Wednesday, September 30, 2015

St. Simeon the Stylite

Երանելի Սիմէոն Սիւնակեաց
One of the more interesting saints that we commemorate in the Armenian Church (on the Monday of the second week of the Cross) is St. Simeon the Stylite, a monk who lived in Syria in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. The son of a shepherd, Simeon was born in Sis around the year 390.

At the age of 13, Simeon heard a reading of the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew, which permanently altered the way he would live his life. At the age of 16, he decided to join a monastery where he lived an extreme form of asceticism, which resulted in alienating him from his monastic brothers.

He eventually left the monastery to continue his strict style of asceticism, first living in a hut, and then inside a circle of stones in the open air. He then constructed the first of 3 pillars, the final pillar being 60 feet high, with a platform about 6 feet square, on which he lived for 28 years!

It’s not entirely clear why St. Simeon climbed the pillar, but while living on its platform, enduring all weather conditions, he devoted his time to prayer, fasting, preaching, and ministering to pilgrims. As a result of him working with the sick, intervening for the poor, defending the oppressed, giving insight into the church politics of the day, and acting as an arbiter and counselor, his fame stretched all the way from Britain to the Persian Empire.

As they all come from every quarter, each road is like a river: one can see collected in that spot a human sea into which rivers from all sides debouched. For it is not only inhabitants of our part of the world who pour in, but also Ishmaelites, Persians and the Armenians subject to them, the Iberians, the Homerites, and those who live even further in the interior than these. Many came from the extreme west: Spaniards, Britons and the Gauls who dwell between them. It is superfluous to speak of Italy..

St. Simeon died on top of his pillar on September 2, 459, his body being discovered in a position of prayer. A mere 50 years after his death, inspired by the life and faith of St. Simeon, the Byzantine emperor Zeno had an enormous octagonal basilica and monastery complex constructed around the pillar (19 miles northwest of Aleppo, Syria), of which only ruins remain. The only writings that survived are of those who saw St. Simeon and disciples who served him.

As counter-cultural as his life may sound, St. Simeon the Stylite understood the counter-cultural nature of the Beatitudes, the cornerstone of what it means to be a Christian. Their message is the same today as it was when Jesus first delivered them. That is, there is a paradigm in which we are the center, and there is the Christian paradigm with Christ at the center.

Holy Simeon imitated his teacher, Christ. Calling on him, he made the lame walk, cleansed lepers, made the dumb speak, made paralytics move about with ease, healed the chronically ill. Each one he warned and exhorted, “If someone asks you who healed you, say, “God healed me”. Do not even think of saying, “Simeon healed me”, otherwise you will find yourself again in the very same difficulties.”

Today, we are called to the same kind of dedication as St. Simeon the Stylite. This is not a challenge or suggestion to live on top of a pillar (although a modern-day monk has taken that challenge). It is a call to live the Beatitudes, to follow Jesus, to remove the clutter from our lives, and whatever it takes, to sacrifice all distractions that would get in the way of being in communion with God and loving His creation.

Սուրբ Սիմէոն, բարեխօսեա՛ վասն մեր։
St. Simeon, pray for us!

For excerpts above and amazing stories about St. Simeon, get this book!

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Holy Cross of Varag

Holy Cross Monastery at Varag (photo: Vartan A. Hampikian)
“But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” ~ Galatians 6:14

In the Armenian Orthodox Church, there is a season of the Cross which begins with the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the Sunday nearest September 14th, and ends on the Sunday nearest November 18th. Within this season, there is a feast particular to the Armenian Church - the Feast of the Holy Cross of Varag, the celebration of the discovery of a true piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified.

According to tradition, in the 3rd century, St. Hripsime and her companions brought a relic of the Holy Cross to Mt. Varag when they sought refuge from persecution, and left it to the local priests for protection.

The location of the relic remained unknown until the 7th century, when a monk by the name of Totig had a vision of a cathedral with twelve pillars on the summit of Mt. Varag. In the midst of the cathedral was a radiating cross. The cross slowly descended down the mountain and rested over the altar of the monastery of Varag. Totig and his student Hovel rushed to the church and found that the vision revealed the location of the relic of the Holy Cross that St. Hripsime entrusted to the priests!

