In a pastoral cohort that I met with regularly, I came to know an older colleague who is of Native American ethnic background. As you might expect, he has a very different take on American history then most people. He speaks often about the near-successful Genocide of Native Americans from American lands by foreign European settlers and the deplorable shape that many of his people find themselves in still in our country. My friend was informed about the Armenian Genocide, and we have found common cause in reflecting on these tragic events in our histories. Another thing we have in common, is that in both of our cultures we don’t celebrate a day like Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving of course, is the day when America commemorates the arrival of early European immigrants to this land, and gives thanks for the support of Native Americans who helped them survive and prosper.
Armenians and Native Americans don’t commemorate a day like American Thanksgiving because typically, in our histories, we were on the losing end of meetings with foreigners. Dozens of times in our history, we found ourselves in the position of greeting more powerful and ambitious foreigners on our borders and trying to discern their motives (be they Romans, Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Turks or Russians). Armenians would then have to agonizingly decide whether it would cost more to live with the new foreigners under their new empire, to resist passively through compromise, or to resist openly through war.
There was only one foreign encounter in Armenian history, by two saints which whom we will celebrate this year on Dec. 1, that was different from all the rest. Thaddeus and Bartholomew were foreigners who came to Armenia in the early years of the first century with no power, money, armies or sword. They were armed simply with the powerful good news of Christ their King; savior of the world and lover of all mankind. Here alas was an encounter with foreigners that we Armenians could whole-heartedly celebrate as a kind of Armenian Thanksgiving, a meeting which has sustained and transformed our people and continues to be a cause for profound thanksgiving until this very day.
We can imagine, however, that first century Armenians approached these visitors with a healthy dose of skepticism. “Tells us more about this your king Jesus. How big is his empire, how large is his army? How many sons and daughters must we give to man this army? How much taxes will be levied upon us to sustain his kingdom?” We can also imagine the Apostles’ response and the ensuing shock of their audience: “Jesus is a king, but his kingdom is not of this world. He does not want your money or children for his army, he only wants you. He wants your love, dedication and obedience and he will freely give you his Kingdom. Jesus is the way the truth and the life.” Now here was something truly new!
Armenians adopted this “foreign” power as their own, and defended this ever emerging kingdom of Jesus Christ with their lives. So much so, that the next time foreigners came to dominate Armenian lands and hearts-this time the Persians in 451-Yeznik Koghbatsi writes of the courageous Armenian response to the Persian superpower:
“Our religion is not like a garment that we might change according to circumstances; it is part and parcel of our bones and blood and personality…We serve you loyally in your army and pay your taxes faithfully if you leave us alone in matters of religion. If you try to force your will upon us we are ready to suffer and to be tortured and even to die. However, you should know in advance that there is no power on earth which can force us to change our religion because our covenant is not with man but with the Almighty God.”
And so although Armenians don’t have a day of thanksgiving where we celebrate success in subduing a new land, we do have a day, Sunday (the Lord’s Day-Kiraki), where we give thanks to God for all his gifts to our people. On not just one Sunday-but every Sunday-we make a two-hour offering, a Badarak, of thanksgiving to God for the abundant grace he has lavished on us all. We thank God for his gifts of Armenian lands, language and literature. But our greatest thanksgiving is reserved not for our gifts, but for their giver, our Lord Jesus Christ. The Messiah who conquered the world not with a sword but with an all-encompassing love, and abides with us every Sunday, every day of thanksgiving, now and always and unto the ages of ages, amen.