The story behind the first Christian nation
Published 30 September 2008
In this week's series on the Armenian Church, Revd. Dr. Nersessian, explores the history of the faith.
The Only-begotten Son has descended [ Edj ( to descend) -miadsin ( Only begotten son) ]
And the light of glory was about him.
Voices resounded in the depths of Hades,
The patriarch Gregory saw the great light;
And joyfully declared the same to the believing king.
Come, let us build the holy sanctuary of the light, for in him did light shone forth unto us
in the land of Armenia.
In 2001 the Christian world marked the 1700th anniversary of Armenian Christianity,a notable milestone in the history of the Christian Church. To mark the occasion I organised for the British library an international exhibition of Armenian Christian art called : Treasures from the Ark: 1700 years of Armenian Christian Art (2001).
Beneath the cathedral in Holy Edjmiadsin ( Republic of Armenia), the mother church of Armenian Christians lie the remains of a small stone church, which may well date back to the earliest years of the church of Armenia when,according to tradition, St Gregory the Enlightener (c.240-332), following years of imprisonment and suffering, converted King Trdat in 301. Ever since, Armenia has claimed the privilege of being the first Christian nation. On the feast day of Holy Ejdmiadsin, the above hymn is sung in every Armenian church around the world. The hymn traces the conversion of the Armenian people to Christianity through the ministry of St Gregory. In a very short period Christian Armenia became, one of the most remarkable of all Christian communities, with a capacity for survival in the face of adversity only matched by that of Judaism.
The Armenian church recognises the doctrinal and canonical validity of the first three ecumenical councils, of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381) and Ephesus (431) as adequate for ‘ basis of life and guide to the path leading to God’. Bishop Aristakes who attended the Council of Nicaea representing the Armenian Church, returned to Armenia with the Nicaean Creed and St Gregory inspired by the synodal decree added to the creed this bold statement of approval "We glorify Him who was before all ages,adoring the Holy Trinity,and the one Godhead of the Father, the Son,and the Holy Ghost, now and ever through ages of ages. Amen". This bold and clear proclamation recited every Sunday in the liturgy, sums up the doctrinal and theological position of the Armenian church.
The church of Armenia embarked on a path of autonomy very early on. In its endeavour to strengthen its national character, it broke all jurisdictional ties with Caesarea in 389 following the partition of Armenia between Byzantium and Persia in 387. In an attempt to force Persian Armenia to revert to Mazdaeism in 449, the Armenian nobility and the people, led by Vardan Mamikonian waged a war against the Persian army in the plain of Avarayr,on 26 May 451. In spite of the defeat,the Persians were unable to reintroduce Mazdaeism into Armenia; they finally relented and in 484 the Sassanian ruler proclaimed the freedom of religious worship.
Armenians call the sacred writings of the Judaeo-Christian tradition that together comprise the Bible ' Astouadsashountch', which means 'the breath of God', based on the interpretation that St Paul gives to the Bible in his Epistle 2 Timothy III:16: "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching". The evangelization of Armenia had been achieved through the use of the Greek and Syriac alphabets with the aid of appointed monks called T'argmanitch, i.e Translators,whose task was to translate the scriptures into the spoken Armenian language. But hearing the Gospel was not enough to make the 'message profitable'. It had to be read.
With the consent of the Armenian king Vramshapouh and the Catholicos Sahak ( 387- 436), the head of the Armenian church, the monk Mesrop Mashtots ( c.361-440) invented the Armenian alphabet in 406,that is still in use today. Between 407 and 412 the entire Bible was translated into Armenian beginning with the Book of Proverbs attributed to King Solomon. The first sentence written in the newly invented Armenian alphabet was 'To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding'. According to Mesrop's biographer Koriwn "at that time our blessed and desirable land of Armenia became truly worthy of admiration,where,by the hands of two colleagues, suddenly, in an instant, Moses, the law-giver,along with the order of the prophets,energetic Paul, with the order of the apostles, along with Christ's world-sustaining gospel, became Armenian speaking'.
The invention of the Armenian alphabet,the rejection of the decisions of the fourth Ecumenical Council held in Chalcedon 451, and the creation of an independent calendrical system in 506 united the nation with its Christian faith 'inseparably' and ever since the church has functioned as a conduit and safeguard for Armenian culture,and has played an important role in the formation and preservation of Armenian identity. Armenian history is full of testing times,and adherence to the Armenian Apostolic church has become beacon of awareness of one's being Armenian.
Democracy in the Armenian Church
Published 02 October 2008
Dr Harry Hagopian continues our series on the Armenian Church by examining the leadership and community of believers.
