Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Armenian Genocide and Martyrdom

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated — of whom the world was not worthy—wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” – Hebrews 11:36-40 (RSV)

Dying for one’s faith is nothing new. Neither is it unfamiliar, especially for the Armenian Church. In fact, one could say that our Church has been built on the blood of martyrs. In a way it defines us. Persecution and martyrdom has shaped our spirituality, and how we express our faith. We’ve learned to not only deal with it, but to somehow embrace it.

For this reason, I would like to view what has become one of the most significant symbols of our faith – the Armenian Genocide – through the lens of martyrdom.

First, what is a martyr? In the classic sense, the word ‘martyr’, or մարտիրոս in Armenian, simply means witness. But eventually a martyr came to be known as a person who willingly or unwillingly suffers death, rather than renounce his or her religion, belief, principle, or cause.

So we can define a martyr as someone who dies as a witness to what they believe. But how should we think about martyrs as witnesses to the Christian faith? Perhaps the answer to that question lies in how Christians should think about death itself.

In our Badarak (Divine Liturgy), and really in every aspect of our worship as the Church, we proclaim the death of Christ, but at the same time we confess His resurrection! And it was only a few weeks ago, that we celebrated His resurrected life at Zadeeg (Easter), which stands at the center of our faith, and joyfully proclaims what? The victory over death! The resurrected life!

And so death becomes the door to the Kingdom of God. And it is specifically martyrdom that attains the highest identification with Christ, and His life. So, perhaps the life of Christ's resurrection and the death of 1.5 million Armenians are not really on opposite sides of the spectrum. That is, what if life and death, for the Christian, are not so far apart?

Again, how do we view death as Christians? We celebrate the death of Christ every Sunday, because from it emerges life!

Now, I’d like to comment on my use of the word ‘celebrate’…

We refrain from using the word ‘celebrate’ when it comes to Armenian Martyrs Day (April 24th), and instead we use the word ‘commemorate’. When we commemorate we are merely honoring the memory of those who have passed. But does this really give martyrs the honor they deserve? Does merely remembering the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide, or any martyrs before them, recognize what they actually sacrificed, what they gained, and what we gain?

Please don't misunderstand. We do and should mourn the loss of those who perished in the Armenian Genocide, and throughout Church history. Neither is this advocating a celebration in the vein of a party. Rather, viewed from the perspective of what it means to be a martyr, through the lens of the resurrection, there can and should be praise and proclamation – i.e. a celebration.

If we are bold enough to designate those who haven fallen in the Genocide as ‘martyrs’, then shouldn’t we honor and celebrate them as such? This is in fact what we do whenever it is a Saints' or Martyrs' Day in our Church. Again, we are not joyous about the horrific events that happened to them, but we are joyous about the victory they attained by identifying fully with Christ.

These martyrs now serve as an example for us to follow Christ in our daily lives, because they sacrificed their lives in the face of persecution, choosing to hold onto their Christian faith when they had the opportunity to defect. Their lives and their deaths that followed give rich meaning, and significance to the Armenian Church. Even in the Church of the first and second centuries, martyrs were considered heroes because they imitated Christ.

Are we not ourselves encouraged in our faith when read about our own Armenian martyrs throughout history? Dying with prayers upon their lips…St. Gayane, St. Hripsime, St. Shushanik, the daughter of St. Vartan, and the countless stories from the Armenian Genocide about our own friends and relatives. They should be celebrated as heroes! In fact, one of the Armenian words associated with Armenian Martyrs Day is Նահատակ, which originally meant ‘hero’.

So as we reflect on the death and life of the 1.5 million Armenian Genocide martyrs, and other martyrs throughout the history of our Church, may they inspire us to be martyrs, and heroes in the world for the Christian faith; to die to ourselves daily for the sake of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.

And rather than having Armenian Martyrs Day and our reflection of the Armenian Genocide invoke only hurt, sadness, sympathy, salt on our open wounds, and demands for justice, let it inspire, encourage, and be a celebration of our faith, and the occasion for the Armenian Christian community to gather and recall our status with God, and the promises that Jesus made about life emerging from death; and of eternity.

And let us celebrate, and imagine the martyrs celebrating with us, echoing the words, “Kreesdos haryav ee merelots! Orhnyal eh harootyoonun Kreesdosee! Christ is risen from the dead! Blessed is the resurrection of Christ!”

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Holy Thursday - Take, Eat...Give Thanks

"Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the passover?" He said, "Go into the city to a certain one, and say to him, `The Teacher says, My time is at hand; I will keep the passover at your house with my disciples.'" And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the passover. When it was evening, he sat at table with the twelve disciples; and as they were eating, he said, "Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me." And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, "Is it I, Lord?" He answered, "He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me. The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born." Judas, who betrayed him, said, "Is it I, Master?" He said to him, "You have said so." Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives." - Matthew 26:17-30 (RSV)


Eating. Something Armenians especially love. We talk about food while we’re eating, and not necessarily the food in front of us, and we talk about what our next meal will be before we’re done with the meal we’re having. According to American tradition, we have a holiday set aside where we just eat. But this eating is a response. A response of thankfulness. Of course, I’m referring to Thanksgiving.

