There are three major commemorations for St. Gregory the Illuminator. Saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church are commemorated on saints’ days, placed on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturdays. Saturdays are normally reserved for “major” saints: The Apostles of Christ, the Holy Translators, and figures of central importance to the history of the Armenian Church and the salvation of her people like St. Gregory himself. Few, though, have multiple commemorations. Yet we commemorate multiple moments in the life of St. Gregory the Illuminator. For instance, both his descent into Khor Virap, the “Deep Pit” where he was imprisoned for thirteen years, and his release from the pit are celebrated. This Saturday’s commemoration of St. Gregory stands out, even from the detailed liturgical attention given to the life first head of the Armenian Church. It is the remembrance of the Discovery of the Relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator.
Contemporary Christians often don’t know what to do with the veneration of saints. In part, this is a legacy of Protestant Christian critiques of the practices of the Catholic Church. This does not fully explain our discomfort with the veneration of saints, especially with martyrs and the seemingly gruesome emphasis on the trials and tortures of martyred saints. Relics take this discomfort to another level. A relic is defined as a physical object (usually a part of the body or a garment) associated with a saint that has been preserved for veneration.
Veneration, along with intercession are difficult concepts: to venerate means to show great honor or respect for. We have discussed previously the importance of martyrs and saints as types or “icons” of Jesus Christ and as exemplars of a Christian holy life which Christians can and should emulate. It is for this reason that saints are worthy of veneration. Intercession, essentially a prayer on behalf of another person, is also associated with saints. While asking someone to pray for us (a priest or just a Christian friend) we are asking them to intercede for us. Likewise, in many of our liturgical services, we both pray for saints and ask them to pray for and to intercede for us. This has led to accusation that Catholics and other Orthodox and ancient Christians (such as Armenian Apostolic Christians) “pray to” saints. It should be clear, however, that while we often address St. Mary or other saints, we are asking them, as revered and holy people, to pray on our behalf, not praying to them as if they themselves were the source of power and efficacy that is reserved for God alone.
Similarly with relics: a piece of bone from St. Gregory the Illuminator or a book illuminated by St. Gregory of Datev has no power in its own right. True glory comes from God. Just as a martyr or a saint can be considered an icon of Jesus Christ, a type of Jesus, whose holiness exemplifies Christ’s love and points us back to God, whose power comes from the Holy Spirit, so the veneration of icons points us back to the saints themselves and through them, to God. Any miraculous power associated with a relic is not inherent in the object itself but rather “the occasion of God’s working miracles” (as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it). Yet it is this “miraculous power” that has often been the popular reason for the veneration of saints and their relics. Stories abound of the healing and curative powers of relics, and many of the “cults of the saints” are due to this healing power of both the saints and their relics.
Maintaining the boundary between a relic as an icon that points to the saint and through the saint to Jesus Christ and as an object of worship itself has not always been easy. Likewise, the boundary between an efficacious relic leading to miraculous healing as a vehicle of the power and glory of God and the belief that the relic itself holds power has often been blurred in the everyday practices and lives of Christians. Despite this danger, one which early anthropologists saw as a broader distinction between religion and magic (where magic proclaims a causation through physical contact through a power inherent in the object itself), the Armenian Apostolic Church has a long tradition of the veneration of icons as a mode of venerating the revered saints of the Church.
|The Penguin Dictionary of the Saints||A refence book detailing the biographies and lives of many Christian saints. Contemporary Christians can learn from and be inspired by the saints, and this reference book offers a nice starting point to the lives of saints venerated by many different Christian traditions.|
|The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion||A classic of early anthropology by Sir James Frazer. While many of his ideas have been challenged, Frazer’s book inspired much thinking about the differences between religion and magic. He was especially attuned to the question of the power and efficacy of physical objects.|
|Armenian Relics of Cilicia||This partial catalog of relics and other items from the Museum of the Catholicosate in Antelias, Lebanon is edited by Anna Balian. Many Armenian relics date from the period of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilica.|
Relic veneration is not limited to Christianity and is an almost universal religious phenomenon. In the Old Testament, the bones of the Prophet Elisha raise a man from the dead (2 Kings 13). Within Christianity specifically, we have literary evidence of relic veneration in some of the earliest extra-Biblical writings. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, written about 150 A.D. about Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna (Izmir), mentions how his bones were taken up and put in “a fitting place” (called a reliquary). Hence, one of the earliest texts of Christian martyrdom also mentions relics, tying martyrdom and relics together. Many patristic authors were comfortable with the practice of the veneration of martyrs. Some early Christian writers, such as Cyril of Alexandria, do seem to attribute a kind of power to the relics themselves, though it is clear from his other writings and his general rhetorical style that he remained far from idolatry. The regulation of the practice of relic veneration and an awareness of the potential to see the relics themselves as having power has also been a theme of writing about relics from the beginning.