The Armenian Church spans a historical period of over 1700 years, from the year 301 AD when St Gregory the Enlightener witnessed Armenia become the first nation-state to adopt Christianity as state religion, to the 1600th anniversary of St Mesrop Mashtots who created our Armenian 36-letter alphabet in 406 AD, to the Golden Age for Armenia, and finally to our present times in the third millennium.
The Mother See of the Armenian Church is based at Holy Etchmiadzin in Armenia. It is endowed with several spiritual and administrative bodies representing its authority. From the National Ecclesiastical Assembly to the various Councils and Brotherhoods, it remains one of the primary references for Armenians worldwide - whether in the Republic of Armenia, independent since 1991, or in the Diaspora. It plays an important role in the cultural and educational levers of the country, as well as being co-responsible for some of the scholastic curricula and textbooks within its remit.
Unlike many other Churches, the supreme leader of the Armenian Church (the incumbent is HH Catholicos Karekin II) is elected by clergy and laity alike. In other words, lay men and women have a joint democratic right in selecting their shepherd, and in the process strengthening the bonds between clergy and laity as well as engaging both sides in the life, witness and renewal of the Church.
The majority of the 9 million Armenians world-wide preserve their Armenian identity even as they integrate quite comfortably and successfully in their host countries. Broadly speaking, Armenians rely on three fundamental axes for the consolidation of their Armenian identity. Those axes are their faith (therefore their Church), their language (therefore Armenian), and their education (therefore their schools). In the UK, for instance, Armenians are by and large native speakers in their own homes and with their own families even though many of them are also native British citizens in centres of Armenian presence such as in London and Manchester. Many of them are also faithful to their weekly Saturday and Sunday schools as their young children are enrolled to learn about their language, religion, scouting, customs, social and cultural activities.
But when I write of the Armenian Diaspora, comprising almost half of the overall 9 million, it is also fitting to recall that many of them are living in the Diaspora because they were chased out of their own ancestral homes and lands during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 perpetrated by Ottoman Turks under the cover of WWI. Reading the detailed and academically-sanctioned parliamentary Blue Book authored by Arnold Toynbee & Lord Bryce is enough for one to realise the extent of the Armenian sacrifices during the war. This is why Armenians show recollection and homage to the victims of this genocide - including over one thousand clergy who became martyrs - by recognising their painful death so that the new generations could live in freedom today. After all, as Hitler himself ominously asked his generals as he planned the horrors of the Holocaust and an attack on Poland, “After all, who remembers the Armenians today”?
In Armenian, we have a saying that “it is better to see something once than to hear about it seven times!” I therefore encourage readers to get to know us better as a church, a nation and a people by travelling to Armenia, and enjoying not only our history and culture, but also the budding beauty of our country.
The blessing of the Miwron : Behind the ritual
Published 01 October 2008
Continuing the series on the Armenian Church, Revd. Dr. Nersessian, explains the rituals and festivals of the followers.
The Armenian Orthodox Apostolic Church has four feast days dedicated to the Holy Cross:Apparition of the Holy Cross, Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Discovery of the Holy Cross and Holy Cross of Varag. Of these the fourth is unique to the Armenian Church. It recounts the story of an Armenian priest in the seventh century, when Armenia was occupied by the Arabs, seeing a vision of the cross on Mount Varag in Vaspourakan. This year the feast of the Holy Cross of Varag was celebrated on 28th September 2008 in conjunction with a very special ritual. On this occasion His Holiness the Catholicos of All Armenians (Chief Bishop) performed one of the most ancient and mystical rituals of the Armenian church called Miwronorhnek, the Blessing of the Holy Chrism, performed once every seven years at Echmiadsin. In the whole of the 20th century, this ritual has been performed only nine times.
The ceremony is quite complex and preparations begin 40 days before the festive service. Seven layers of veils cover the cauldron in which the chrism is already fermenting. The prayer service begins a 40 day process of chanting of psalms, singing of hymns and scriptural readings,culminating in the Blessing of the Holy Chrism by the Catholicos of All Armenians, assisted by twelve bishops representing the church world wide.
The word miwron means "fragrant oil" in Greek,derived from the root ' to rub', or ' to anoint'.The miwron is an extremely precious mixture comprising of the fragrance of 40 recipes described in the Old Testament:
Armenian miwron is made of pure virgin olive oil, balsam ( a fragrant liquid that comes from the bark of some evergreens), and 40 kind of incense, flowers, roots, plants, oils, and leaf extracts. Some of the ingredients are obtained from distant locations like India, Sumatra and Nepal.