Catholicos St. Nersess the Builder certified its authenticity, and ordered that the Armenian Church dedicate the third Sunday of the Cross to venerating the Holy Cross of Varag, although today, the location of the relic remains unknown.

The hymn sung during the Morning Service of the Armenian Church on the Feast of Varag speaks of the significance of the cross of Jesus Christ to our Christian faith. (Translated by: V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan)

You shined today the light of your unspeakable divinity upon the Cross,
On the mount of Varag.
Blessed is the Lord God of our Fathers!

You made known today the appearance of your awe-inspiring second coming,
By the sign of your Cross, beaming it on earth.
Blessed is the Lord God of our Fathers!

You gave a sign to those who fear, and a weapon against the enemy.
With it, protect those who believe in your holy name.
Blessed is the Lord God of our Fathers!

He adorned today the sign of the Cross,
With a heavenly light brighter than the sun.
Bless the Lord and exalt him forever!

He revealed today the redemptive sign to the angels,
By descending to the mount of Varag.
Blessed is the Lord God of our Fathers!

Come all you saved by the life-giving Cross,
Bowing down to Christ our Savior upon it.
Blessed is the Lord God of our Fathers!

The cross... What was once looked upon as a torture device and instrument of death is now gazed upon as the source of healing and life. Through the eyes of faith, the mystery of the cross transforms our tragedies into blessing. Lord, we believe; help our unbelief!

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” ~ I Corinthians 1:18

Saturday, June 20, 2015

St. Gregory the Enlightener and Relics

The right hand of St. Gregory the Enlightener
According to the Armenian Church calendar, the Feast of the Discovery of St. Gregory the Enlightener’s Relics is commemorated on the Saturday of the 4th week of Pentecost. (In Christianity, relics are physical remains or personal effects of a saint, which are then preserved for purposes of veneration and honor).

In the 5th century, a hermit named Karnig had a vision, which guided him to discover the burial place and body of St. Gregory. As was customary, the remains of the saint were distributed as relics to various monasteries and churches. Today, some of his relics are located in Holy Etchmiadzin, Jerusalem, Antelias, and Naples. The relic in Etchmiadzin is kept on display in an arm-shaped reliquary, and used once every 7 years to bless the Holy Myron.

St. Gregory the Enlightener taught something that is very unique to the Armenian Church; that each person has their own Փառք/Park (glory) surrounding them. A person’s Փառք is the character or quality of who that person is, and what they do. He taught that a Փառք is an actual thing, and after a person dies it remains in the person’s bones, as well as with items the person touched. And it can also be passed on to others. This is one of the reasons why relics are important in the Armenian Church.

At St. Vartan Cathedral, located in Manhattan, NY, there is a bone fragment from a martyr of the Armenian Genocide kept as a relic. It is preserved underneath a khachkar where the faithful light candles and pray. If you ever find yourself at St. Vartan Cathedral, light a candle in front of that khachkar and while you venerate the bone relic, think of the endurance of that martyr; his or her Փառք. Then ponder your own Փառք; the wisdom and grace that God has granted you to live for Him. What else makes up your Փառք? How can you add to it? How will it be inherited by others? And how can you invite others into the Փառք (Glory) of God?

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Why Does the Armenian Church Refer to Easter as 'Zadeeg'? «Զատիկ»

Although we commonly use the word Easter in the Armenian Church, why do we officially refer to the ‘Feast of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ’ as Zadeeg «Զատիկ»?

Originally, the word zadeeg «զատիկ» meant ‘sacrifice’, referring to the Passover sacrifice, where an animal was set aside as an offering to the Lord. This meaning is derived from the verb zadel «զատել» which means to put aside, separate, or set apart. Today, the word Zadeeg «Զատիկ» is simply translated as ‘Passover’, so if one were to read the Armenian translation of the Bible, any time word Passover is used, it would read Zadeeg «Զատիկ», but the idea of setting something aside or apart remains.
  1. Setting aside a sacrificial Passover lamb was part of the larger event that ultimately delivered the Israelites from death and separated and freed them from Egyptian bondage and slavery as they passed through the desert on their way to the Promised Land. That event inspired the Jews to annaully celebrate their deliverance and separation from the Egyptians through a feast; a Passover meal (Exodus 12:3,11).
  2. The event of Passover in the Old Testament is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the Passover Lamb (John 1:29). Thus, for Christians, the implication behind Zadeeg is that those baptized into the Church are freed from the slavery of sin and death; set apart as the New Israel (Galatians 3:27-28, 6:16). Jesus offered Himself on the cross for our deliverance; not just sacrificing His life, but giving it so that we can share in it through Communion; through His Body and Blood.
  3. Lastly, when Christians began to celebrate Easter/Zadeeg, it was purposefully separated from the Jewish celebration of the Old Testament Passover. Again, although Zadeeg translates as Passover, it was fulfilled in Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 5:7-8), whom the Jews reject(ed) as the Messiah. And “as we are united to Jesus Christ, our life becomes an unending deliverance or ‘passover’ from evil“ (Orthodox Study Bible).
“Christ, the spotless Lamb of God is offered in sacrifice of praise”
~ Holy Badarak of the Armenian Orthodox Church