Armenian Apostolic Christians have a long tradition of the veneration of relics. Indeed, it is Moses Khorenatsi, “the father of Armenian history,” who tells the story of the discovery of the relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator, the first Catholicos and “founder” of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Khorenatsi’s account says that “Saint Gregory’s relics were hidden for many years by divine providence” so that they wouldn’t “become the object of a cult to the half-converted barbarian nations.” Later, once these people are more firmly established in their faith, “Saint Gregory’s relics were revealed to a certain ascetic called Garnik, who took them and buried them in the village of Tordan.” In this account, the basis of this Saturday’s commemoration, we see that already Khorenatsi recognizes both the power and the danger of the veneration of relics: there is a proper and faithful way to venerate relics, but out of context and without the proper faith and understanding, the veneration of relics veers towards cultish idolatry.
Armenians in the first centuries of their conversion knew both tendencies well. On the one hand, the most important relic in Christendom, relics of the True Cross of Jesus Christ, have been known in Armenia for centuries. The Feast of the Discovery of the Holy Cross is a major feast day, and the path of the Holy Cross back to Jerusalem after its recovery by Emperor Heraclius included stops in Armenia. Armenians, then, recognized the glory of God in relics. These events and the early veneration of the relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator illustrate this. At the same time, in the Buzandaran, another early history, we learn that the Persians stole the bones of the Armenian Arshakuni kings, and that the Armenians then recovered them “that the glory of the kings and the fortune and valor of this realm might go from here with the bones of the kings and enter into our realm” (IV:xxv). Here, we see the idea that the bones of kings held within them the glory of the kings, such that possessing the bones was to possess the glory itself. The author of the Buzandaran makes clear that those who recovered the bones thought this because of their heathen beliefs. We can see how closely this logic, of a glory (the word used is the Armenian term փառք/park, found frequently in the Armenian liturgy to talk about the glory of God) that inheres in the bones of ancestors, resembles the practice of the veneration of the bodily relics of saints.
For this reason, it is important to remember that relics are the reminder of the lives of saintly women and men who can inspire us and spur the faithful Christian on in her walk with Jesus Christ. Any miracle associated with a relic is always due to the power of God working at that moment, not to any power that inheres in a merely physical object. When we remember this, however, we have the opportunity to grow in faith and love. Relics provide us with the opportunity to meditate on the healing power of God and the example of the saints for living a virtuous life in the Lord. Relics may not be a magical source of power that we access merely by touching, but through them we come into literal, physical proximity with Christian saints. We can and should be inspired by this possibility. Veneration of relics can strengthen our faith and move us toward the love of God and neighbor that Jesus teaches us is the summation of the law and the prophets.
|Lusavorchʿi luys nshkharnerě||By Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian, this book recounts the story of St. Gregory the Illuminator and provides information on many of the sites and churches associated with his life. The title plays on the name of this Saturday’s commemoration of the discovery of his relics. In Armenian.|
|The epic histories attributed to Pʿawstos Buzand (Buzandaran patmutʿiwnkʿ)||This important early Armenian history, known as the Buzandaran was translated by the great Armenian scholar Dr. Nina Garsoïan. Her extensive and erudite commentary includes a discussion of the concept of glory. The history also includes the episode where the Persian army steals the bones of the Armenian kings.|
|Treasures of faith Sacred relics and artifacts from the Armenian Orthodox Churches of Istanbul||Beautiful photographs accompany informative essays in this book cataloging some of the treasures from the Armenian churches in Istanbul. Constantinople, once the seat of the Byzantine Empire, was for a time home to relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator!|
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