“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!”