  Some interpreters strive mightily to make the desperate, swindling steward into an exemplar of moral conduct.  But these attempts are unpersuasive, given Jesus’ larger themes about what constitutes being a “good steward.”

Perhaps a key to its meaning can be found in an overlooked point in Luke’s account.  We learn (Lk 14:14) that Jesus was addressing the Pharisees: the religious teaching authorities of Jesus’ time, entrusted with the job of telling the people what God wanted from them.  But in order to make themselves popular, they had “watered down” the message: like the unjust steward, they had “discounted the debt” that man should rightfully owe to God.

Through the parable of the Unjust Steward, Jesus seems to have been warning the Pharisees—and all authorities in positions of trust—that while this might make them welcome in the homes of men, eventually there would be an accounting—and did they think that God would congratulate them on their shrewdness?

In this reading, Jesus is being ironic when he says (Lk 16:8), “The lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely.” But that mood certainly fits better with the stern lessons about honesty, integrity, and the impossibility of serving two masters, which immediately follow the parable.

Read the passage for yourself. What do you think?

Unjust Steward

A Father’s Love

February 18th, 2016    |    2 Comments »

Perhaps the holiest moment in the Armenian Divine Liturgy is when the congregation fills the church with the singing of the Lord’s Prayer. We begin with the words Hayr Mer—“Our Father”; but what really do we mean by referring to God as a “father”? Do we mean that God brought us into this world? That He is responsible for our welfare until we can go off on our own? Do we think of God as a stern disciplinarian, who will punish us if we go astray? Or do we expect Him to treat us with fatherly favoritism, and turn a blind eye to our faults and misdeeds?

We are told in the Bible that the followers of Jesus were also struggling with this question. The answer that Jesus gave is probably the best summary of Christian love that has ever been uttered: the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

This gospel passage (Luke 15:11-32) should be familiar to everyone—it provides the reading for the second Sunday of the current season of Lent—but let us try to see it with new eyes.

Bowing to the request of his younger offspring, a man divides his property between his two sons. The younger son takes his share and leaves home, but quickly squanders his wealth. Destitute and disgraced, and feeling unworthy of his father, the boy swallows what little pride he has left and returns to his father’s house, where he expects a cool reception. To his surprise, the father welcomes him with embraces and kisses, ordering the servants to make preparations for a great celebration: “My son was dead, and is alive again,” the father announces; “he was lost, and is found.”

Jesus could have ended the parable here—with the “happy ending” of a father celebrating the return of his lost son—and had a simple story expressing God’s undying forgiveness for man, and His joy when a sinner repents.  But Jesus did not stop there: he switches the scene to the field where the older son is working—and has been working diligently his entire life. The older boy is outraged when he learns of his father’s behavior, and corners his father to complain bitterly of the injustice of it.

From a public celebration, we are pulled into a private family argument, and it is as if reality suddenly bursts into the story. In the real world, grand public displays of forgiveness are easy to make; but in private—in the family, so to speak—resentments still linger. The older son’s anger has the ring of truth: he has worked hard to do the right thing, taken responsibility for his life. He has earned his father’s love.  One might ask whether a father who throws away his affection on an undeserving child is so very different from a prodigal son who squanders his inheritance.

Part of what makes this such a touching parable is the way the details seem drawn from real life. Jesus shows himself not as a teller of moral fables, but as an acute observer of human behavior and the human heart. An upright son who demands fair play and just deserts; the uneasy feelings of competition which brothers harbor for a parent’s approval and love—these are all too human, and all too recognizable even to us. The father’s response to his eldest son is the same: having already lost one son, he does not want to lose the other; yet he can offer no counter-argument, nor appeal to any greater standard of justice.

The best he can do is to repeat what he said to the onlookers when his wayward son first returned.  But this time, in this quiet, private setting, the same words have a different feeling: not a joyful announcement to the world, but a father’s plea for understanding from his son: “Your brother was dead, but now he is alive again.” What person who has ever lost a family member—to whatever circumstance—can hear those words and not be moved? The love of a parent for a child is very strong; but to lose that child, and then to get him back again—this must bring forth the most powerful love of all.