Friday, April 17, 2015

Sunday of the World Church

Odzun Monastery, Lori Province, Armenia (2012)
This Sunday (April 19, 2015), according to the Armenian Church calendar, is “Sunday of the World Church” «Աշխարհամատրամ Կիրակի». Little is definitively known about the origin of this feast day, or why it is also referred to as “Green Sunday” «Կանաչ Կիրակի». What we do know comes from the hymn/sharagan of the day which contains the theme of blessing/consecrating a chapel (a more accurate translation of the feast day is, “Sunday of the World Chapel” implying the physical building of a church «մատուռ», rather than the word for Church (Yegeghetsee/Եեկեղեցի), which implies a community of believers).

Again, which specific church/chapel is unknown, but it was most likely located in Jerusalem. An excerpt of the hymn (translated by Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan) that we sing during our morning service «Առաւօտեան ժամ» tells us what Armenian Christians believe the Church, which includes the building, to be. Why do we meet there to worship? Is the building merely a meeting point? Or is the church building and architecture a reflection of the living and believing community within its walls? What can it say concerning what we believe about God?

We worship you, Christ, who made yourself known to us through the holy apostles, Lord God of our Fathers. Having become your disciples by the holy apostles, we learned to glorify you in the temple of your holiness, which you founded upon the rock of faith, Lord, God of our Fathers. Come, people of the nations, let us joyfully celebrate the inauguration/dedication of the holy church, praising the Lord God of our Fathers. Together with the bodiless multitudes, all nations forever praise and highly exalt Christ the King who comes today into the holy church. Come into the church, people whose faith is in the Holy Trinity. Praise God. Joyfully celebrate to the edges of the table, and highly exalt him forever.

I Peter 2:5 – “like living stones, you are being built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Friday, April 03, 2015

Great and Holy Friday: Do We Mourn or Celebrate?

The Entombment of Christ
Monastery of St. George, Balu, 1437
In the Armenian Church, on Holy Friday of Holy Week, we celebrate the ‘Service of Burial’, where we prepare and place a figure of the tomb of Jesus in the center chancel. We decorate the tomb with candles and fresh flowers, and place burning incense within it.

It’s one of the many beautiful traditions of the Armenian Church, but what is it that we are really doing besides carrying on tradition? Are we metaphorically and visually going back in time to mourn the death of Jesus Christ? Are we reenacting the drama of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, as we solemnly memorialize and honor His death?

As with any liturgical celebration of events, and contrary to what may be popular belief and practice, the Church isn’t at all participating in nostalgia. It’s much, much deeper, and here’s why…

When we partake of Holy Communion, we are not eating and drinking to the memory of the Last Supper or Jesus’ crucifixion. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians concerning Holy Communion, “is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

Also, when we are baptized, it is not the memory of Jesus’ death and burial into which we are baptized. Rather, when we are immersed in water at baptism, we are truly and mystically united to Jesus’ actual death, burial, and resurrection. And it just so happens that the ‘Service of Burial’ on Holy Friday is a recalling of our Baptism. Read the following from Romans 6:3-5…

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

From our perspective, the events of the Last Supper, and Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection are past events on the linear timeline of history. But from God’s perspective, time is not linear. It is not a reenactment of the sacrifice of Jesus when we celebrate Holy Communion, but a participation in the one eternal sacrifice. Likewise, our baptism is not a static event locked into the past, but an ongoing and active event in our daily lives, and so every moment lived for God is a participation in the actual event of Jesus’ death and burial.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t approach our services on Holy Friday without solemnity. In fact, we are instructed to sing with a special solemn melody, but what we do not do is go back in time and pretend to mourn for the crucifixion of Jesus all over again.

