The saints, Artsakh and a focus on inner strength
Sermon by Fr. Vazken Movsesian, 1 November 2020
St. Leon Armenian Cathedral, Burbank, California
Ամենայն սրբովք զորս յիշատակեցաք ևս առաւելապէս, զՏէր աղաչեսցուք…
By all the saints whom we have commemorated, let us ask of the Lord… (from the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church)
Yesterday was All Saints Day in the Armenian Apostolic Church. Today is All Saints day in the West and in particular in the Roman Catholic Church, hence yesterday was the Eve of All Saints or All Hollow’s Day or Hollow’s eve, commonly referred to as Halloween.
Saints are perhaps the most misunderstood features of our church. Protestants criticize the intercession of the saints on several grounds, one of which being that the saints are dead people. We in the Armenian Church do not believe life ends at the grave, in fact, we believe that the soul is eternal. Just as we ask a friend or a family member to pray for us, we may also turn to the saints to pray for us, with the assurance that they live with us. This is why during the Liturgy we remember several saints, the Apostles, the Martyrs, the teachers and some of the saints we remember by name, for instance the Kings Abgar, Constantine, Tirtads or the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew, and of course the Holy Mother of God, the Asdvadzadzin. We ask that they pray with and for us.
By rejecting the saints, we miss a very real opportunity to connect with the Divine. As a Christian, I hold as my highest ideal Jesus
Christ. When he says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48) it’s a standard that is very difficult, perhaps even impossible to achieve. We hold Jesus as the primary example of that perfection; however, we must remember that he is God. But the saints are people like you and me. Every one of them has a will, desires, wants, has dealt with envy, pride and all that define us as human. Every one of them has been challenged with the realities of everyday life and its hardships and have confronted that life with imperfections of the human selfhood. But, somehow, they have managed to rise above the situation. They have risen to a place of goodness that inspires us. This, then, is the power of the saints in our lives. They are people. They have faults. And with their faults they have overcome life’s challenges. In other words, they are realistic examples for us. Look at their lives, we know that we too can rise from our human nature and our situation. So how did they do it? By having Christ, the Christ-force, inside them and by tapping into that power.
I’d like to talk to you about the power especially today as we realize what we all have known and have now rediscovered: We Armenians are alone! The attack on Artsakh is not a border skirmish, it’s a backdoor entry by our enemy to finish what they attempted in 1915. They are ready to finish us off. This is the existential threat – the threat to end Armenia and the existence of Armenians. And when we look around us, we see ourselves alone on the world stage.
We have heard the story of Khirimian Hayrik in Berlin. In the mid 1800’s he went there to participate in a conference with other nations. He writes a poignant letter to the Armenian people, describing the meeting as nations huddled around a pot of heriseh (a porridge made with meat and grains, thick being it’s noted attribute). Khirimian writes that all the other nations came to the table with the clanging swords and dug deep into the heriseh with “iron ladles” and pulled out their portion. However, then the turn came to Khirimyan to pull out the portion for the Armenians, he had no swords or guns, but a letter in his hand. He called this the paper ladle, which easily flopped by the weight of the heriseh. He tells the Armenian people, when you return to Armenia arm yourself with weapons, weapons and more weapons. “People, understand above all else that you must put the hope of your freedom upon yourself, on your brains, the might of your fist… Man, for himself, must work for his deliverance.”
That Berlin story is over 150 years old. And here we are, once again in 2020, standing on the world stage with our hands stretched out asking for others to assist us. Why have we forgotten the words of Khirimian Hayrik? Even more important, why have we forgotten from where his strength came? And our Primate, Abp. Hovnan, expressed it so concisely the other day, “Armenia cannot stand with the crumbs given by foreigners.”