This is what God’s love for us is like. This is what it means for us to be able to call Him “Father.” With regard to God, we are all like children who want to be close to our parents: we wonder which child they love best, and worry that we may become unworthy of their love. These are not small concerns, but in our child-like way, we miss the point about our father’s love, which is not necessarily the same for all, but which is so deep that it makes no sense to set up a ranking of least to most favored. It is a love whose depth cannot be measured, and which sometimes is not even fully recognized until it confronts the prospect of loss.

It is a powerful lesson, and a fine example of the kind of teaching that made Jesus famous during his mission to the world.  He offers not a fairy tale where actions have no consequences and love conquers all, but rather a full portrait of what real love requires, and of the obstacles such love presents to real people.

—Christopher Hagop Zakian

A painting found in London's Dulwich Picture Gallery (c. 1630s).

A painting found in London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery (c. 1630s).




Expulsion and Temptation

February 12th, 2016    |    No Comments »

The Armenian Church lays special emphasis on the season of Great Lent as a “school” for personal spirituality. The faithful are guided on a kind of “pilgrimage of the soul,” with each Sunday of Lent dedicated to a story from Scripture, based in a parable of Jesus, or in prophecies concerning him.

However, the first Sunday of the series—the Sunday of the Expulsion—seems at first glance to have no direct link to the life of Jesus.

Lent is the period of personal sacrifice when we are meant to remember (and re-enact) Christ’s sojourn in the wilderness, and the temptations he overcame there. The story of the Expulsion, on the other hand, concerns Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden. On the surface, the stories have little to connect them.

But perhaps there is a deeper connection to consider. Identifying that connection is the subject of a short article published as a web exclusive of First Things magazine, by Christopher Zakian, the Diocese’s director of Communications.

By starting Lent with the Sunday of the Expulsion, the Armenian tradition helps us to appreciate the depth of our human intimacy with Jesus.

Click here to read the essay.

Revealed As Joy to the World

January 12th, 2016    |    No Comments »

Քրիստոս ծնաւ եւ յայտնեցաւ՛
Kreesdos dznav yev haydnetsav!
Christ was born and revealed!

As previously discussed, the Armenian Church celebrates both the birth and baptism of Christ on January 6 (Theophany), while all other Christian traditions celebrate only His birth on December 25 (the Julian Calendar equivalent to December 25 is January 7), and in general, on January 6, eastern traditions celebrate only the baptism of Christ (Theophany or Epiphany), while western traditions commemorate the Magi.

Why refer to the feast of His birth and/or baptism as Theophany or Epiphany (these are interchangeable terms)? In Armenian, the word designated for this feast is Asdvadzahaydnootyoon/Աստուածայայտնութիւն, which translates as ‘the revelation or manifestation of God’ (Asdvadz/Աստուած = God and haydnootyoon/յայտնութիւն = revelation). Theophaneia/ θεοφάνεια is the Greek word which translates the same way (Theo/θεο = God and phaneia/φάνεια = appearance).

Although these events in the life of Christ are celebrated on different days, the one thing they have in common is that they celebrate the revelation or manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God – God Himself in human form. Even the commemoration of the Magi proclaims the appearance of God in human form. These elite kings from the east traverse deserts on foot in search of an infant divine King revealed to them, the one who rules the Kingdom of Heaven.

Today’s hymn speaks of both the birth and baptism of Christ, and two times we sing, “who assumed a body for us and were revealed as joy to the world.” The revelation or appearance of God isn’t merely a cognitive understanding of the God in the flesh, but wonderful news that changes our lives brings joy to our hearts. Why? Because our Savior, the source and fountain of everything good, has come to heal the world and save us from death! Joy to the World!

Օրհնեալ է յայտնութիւնն Քրիստոսի՛
Orhnyal eh haydnootyoonn Kreesdosee!
Blessed is the revelation of Christ!

Hymn for the Seventh Day of Theophany
Aneghanelee puhnootyoon/Անեղանելի բընութիւն (Uncreated nature)

+ Uncreated nature, who share the Father’s essence, you were born to the holy Virgin. We extol you, co-Creator with the Father.

+ Uncreated Creator, who assumed a body for us and were revealed as joy to the world, we extol you, co-Creator with the Father.

+ You were baptized in the Jordan by John. In the form of a dove, the Holy Spirit testified of you in a heavenly voice. We extol you, co-Creator with the Father.

