by V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan
We are now in the last week of the church year before the start of Great Lent. As some may know, one of the things that distinguishes Great Lent in the Armenian Church is that the church only commemorates saints on Saturdays. During most of the year, Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays are set aside for the commemoration of saints, in addition to Saturdays. It is perhaps for this reason that the most cherished Armenian saints will be commemorated this week, before Lent starts: on Tuesday St. Ghevont the Presbyter and his Companions; and on Thursday, St. Vartan and his Companions.
The Feast of Ghevontyants is the feast day of priests. This Tuesday, February 9, according to a long-held custom of our Diocese, all of the Armenian priests in the greater New York area will assemble at St. Leon (Ghevont) Armenian Church in Fair Lawn, New Jersey to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and to pay tribute to their patron saint and role model.
There is no need to review the amazing story of the Vartanants and Ghevontyantsmartyrs, which is recounted by two Armenian historians of the time: Yeghishé the Historian and Ghazar Parbetsi.
St. Ghevont is remembered as the priest who, on the night before the decisive battle against the Persians in 451ad, assembled the Armenian troops on the battlefield and baptized those that not yet been received into the Church. This was just over a century after the Christian conversion of the Armenian people by St. Gregory the Illuminator, and we know that there were still pockets of the population that had not yet been evangelized. St. Ghevont then celebrated the Divine Liturgy and distributed Holy Communion to every soldier.
I would like to draw attention, however, to the fiery sermon that St. Ghevont preached to the troops. Preserved in Yeghishé’s History, it is probably one of the greatest sermons ever delivered by an Armenian priest. In those final words to theVartanants soldiers, St. Ghevont lays out the motive for the battle. He spells out why the Armenian nation was going to war against a massive and powerful adversary.
Contrary to what many of us may think, the battle had nothing to do with defending the national homeland. St. Ghevont says nothing about Armenian lands. Nor was the battle about preserving Armenian ethnic identity. St. Ghevont has nothing to say about this. Least of all were the Armenians going to battle to defend religious liberty or freedom of conscience. These modern ideas, laudable though they may be, are absent from the priest’s discourse.
Instead, St. Ghevont’s entire sermon speaks to the Armenian nation’s enduring union with Jesus Christ. So permanently has the Lord given himself to those who believe in him, that nothing can separate the Armenian faithful from Jesus. St. Ghevont speaks of “double hope,” of a veritable “win-win” situation facing the Armenians on the eve of the battle. Whether or not the Armenians win the military contest, they have already been rewarded with the prize that cannot be taken away: eternal life in union with God in Jesus Christ. Even if they lose the battle, the Armenian people will have proven by their martyrdom the reality and the permanence of the life given to them by God. Neither the Persians nor death itself can terminate that life.
These are noble words, heroic words, hope-filled words; words that Armenians today need to hear. Today, perhaps more than in the fifth century, the Armenian people desperately need noble and heroic priests like St. Ghevont. The message of St. Ghevont is the message of the Armenian Church. It is a message of little interest to Armenian political parties, cultural organizations, lobbyists, or government officials. No one but the Armenian Church can or will transmit the message of St. Ghevont to the Armenian people.
Who but the Armenian Church will lift up the hearts of our people? Who will convey the reality of “double hope” in Christ? Who will inspire and elevate our people from their often insular, short-sighted and divisive ways? Who will lead them to their true calling in Jesus Christ, the bearer of true and permanent divine life?
St. Ghevont said that nothing and no one could separate Christ from the Christian. The Persians, though they won the battle, could not erase Jesus Christ from the Armenian nation. The Ottoman Turks, though they massacred 1.5 million Armenians, could not eradicate our life in Jesus Christ.
Yet shockingly, the vast majority of Armenians in America today have little interest in their ancestral church beyond receiving “sacramental services” (baptisms, weddings and funerals) and the occasional Sunday visit to memorialize the dead. What the Persian and the Ottoman Turk could not accomplish we are achieving quite effectively for ourselves.
How desperately we need to hear St. Ghevont’s message.
On this Feast of St. Ghevont and his Companions, let us pray for the priests of the Armenian Church. May St. Ghevont himself intercede with the Lord to empower our priests to preach and to instill in our people the unparalleled love of God in Jesus Christ, and to make them worthy of their Christian vocation, which the Armenian prayer of Baptism calls, “the most excellent calling.”
Even more important, may the Lord inspire many young men, through the valiant and heroic example of St. Ghevont, to step forward to serve the Armenian Church as priests. St. Ghevont’s heroism did not come from his education, intelligence, talents or personal virtue, about which history has recorded nothing. St. Ghevont is remembered and venerated today because he was willing to commit himself to the service of God in the Armenian Church; to allow God to bring divine healing and hope to His people through the mouth, heart, hands and feet of one priest at a pivotal moment in Armenian history.
We have reached another pivotal moment in Armenian history. Let us encourage our children to aspire to the example of St. Ghevont: as valiant priests and gracious servants of our Lord who, by their words and actions, will become witnesses to the loving mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ for all the world to behold. As the first Christian nation, we should be satisfied with nothing less.