Khirimyan was a priest of the Armenian Church. He became Catholicos. He was so loved that they referred to him as hayrik, yet under all the titles and layers, he was a priest, a priest of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Just like, when we speak of the composer and musician Gomidas, we speak of his musical prowess or his genius, but we forget that first and foremost he was a priest of the Armenian Church, he was Fr. Gomidas, a priest of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And today, in our world with all of our materialism and egocentric culture – with all the things we buy and sell – things that we claim to have “value,” we have forgotten, we have laid to one side, the strength that we have within us. We have forgotten that we were born of the font of baptism and drink from the fountain of immortality – connecting us to Jesus Christ. As the Apostle says, If God is with us, who can be against us? (Rm 8) When we think of Artsakh and the threat to Armenia and to our being, we look for strength, for assistance, and ultimately to be save? Why are we looking outside of ourselves? Why are we not looking within? Khirimian Hayrig, Gomidas Vartabed were the beginning of a long line of clergy – church leaders – from Mourapekian, Gevork Catholicos, Chorekjian and in our times the greats such as Vazken Vehapar, and in his shadow the bishops that we have today, from our Catholicos to our Primate who were his students. Against all the odds and with huge obstacles before them, they took us from the Yeghern of 1915 to Sardarabad, through the communist era, to the Karabaghian-sharzhum, to the independence of Armenia, with the Gospel message: Unless a grain of wheat falls and dies it remains a single seed, but by dying it produces a harvest. (Jn 12) All the time, they connected us to the power of Jesus Christ!
Jesus Christ was the first non-violent revolutionary. I am convinced that Tirdat the King, who was the king of Armenia in the 4th century, who had armies (plural!) under his command, who understood strength and diplomacy, who understand military strategy… I am convinced that Tirdat accepted Christianity because he saw it as power for victory and not for surrender. He saw the strength of Faith, based on the message of Jesus Christ, was about overcoming the evil with the power of love. He understood the power of resurrection over death!
This is the basic Faith that we have had throughout the centuries, that our Church has preached through its priests before we came to America and were filled with distorted understandings of religion that are tied with material wealth. This is the faith the Church preached whether Khirimian or Gomidas, Shnorhali or Datevatsi, or today in the trenches of Artsakh where our soldiers make the sign of the cross, are baptized and go into battle to defend the lives of their loved one.
This then is the power and the message of the Saints. It’s the connection with the Source of Life, connecting not with the manger in Bethlehem but with all of eternity – In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God! … He came to his own and his own did not accept him, but to those who believe he gave the power to be Sons of God.
Yes, WE are the children of God. We are the people of God. The SAINTS understood this. This is why and how they accomplished their miracles. This is how we have stood up and won against every enemy. …To those who believe he gave the power to be Children of God.
Israel is not a piece of land in the Middle East – it literally means “Triumphant with God!” the People of God! It isn’t enough that the Garden of Eden is in Armenia (Gen 2:10) and Noah’s Ark lands in Armenia (Gen 8:4), it isn’t enough that we were the First Christian Nation, but each of us who is baptized of the Holy Font of the Armenian Church, each of us who is born again from our Holy Mother, as we come out of the water of Baptism, and the confirmation of the Holy Miuron – the priest sings, “We are called the New Israel! In Christ and we are a portion and joint heirs of Christ! (Նոր Իսրայէլ կոչեցաք ի Քրիստոս, եղաք բաժին Տեառն և ժառանքակից Քրիստոսի)
What power!!! We are connected to the Revolution that Christ started! Do you understand now? Every story in which Jesus give the sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf and life to the dead, he caps with the words, “Do not be afraid.”
The Saints, are the connection to the Divine. They have been through this path. They have reached out of their humanity and have been able to tap into Divine because Jesus Christ has been at the center of their being and the expression of their being. With all due respect to our brothers and sisters who have come and created new denominations, that reject and find little to know value in the saints, they have kept you away from the source of life. They have kept you from the HOLY MIURON! From that life-energy that ties you with all the SAINTS. That ties you to Christ, who is there from the beginning, and lives in the saints, Asdvadzadzin, Thaddeus and Bartholomew, Hripsime and Gayane, Loosavorich and Tirtad, 40 Martyrs of Sebatia, Shoushan and Santoukh, Datevatzi, Naregatzi, Shnorhali, in the Holy Martyrs of the Genocide, and on the front line in Artsakh and in all of us! The New Israel.
Let’s not look elsewhere. Return to the Church that connects us to the power of Christ. The Church with its Miuron from the time of St. Gregory the Illuminator and spread on the forheads of the soldier on the front line in Artsakh. We are called to march with the saints. We are called to come to Armenia’s defense with the weapons that we have always had. You are the new TRIUMPHANT in God! Pack with you the weapons of thought, speech, writing, aid, business, and money. Jesus Christ ushered in the Revolution and we have been connected to it. Today is the day to realize that the invitation is there for you to answer. Christ is in each of us. If you write, write, If you cook, cook, if you sew, sew, if you pray, pray, if you are a doctor, heal, if you are a person, have compassion, share that compassion and just see how, you can tap into the Divine.
God bless you, the Armenian People, the Armenian nation and Armenia. Amen.