+ The Word, sent by the Father, who assumed a body for us, and was revealed as joy to the world. We extol you, virgin Mother of God.

+ For the One whom the blazing Seraphim could not bear, He dwelled in your womb. We extol you, virgin Mother of God.

+ Awestruck, they trembled at His light, flashing like lightning, yet you took Him into your arms. We extol you, virgin Mother of God.

+ O Light you were sent by Father when you came down from heaven and assumed a body from the holy Virgin. You are the Lamb of God and the Son of the Father.

+ Today in the cave you were presented as Savior and you were worshipped by the magi. When the shepherds saw you they said, “You are the Lamb of God and the Son of the Father.”

+ John saw the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove. He cried out, saying, “This is the Lamb of God and the Son of God.”

Hymns are prayers. If there is a moment when you don’t know how or what to pray, take a hymn of the Armenian Church, or even just a verse, and repeat it back to God as a prayer.

The Nativity of Christ, 14th century, by St. Gregory of Datev at Datev Monastery

The Nativity of Christ, 14th century, by St. Gregory of Datev at Datev Monastery.

The Paradox of Faith

January 10th, 2016    |    No Comments »

Is faith in God rational? Does it supersede human reason? Does belief in God necessitate that we shut down our minds and blindly go forth into the realm of mystery and theological concepts that only people of the Church understand? Perhaps if faith were simpler and more understandable, more people would believe.

It makes some sense that if God were more understandable, attainable, or graspable, faith would be easier. Or would it? Would it even be faith at all? Is there something deeper that needs to be there in order for faith to form and endure? Indeed there is… paradox. In fact, it is mystery of paradox that moves us to love and worship our Creator.

What is a paradox? Let’s look at an example of one from the hymn for the First Day of Theophany: “The One who cannot be bounded by heaven or earth was wrapped in swaddling clothes. Never parting from the Father, he lay in the holy cave.” How can the One who cannot be bound by heaven and earth, in fact be bound in swaddling clothes? Is this an irrational statement? Is our faith based on riddles and contradictions?

To be clear, there is a significant difference between a contradiction and a paradox. A contradiction is a falsehood, and as such cannot be understood or grasped. It is irrational to say or believe that a black hat is, in fact a red hat. On the other hand, a paradox is a seeming contradiction, but is not a contradiction. A paradox, in the Christian sense, resides in the realm of mystery, but because we are limited by our finitude, it is something we do not understand and are unable to grasp, even though it is true.

Christian theology and belief is not only replete with the presence of paradoxes, it is rooted and grounded in them. The Incarnation itself, a revealed mystery, contains various paradoxes, which we see become prayerful song in numerous hymns of the Church. Although not able to be understood through human reason, these Christian paradoxes become a means to worship God.

A paradox places us where we rightfully belong in the created order, as finite beings in loving communion with an infinite God. They are not a syllogisms to be proven, or riddles to be solved. They are the content of our faith, and without the mystery of Christian paradoxes there would be no sense of the transcendence of God, and nowhere for our faith to take root and rest. Our faith is not irrational. And thankfully, neither does it rely on human reason.

Instead, our faith rests in knowing a God who is unknowable. Glory to God and blessed is the revelation of Christ!

Hymn for the Fifth Day of Theophany
Aysor vor hator
/Այսոր որ յաթոռ (Today, who is enthroned)

+ Today the incarnate Word, who is enthroned in glory with the Father, is born to the holy Virgin, giving birth to the universe for the grace of adoption.

+ Today the uncontainable Word of the Father, the Lord of all, lies in a manger for simple beasts, and rests above the Cherubim.

+ The One who is the very radiance of the Father’s glory, asked John to be baptized in the Jordan’s currents, requesting the company of the universe with an apostolic call.

+ In faith let us receive the One born to the holy Virgin into our hearts, just as Simeon earlier received Him into his arms.

+ Let us praise the One sent by the Father, who was wrapped in swaddling clothes for us, and saved us from the curse of Adam.

+ Rejoice, parched desert! Flower in blessed faith forevermore! For Christ, has been revealed as Hope to the nations.

As you read the words to this hymn, did you notice the paradox/mystery. How does it affect your faith? What do we know (or not know) about God from these verses?

The Baptism of Christ, 989, Noravank Monastery

The Baptism of Christ, 989, Noravank Monastery