The Blessing of the Miwron is an extravagant ritual, containing a rare list of ingredients, performed ony by the Catholicos of All Armenians in the presence of thousands of pilgrims. If one were to compare it with any other religious festival the most equal in significance would be the pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca. The Armenian church cannot function without it. In the Armenian church it is used to consecrate altars,churches,gospels,clergy, and in Baptism it is used for confirmation.
On the feast of Nativity and Epiphany marking the the Birth and Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan, celebrated on the 6th of January, the blessing of the water and pouring of drops of miwron into the water contained in a vessel in the shape of a dove symbolises the descent of the Holy Spirit confirming Christ to be the Son of God. The revealing of Christ to mankind is not as a child but as a Saviour.
The most significant aspect of the Blessing of the Miwron is its continuity factor. According to tradition, a portion of the chrism that Moses blessed still remained in Jesus' time. Jesus blessed it as well and gave some to St Thaddeus, who took it to Armenia and healed King Abgar of a skin disease. St Thaddeus buried the bottle of holy oil under an evergreen tree in Taron, where St Gregory the Enlightener found it through a vision. He took the bottle and mixed it with the first blessing of the miwron he performed, when Armenia became a Christian state in AD 301. To this day,whenever a new batch of miwron is blessed, the central focus of the entire ceremony is the mixing of the old miwron with the new. Behind the symbolism of this story, lies the concept of the Apostolic authority of the church that the use of the miwron in baptism links every Armenian to his Christian roots via Moses, Jesus Christ and Gregory the Enlightener.
Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, Information Services
THE MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS KAREKIN II
SUPREME PATRIARCH AND CATHOLICOS OF ALL ARMENIANS
ON THE OCCASION OF THE BLESSING OF THE HOLY MURON
Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, 28 September 2008
In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
"YOU SHALL PREPARE OIL FOR HOLY ANNOINTING...
IT IS SACRED, AND THEREFORE SHOULD REMAIN SACRED FOR YOU."
Dear pious Armenian pilgrims,
>From the heights of heaven, holiness descends once more today and disperses blessing, grace and exuberance over our homeland, within our souls, and throughout the whole of Armenian life. In the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, with the prayerful participation of the sons and daughters of our nation dispersed throughout the world, we bless the Holy Muron (Chrism)
according to the words granted from our Lord. Glory, unending praise and thanks to our all-provident God.
It is through the beneficent Will of God, that on this festive day of the Holy Cross of Varag, we have gathered together with joyful souls to bless the Holy Muron. We are together in our holiest site where Christ Himself descended, which was drawn with heavenly lights as the center of witness of faith and the altar of oath for our people and for all time. For continuous centuries, guided by the spirit of pilgrimage, our Armenian nation, reinforced and renewed with faith, sees their illuminated path to eternity - their path to salvation and God. "So that this illuminates us with faith and we grow in the house of God; so that this renews us with the graces of
the Holy Spirit and fills us, makes us fruitful and bountiful with the same." (Catholicos of All Armenians Simeon of Yerevan). The God-granted and soul-sustaining mission of Holy Etchmiadzin, from the time of Saint Gregory our Illuminator, is dispersed and distributed through the Holy Muron to our churches, our hearths and Armenian life around the globe.
On this grace-renewing day of the Blessing of the Holy Muron, we mixed the most noble, aromatic and healing liquids with the fruit of the olive tree - the symbol of peace with our Creator. To this virtuous mixture, we combined the previous Muron, through which, we transmit the oil blessed by our Lord from generation to generation; and also mixed the newly made Muron of the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia. We blessed it with our sacred and cherished relics - with the saving Cross of our Lord, the Holy Lance, and the Holy Right Hand of our Illuminator Pontiff. With the warmest prayers of our souls, we appealed for the intercession of our holy forefathers, so that the newly blessed Muron, through the permeation of the Holy Spirit, becomes "the seal of heavenly cleanliness". We prayed that the seven virtues of heaven be distributed within our lives, and as God has directed, the Muron be and always remain sacred for all of us. Today, this Muron receives miraculous power with the heavenly graces of the Holy
Spirit. Today, this substance, through prayer and entreaty, becomes conscious and alive, "I sanctify you, oil of the olive tree, in the name of Almighty God... so that all influences and powers of satan be persecuted by you, so that you become strengthened with blessing, to seal the Holy Spirit on all those whom you anoint, in the name of the Almighty Father and the Son - our Lord Jesus Christ." (Canon of the Blessing of the Muron). Through the benevolent Will of God, the Holy Muron is holy and sanctifies. With the luminous and sweet aromatic Muron, we consecrate our churches; transforming them into the house of God. Through their ordination with Muron, clergymen are called to service at the holy altar of our Lord.