So what does Thanksgiving have to do with Holy Thursday? What really lies at the heart of our gratitude on that day is communion – with God, and with one another. But Thanksgiving is celebrated once a year. In our Church, we celebrate Thanksgiving once a week! Of course, I'm referring to Badarak (Divine Liturgy, Eucharist). Remember, that the Greek word 'eucharistia' means 'thanksgiving'. And today, Holy Thursday, is the day we commemorate and celebrate the establishment of the Eucharist as we celebrate it in Badarak.

Just like there is a history behind why we celebrate Thanksgiving in America, there is a history behind our Thanksgiving celebration in the Church. In the book of Genesis, we read about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a picture of humanity in paradise. And what instruction does God give them?


Humans are already portrayed as hungry beings, with the world presented as a banquet given to us by God. And it’s given to us for communion with Him. [Schmemann, FTLOTW] The natural reaction from Adam and Eve was to bless God in return; to thank Him with acts of gratitude and adoration. And we read about Adam and Eve doing this when they obediently respond to God by taking care of the garden, and keep it in order.

But, eventually humans turned their back on God, and they ate from the one tree that was not blessed or given to us by Him, and eating from it would not be communion with Him. [Schmemann, FTLOTW] Instead it would be the opposite. Betrayal. Just like Judas in the Gospel reading - in the Garden, Adam and Eve betrayed God. Again, a picture of us.

At the Last Supper, when Jesus mentioned that one of them would betray Him, before Judas asked if it would be himself, the disciples first asked “is it I, Lord?" Why were they not so confident? Like us, we don’t know what we’ll do in the future, and we shouldn’t be so presumptuous to think we’re above any kind of sin. We are all capable of falling, and should remain humble due to our flawed nature. (It was even on Holy Thursday when Peter insisted he would never deny Christ, yet he did that which he could never imagine himself doing.)

So there we were, or here we are, our communion with God severed – left searching, and groping for Paradise again. But in this darkness, God sent a light – His Son – to recover us, and to help us understand, and redirect our hunger. [Schmemann, FTLOTW]

And Lent has been a picture of our journey back to the Garden. On the first Sunday of Lent, we experienced the Expulsion from the Garden due to our betrayal of loving God perfectly. We also heard the story of the Prodigal Son, which represents each one of us on a journey of faith sometimes running from our Father, but always experiencing His extravagant forgiveness.

It’s during Lent that we restructure our priorities, and suppress our will for the sake of God’s will. We curb our eating and redirect our hunger. Again, the idea of eating, and eating as communion with God as it was meant to be, as it was in the Garden, is built right into Lent. Our entire faith journey is a journey back to the Garden to restore communion with God. Lent is just a microcosm of that journey.

And Zadeeg (Easter) is the return to the Garden where we can dine with Him at His Banquet. And Christ is the gate back to the Garden where this newly restored banquet takes place. In fact, we can even see Christ present in the Garden of Eden! As Orthodox priest and writer Fr. Stephen Freeman writes, "We were once prohibited from partaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The tree that was guarded was the Tree of the Life. We can now understand that Tree to be the Cross, and Christ Himself is the Life that hangs from that Tree, and it is the fruit of that Tree that we partake of in the Cup of Holy Communion." God’s creation was always to be in communion with God, but we ceased to see our lives as thanksgiving. [Schmemann, FTLOTW]

And so Badarak is the Banquet of Thanksgiving, because the Last Supper is the restoration of paradise, joy, and life as communion with God. Like He blessed the Garden from which we could eat, He once again blessed this food, this time being His own Body and Blood. But before He distributed His Body and Blood, He gave thanks. He did this in order to teach us how we ought to celebrate this sacrament. [Schmemann, FTLOTW] Why? Because salvation has been accomplished. Christ restored us back to what He originally created us to be – in communion with Him. He brought us back to Paradise.

So what is our response? Thanksgiving! To this day, what we do during Badarak has been established by Christ Himself, and our natural reaction, as it originally was in the Garden of Eden, should be to bless God in return; to thank Him with acts of gratitude and adoration. Through the Cup, He lives in us, and through His Body, we become His Body – His eyes, feet, and hands – to do His work in the world; to be the Church – to reveal Christ, heal, and forgive others. Tonight is Vodnlvah – the service of the 'Washing of the Feet'. It’s by loving one another; by washing each other’s feet where we do the work of Christ.

We should also thank God for the privilege to attend His Banquet. And where does that privilege come from? As Christians, we come to this Banquet properly dressed. Our garment is the righteousness of Christ, which we received in Holy Baptism, and is reaffirmed whenever we partake of Communion. In Baptism, God gives us this garment freely. It doesn't need to be earned, or bought. [Freeman] Don’t reject this gift, but accept it with thanksgiving.

So that which began in paradise with “Take, Eat” comes now, and unto the end with “Take, eat…this is my body. [Schmemann, FTLOTW] And drink…this is my blood.” And this can only be found in the Banquet of the Eucharist. So today, as we take, eat, and drink, let us give thanks for the food God has provided to restore Communion with Him, and with one another. Amen.

*[Schmemann, FTLOTW] - Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World