“On this day…” begins most entries in one of the most remarkable and yet under-utilized liturgical books of the Armenian Apostolic Church. So ubiquitous is this little phrase that the book itself is known in Armenian as the Յայսմաւուրք/Haysumavurk, which is simply the plural of the phrase, “on this day.” Day-by-day, for every single day of the year, the Haysumavurk offers short vitae, the lives of the saints. Sometimes these are well-known saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church, whether those be saints revered by all ancient churches or just our own. Both St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Illuminator have days where the reading describes their lives, their work, and their distinct witness to Jesus Christ. Known technically as a Synaxarion (or sometimes a Menologian—the words represent slightly different arrangements and are also used with different frequencies in different Christian traditions), the Haysumavurk offers daily instruction through the examples of the saints. It provides biographical information and narrates important instances in the life of a given saint, for instance, the death of a martyr.
This week, of course, on April 24th, we commemorate the most recent saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church and perhaps the most well-known martyrs, the Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide. Last year, we discussed the decision to canonize them in 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the Genocide. Canonizing the victims of the Armenian Genocide as victorious martyrs had profound implications for both history and the personal spiritual responses of individual Armenian Christians. While there are interesting implications that follow from the canonization, perhaps the most immediate and practical question is simply, “What does it mean now?” Bishop Daniel Findikyan’s important booklet From Victims to Victors offers a clear discussion of the meaning of sainthood and martyrdom, placing the Holy Martyrs of the Genocide in a long line of Armenian Christian saints and martyrs. With this paramount goal that we see the Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide in the context of an Armenian Christian understanding of sainthood and martyrdom, we can return to the Haysumavurk, the main Armenian source for the lives of the saints.
By following through, day in and day out, “on this day…” what happened to important saints, we can not only assemble a thorough understanding of the Armenian Apostolic Church’s ideas about sainthood, but we also are presented with daily icons of Christ. In Christian theology, Jesus Christ as the Word of God, through His Incarnation, is able to make present and even visible God the Father. This logic of the Incarnation as that which makes divinity present while simultaneously pointing us back to the divine is the same logic behind the painted icons used in many Christian churches. Likewise, we can consider saints an icon of Jesus Christ: they both manifest, in some way, the goodness and divinity of Christ while simultaneously pointing us back to Christ, especially as exemplary figures. Each entry in the Haysumavurk, then, is a little icon both of divinity and sainthood. This is why so many entries use the same tropes, the same miraculous events. The importance of an individual saint is always wrapped up in her ability to point the way back to God.
Each entry, each day, then, for the Armenian Christian using the Haysumavurk as part of liturgical life, offers a glimpse of some aspect not only of a “good person,” but actually of divine love itself. The Haysumavurk, by being arranged calendrically, day-after-day, offers these glimpses every single day. This becomes not just the intellectual exercise of understanding what makes a saint or a good person but helps the reader and the hearer to themselves inculcate the same virtues and to improve themselves. It is telling that the Haysumavurk has historically most often been used in monastic settings as part of a larger monastic discipline. Dr. Edward G. Matthews Jr., who is translating the Haysumavurk into English, notes that in the Armenian monastic setting “these lives were usually read aloud in conjunction with the evening prayer service” (xix). Daily readings from the lives of the saints become a kind of spiritual nourishment, daily acquaintance with icons of divinity, and regular lessons in what the Armenian Church sees as essential characteristics of a saint. Though we rarely use this liturgical book anymore today, the lessons contained in the book remain of utmost importance.