Through the grace-bearing and grace-dispersing Muron, we are born from the baptismal font as the worthy people of God - as the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church. Through the seal of the Holy Muron, we recognize, live, feel and protect our Armenian and Christian identity and our national wholeness. Sealed with Holy Muron, we have triumphed over all wars of life and death; over all campaigns for survival and endurance, for the sake of our faith and our homeland. Through the power and light of the Muron, we unite our past, present and the future of our children.
The Blessing of the Holy Muron, dear Armenian sons and daughters, is a call and invitation to our nation, to remain under the graces of holiness, to renounce evil and its works, and to keep the light of our Lord's gospel undimmed in our lives. The Blessing of the Muron is an exhortation to live with Christ, to walk with Christ, since you were baptized in Christ and took on the garment of Christ with the Holy Muron. (ref. Gal 3:27) Only with our Lord and the love He bestows, shall goodness and justice reign in our lives. Only thus shall the sacred faith our fathers remain unshaken and immaculate in our hearts, and our paths shall become successful and full of hope.
Today we, as Pontiff of All Armenians, are encouraged and optimistic, filled with the hopes of the future, since in our native land of Armenia and Artsakh, in our revitalized Church, in our independent state, but especially in the healthy inner-life of our people, we feel and see the awakening and maturing will and imperative to be cleansed, to be purified, and to create a righteous society and just state. We see the will and the demand to heal our national wounds, to overcome the difficulties in our ecclesiastical life - the divisions and diverging opinions brought on by the times. So that in Armenian life, we are one and united, always and forever - one nation, one faith, one Church - with our united homeland, and to proceed to new accomplishments with one will and one mind, to the realization of our righteous aspirations and worthy goals, to the lasting refuge provided for us by God.
We are optimistic and encouraged from all the goodness bequeathed to our nation by God, from all good works that are fruitful in Armenian life in dispersion, from plans turning into reality which serve the welfare of our people, the prosperity of our homeland, and the vibrancy of our Holy Church. Let us unite and strengthen our efforts so that our native land blossoms and lives in God-granted peace and liberty, and gains strength with our Lord's true love, with the devotion, talent and creativity of its sons and daughters. Let us take care and be attentive so that our Holy Church dispersed throughout the world, always be vibrant through the traditions and contributions of our ancestors, with its God-loving people who are faithful to their Etchmiadzin-sealed souls. May the unity and mission of our Holy Church and the solidarity of our people be fruitful through the miraculous and nation-gathering graces of strength of the luminous Muron.
Dear pious faithful, on this sacred day of Blessing the Holy Muron, let us gaze again to see the descent of our Lord with the ranks of angels, the destruction of the demons of hell with the strike of the golden hammer, and the flow of life-giving waters from the heavenly altar deluging all of
Armenian life, which is the Illuminator's vision of our people's baptism and rebirth with the Holy Spirit. Let us see and be reinforced with faith, and be filled with new hopes, with the awakening of reborn life.
O Armenian people, O people graced and triumphant, who through the life you have lived from century to century through heroic testimonies, are faithful to your oath with God established through Holy Etchmiadzin. Be renewed daily with your faith, become luminous with the righteous and beneficial results of church-building and nation-devoted works, so that under God's blessing, our Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin remains eternally unshaken, our homeland forever crowned by Ararat always remains free and independent, and that Armenians always look to the future with confidence.
It is with these emotions and wishes what we welcome the presence of the president of the Republic of Armenia, Serzh Sargsian; president of the Republic of Nagorno Karabagh, Bako Sahakian; and high-ranking state authorities of the Armenians; wishing them success in the progress of Armenia and Artsakh, and for the sake of the right of our people in Artsakh to live free.
With our love in Christ, we extend our fraternal greetings to the incumbents of our hierarchal sees, His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia; His Beatitude Torkom Manoogian, Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem; and His Beatitude Mesrob Mutafian, Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople; asking for God's blessing and assistance for their lives.
We are happy on this joyous day for our people, to welcome in Holy Etchmiadzin our brother in Christ, Ecumenical Patriarch His All Holiness Bartholomew I, asking for God's protection for his pious flock.
Our love in Christ we also convey to the graceful representatives of our sister Churches, the diplomats accredited in the Republic of Armenia, and representatives of governmental and international organizations, wishing for them God's daily guidance in their mission of service.
We convey our pontifical blessings and greet the diocesan primates of our Church, diocesan and parochial councils, our oath-bound ranks of clergy, you - our sons and daughters who have come today as pilgrims, and all our pious people in Armenia, Artsakh and the Diaspora.
Let us together pray that the Almighty grant reconciliation to the world, keep our homeland in peace under His grace, and keep our people throughout the world secure and tranquil.