This Saturday, the church will commemorate Gregory the Illuminator’s torture and imprisonment in the pit. Hard to imagine what those thirteen years were like. But we know that by the grace of God and through the good works of a fellow Christian, St. Gregory made it. All Armenians, if not all Christians, are beneficiaries of his legacy.
In many respects, St Gregory seems to be an unlikely hero of the Armenian people. He came from questionable pedigree. His father was a political assassin who was executed for his crimes. As such, Gregory came from a broken family but raised by pious Christians who took him under his wing. He was not Armenian – yet Armenians venerate him like no other national saint. Yes, he had a good job in the King’s court, but that’s about all he had going for him. Or is it? How did the son of a criminal, with no Armenian blood, no formal position or rank in the church captivate the hearts, minds, and souls of an entire people?
Finding aspects of Gregory’s life worth marveling at is the easy part. We can look to his endurance, his steadfast faith, his courage in the face of torture. The challenge in analyzing the saintliness of a person is not in figuring out why the person is regarded as a saint, the challenge is to find aspects of that saint’s life that we can respond to and emulate. We do not commemorate saints for the sake of the saint, we honor and remember saints so that we may learn from their good example. We look to saints and what they have accomplished and we thank and praise God for the faith and faithfulness that they have passed on to us.
To get some clues on what we should learn from Gregory’s life we can review the liturgical tradition surrounding his life, works, and death. There are sharagans, odes, and poems dedicated to St. Gregory from giants such as St. Gregory of Narek, St. Nersess Shnorhali, St. John Chrysostom, Vardan Vartabed Areveltzi, and Hovaness Yerzngatzi. What stands out most when we read these works is not that St. Gregory established the Armenian Church, or that he established the mother cathedral in Etchmiadzin. You would be hard pressed to even find the establishment of Etchmiadzin listed among St Gregory’s accomplishments. Rather, the focus is on St Gregory the teacher, St Gregory the baptizer, St Gregory the preacher, St Gregory the faithful servant of God who witnessed his faith despite torture, overcoming the shame of his father’s sins, a St Gregory that new what Christianity was about and had the strength to spread the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the entire land of Armenia. He started at the top -with King Drtad, and made his way around the country. His spirit of evangelism was so strong that Armenian was not enough for our beloved Gregory. He preached in Georiga as well and was instrumental in establishing the Georgians as a Christian people as well.
St Gregory of Narek calls our Illuminator “a rose born of thornbush” and “a plant from dried up roots feeding people hungry for the Bread of Life.” Ghazar Parpetzi calls him “coworker of the apostles – one who is to be considered their equal.”
When it comes to emulating St Gregory we can rule out torture, imprisonment, establishing a new church, and becoming the bishop of Armenia. So what’s left? Actually a great deal, and as we said before, the things that Gregory is most celebrated for are the things that we can do ourselves.
First and foremost we can be educated about our faith, what we believe, and the teachings of our church. We are all intelligent rational people and we are all capable of learning more. There are resources all around us. Some of us are carrying more information in our pockets than our church fathers could have ever dreamed of having access to. Those smartphones we all carry can be used very effectively to learn more about the Armenian Church, the Bible, patristic teaching, and more. Narekatsi says that St Gregory was “nursed from the breast of the Old Testament and the New Testament.” And we too can receive such spiritual nourishment from ancient scripture – using modern tools that we all have access to.
Well, maybe reading is not for you, and maybe you don’t have time to listen to lectures – you can still be like St Gregory in the most important way. You can share your faith with others. Perhaps striking up a conversation with strangers about God is not your strong suit. That’s ok. Talk to your friends and your family. Be sure to talk with them, not at them. Share with them. Share with them what your relationship with God means to you. Be honest, be sincere, no judgmental, and do not expect instant transformations. Remember, faith is not private. Faith is public. How many times do we pray on a Sunday morning – “Let us commit ourselves and one another to the Lord God Almighty” ? Three times. Three times we make that request on any given Sunday.
Maybe being vocal about your faith is not for you. Then show others your faith. You are the salt of the earth. Give the world some flavor. You are the light of the world. Show everyone around you the light of Christ. If we follow what Jesus calls, in Matthew 22, the greatest commandments – love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself – others can see that. And when they know you are a Christian – they may one day feel compelled to praise our heavenly Father by seeing your love for God and others.
We are partners in the ministry of the Apostles. We are co-heirs with Christ. We are true sons of God from the time of our baptism and adopted by God himself to be heirs to the kingdom. These are positions of great honor and of great responsibility. We are the hands of God here on earth and can share in his salvific work. When we think, act, and speak in a way that pleases God we all share in the legacy of our beloved St. Gregory. Much of St Gregory’s life cannot be emulated, as mentioned above, we will never be in circumstances similar to his. But in many ways, we can emulate him. You will absolutely encounter someone who is looking for God, someone who hungers for the Bread of Life, and like St. Gregory you will feed that person, and by the grace of God, they will be satisfied.