As Christians, we know how the story ends. And so our attitude, as with any service throughout the Church year, should be one of celebration.

Holy God
Holy and mighty
Holy and immortal
You who were buried for us
Have mercy on us

Gratitude to Fr. Daniel Findikyan and Fr. Stephen Freeman for this insight.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Feast of Vartanants: What is it Really About?

A 15th century Armenian miniature depicting the Battle of Avarayr
The Feast of Vartanants (St. Vartan the General and the 1036 Martyrs) is celebrated on the Thursday before Great Lent. In 451 A.D., under the leadership of St. Vartan Mamigonian and St. Ghevond the Priest, Armenians fought the Battle of Avarayr against the Persians who were attempting to force Armenians to renounce their Christian faith in order to orient them toward Persia instead of Byzantium, and Armenians, as Christians, were an obstacle toward that political end.

But for Armenians, this battle transcended the earthly and political ideals of freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and national identity. Armenians knew they possessed something that could not be taken away. A few years before the battle, Armenian princes sent a letter to the Persian King which read, “From this faith, no one can shake us…We choose no other God than Jesus Christ for there is no other God. …Here we are; our bodies are in your hands; do with them as you please.” In his sermon to the soldiers before the battle, St. Ghevond said, “Our hope appears to us as double: If we die, we shall live, and if we put to death, the same life lies before us.” Whether the Armenian soldiers lived or died, the Battle of Avarayr meant victory in Jesus Christ because, “He Himself…loved us that He took death on Himself that we, by His death, might be freed from eternal death.”

Once again, we see Jesus Christ as central to the faithful of the Armenian Church. Not even death mattered to St. Vartan and his soldiers, because they believed that eternal life in Jesus Christ could not be taken away. Over the centuries, Armenians have continuously sacrificed earthly pleasures and political ideals for their identity in Christ, because they knew that nothing else in this world compares to the Kingdom of God. Today, may we emulate the faith of our ancestors.

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be an affliction,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of men they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them for ever.
~ Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-8

Click here to view a worthy discussion from 2014 about the Feast of Vartanants given by Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan.

Monday, January 19, 2015

St. Anthony of the Desert

“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, “You are mad, you are not like us.”  ~ St. Anthony of the Desert

St. Anthony was born in Egypt in 251 A.D. One day, while attending Liturgy, he heard the words from the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus spoke to a wealthy young man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Deeply impressed by these words, St. Anthony decided to do just this, and in 285 A.D. he went alone into the Egyptian desert to live an ascetic life in complete solitude, wholly dedicated to God.

His life consisted of praying, meditating, fasting, and staying awake for days in order to overcome temptation. As he underwent further spiritual struggles, he slept on the ground, had visions, spoke wisdom to visitors, and eventually, his reputation attracted followers to whom he became a spiritual father. As a result of his life and efforts, St. Anthony is considered the father of monasticism.

St. Anthony did leave the desert on at least two occasions, both times to travel to Alexandria. Once to comfort the persecuted Christians there, and another time in 325 A.D. to support Bishop Athanasius at the First Council of Nicaea. After returning to the desert, St. Anthony died in 365 A.D. at the age of 105. His resting place is still unknown.

Of course, Christian monasticism, as it has been practiced up to today, owes its influence to St. Anthony, but how is the life of St. Anthony at all relevant to those of us who are not monks? Well, as counter-cultural as his life may sound, he sacrificed all distractions that would get in the way of being with God. Whatever it took. That is why he, among other Desert Fathers, serves as a model of early and authentic Christian spirituality. Even today, as urban dwellers, we are called to the same kind of dedication. We don't have to move to the desert, but we all have misplaced priorities and distractions. St. Anthony can point us toward the end for which we were created. To follow Jesus, whatever it takes.

In his inspirational account of the life of St. Anthony, St. Athanasius wrote, “Anthony was not known for his writings nor for his worldly wisdom, nor for any art, but simply for his reverence toward God."

For what will we be known?

Image: St. Anthony surrounded by beasts of the desert. Frontispiece to the earliest Lives of the Fathers, Caffa (Crimea), 1430.