|On this day: the Armenian Church Synaxarion (Yaysmawurk’): January; a parallel Armenian-English text /||Translated and edited by Edward G. Mathews Jr., former faculty at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, this is the first volume in an ongoing project to translate the Haysumavurk, the book of the Lives of the Saints of the Armenian Church. Each volume is a month of the calendar, with facing Classical Armenian and the English translation. The translation has been completed through April.|
|From Victims to Victors: The Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide||In 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, all those who died during the Genocide were canonized as martyrs. In this small booklet, Bishop Daniel Findikyan explains the meaning of sainthood, martyrdom, and the decision to canonize the martyrs of the Genocide.|
|Vark ew nahatakuteun S. Sandukht kuisy||“The Life and Martyrdom of the Virgin St. Sandukht,” written by Archbishop Anania Arabachyan. A retelling for a younger audience of the life of St. Sandukht as it comes down to us in ancient hagiographies. In Armenian at St. Nersess.|
Dr. Matthews, who is translating the Haysumavurk month-by-month, with a different volume for each month of the year, places this liturgical book squarely within the Armenian practice of veneration of the saints. In fact, he notes, what is most like the very first book written in the Armenian language after the invention of the alphabet is The Life of Mashdots, a tale of the life of St. Mesrob Mashdots, the creator of the Armenian alphabet, by his student Koriun. Likewise, an enormous section of Agathangelos’ History of the Armenians details the sufferings and torture of St. Gregory the Illuminator, securing Gregory as a confessor of the Church. A confessor is a saint who suffered greatly for Jesus Christ without actually being killed and dying the death of a martyr. While, Dr. Matthews notes, the other earliest Armenian histories do not fit the hagiographic genre of a Vita, a life of the saint, they all focus on figures that the Armenian Apostolic Church considers saints. In other words, veneration of the saints and looking to them as holy examples is essential to the very foundation of Armenian Christianity.
Over time, these stories of the saints, whether written or simply remembered, accumulated. As Dr. Matthews writes, “Beginning in the ninth century, soon after the Church of Armenia had regularized its canons and many of its liturgical practices, there seems to have been a remarkable concentrated effort not simply to record lives of saints, but to start gathering them together into more organized collections. Most famously, Krikor II, Catholicos from 1055-1105, traveled the Christian world collecting lives of the saints and translating from Syriac and Greek. This work has earned the epithet Krikor the II Vygaser, the “Martyrophile” or “Lover or Martyrs.” Matthews suggests that Catholicos Krikor Vygaser might have been the first to institute the daily readings of the lives of the saints as part of the liturgy.
Not too long thereafter, a monk known as Der Israel compiled the first Haysumavurk. This collection was translated directly from an “already-existing Greek liturgical collection” (Matthews xv). However, even Der Israel’s first collection was not merely a translation. It already contained lives of saints uniquely celebrated by the Armenian Church. Some saints, whom we might consider specifically Armenian are celebrated by other ancient Christian churches: for instance, St. Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia is venerated in the Catholic Church with a feast day on October 1, while his feast day in the Eastern Orthodox Churches is September 30. Other saints, however, are remembered only within the Armenian Church: St. Sandukht, who is considered the first “Armenian” martyr or St. Sarkis the General, one of the most beloved martyrs in the Armenian Christian tradition. Some of these saints have separate books dedicated just to their lives. One of the most famous Vita was the Life of St. Anthony, considered one of the founders of Christian monasticism. The lives of these saints are included in the Haysumavurk alongside saints recognized by all the ancient Christian churches.
Der Israel’s collection is one of four known “primary versions.” In addition to Der Israel, who completed his work around 1240 AD, another was completed by Kirakos Areveltsi at Sis in 1269, one by Catholicos Gregory Anavarzetsi (Catholicos from 1295-1306), and a fourth by Gregory Khlatsi at the beginning of the fifteenth century. It was this version that was first published in Constantinople in 1706. The other versions have also been printed, although some printed editions erroneously suggest they are following the version of Der Israel. Each of the versions were compiled under slightly different circumstances by individuals with slightly different goals. They also reflect different calendars: Der Israel’s begin on January 1, Catholicos Gregory Anavarzetsi’s begins on September 1, the first day of the year according to the Byzantine Rite, and the other two begin on the first day of Navasard (August 11), the first day of the year according to the ancient Armenian calendar. Dr. Matthews is using multiple versions and printings in his translation, which he begins from January 1, in order to create a “readable English translation that will be easily accessible to any member of the Armenian Church or to anyone else who may be interested” (xxi). With this English version, perhaps the Haysumavurk can again become a part of the rich liturgical life of the Armenian Church. This week, as the Armenian Church commemorates the Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide, the Haysumavurk reminds us that the remembrance of saints and martyrs is at the very foundation of Armenian Christianity.
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