February, in the Armenian liturgical calendar, is full of celebrations of what we think of as national heroes or national saints. Culminating this week with the celebration of Vartanantz, recalling the Battle of Avarayr in 451 A.D., February commemorates some of the most beloved as well-known saints of the Armenian Church. Indeed, if we ask the average Armenian to name five saints, chances are they will include St. Sahak, the Catholicos who oversaw the creation of the Armenian alphabet, commemorated this past Saturday. Almost certainly, they will mention St. Vartan, venerated this Thursday along with his companions. Today, Tuesday, we remember St. Ghevont and his priestly companions, who prayed with St. Vartan before the Battle of Avarayr and participated in their role as clergy of the Church. These are beloved and well-known saints, who steadfastly served Jesus Christ, even unto death.
Yet these saints also hold pride of place because of their putatively “national” character. Last year at this time, we discussed the question of ազգ (azg/azk), noting that though today it often translated very straightforwardly as “nation,” the concept has changed drastically through the centuries. Nations, according to much contemporary scholarship, are relatively recent things. “Peoples” or groups with boundaries have a much longer history, but the specific idea of the nation (according to this line of scholarship) is rather new. So, in our discussion last year, we tried to unravel some of these difficulties in translating azg/azk as “nation.”
This year, we will focus on a slightly different question: what does it mean to venerate these saints as national saints? Famously, during the service for Vartanantz, St. Vartan and his companions are said to have laid down their lives, “for faith and for the fatherland,” though this is not how the two contemporary histories, by Eghishe and by Ghazar Parpetsi, described it. The basic contours of the well-known story are not in dispute: a resurgent Persian Sassanian Empire tries to reimpose Zoroastrianism on Armenia, where King Drtad had declared Christianity the official faith of the kingdom. Many of the nakharars, the noble houses, refuse to accept Zoroastrianism and defend Christianity, dying as martyrs at the Battle of Avarayr in 451 A.D. Though the battle ended in terrible defeat, the continued resistance of the Armenians eventually leads the Persians to abandon the project of imposing Zoroastrianism, securing Christianity as the faith of the Armenians. This is not in dispute. The historiographic question asks if a unified idea of the “Armenian people” was part of the reason these martyrs sacrificed themselves. For the Armenian Christian, the answer should be almost irrelevant: first and foremost, these were martyrs in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet, over the past few centuries, not only has the unified “Armenian people” been put at the forefront of Armenian thinking about Vartanantz, but St. Vartan, St. Ghevont, and their companions have become explicitly “national saints.”
|History of Vardan and the Armenian War||The main source for the history of St. Vartan, composed by Eghishe Vartabed. This English translation by Robert Thomson includes an informative and wide-ranging introduction.|
|From Victims to Victors: The Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide||A short booklet written by Bishop Daniel Findikyan on the occasion of the canonization in 2015 of those who died in the Armenian Genocide as saints. In addition to defining clearly both saint and martyr, the booklet makes clear this canonization depends on the Christian witness of those who died during the Genocide.|
|Hushikk‘ hayreneats‘ hayots‘||One of Ghevont Alishan’s many books on Armenian history and Armenian patriotic topics. Writing in the nineteenth century, the Mkhitarist father challenges our own thinking about “national saints.” In Armenian.|
Which brings us to the question under consideration today: what does it mean to be a “national saint?” First and foremost, we should be clear that, from the Christian perspective, no matter what one has done “for the nation” or “for Armenians,” this cannot make one a saint of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Sainthood, as Bishop Daniel Findikyan describes eloquently in a booklet about the decision to canonize those who died in the Armenian Genocide, means that one has been made holy by God in Jesus Christ. The Armenian word for saint, սուրբ (surb/surp), is also the word for “holy.” In some sense, then, any member of the Church is a saint, a usage apparent in the letters of St. Paul. However, over time, a saint came to mean especially “a human being who “showed themselves to be exceptional examples of holiness and faith” (10). From the Christian perspective, then, sainthood can only be about exemplary figures of faith in Jesus Christ.
Yet, even from this perspective, we seem to recognize some saints as “Armenian” saints. St. Sahak, the last Catholicos from the direct line of St. Gregory the Illuminator, seems to fit the bill. St. Vartan, an Armenian nakharar who gave his life for Christianity, is the paragon of this seemingly Armenian saint. On the other hand, we distinguish saints like St. Gregory of Nazianzus, also known as St. Gregory the Theologian, commemorated two weeks ago, from these “Armenian” saints. Usually we count them as saints of the “Universal Church.” However, some of our early “Armenian” Church saints are recognized by other churches as saints, so they should be included as “universal saints.” What are the criteria to distinguish them? If it is only a question of ethnicity or nationality, then we need to remember that our categories aren’t the same as ancient ones. Many “Armenian” nobles would have viewed their clan nakharar lineage as more important than a larger Armenian one. So, even if from our vantage point an ethnic “Armenian saint” makes sense, we should be careful in using our contemporary ideas about nation or ethnicity to distinguish “national saints.”
What other ways, then, might we distinguish a “national saint?” To start, we should be willing to accept that this question tells us more about our contemporary understandings of ethnicity and nationality than it does about how the Church sees the saints. However, we can and should recognize the uniqueness of Armenian Christianity, a distinct expression of the Christian faith cultivated through millennia of liturgy, song, history, and language. Some of the saints we celebrate—like St. Vartan and St. Ghevont—are part of this unique expression of Armenian Christianity. Not necessarily because they are ethnically Armenian, but because they are central to the rich tradition of the Armenian Church.
Something akin to this line of thinking, in fact, has been present among Armenians in previous centuries. Dn. Timothy Aznavourian, a graduating seminarian at St. Nersess, will be presenting at the Zohrab Information Center next week, Thursday, February 27 (he will also be the speaker at the annual Vartanantz commemoration at St. Vartan Cathedral in New York this Thursday), on his research for his Masters Thesis at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. He looks at the renowned nineteenth century writer Ghevont Alishan, a Mkhitarist monk, who was both a brilliant theologian and church historian on the one hand, and deeply patriotic Armenian poet on the other. Alishan disrupts our contemporary thinking about what makes a “national saint”—that is, what makes a saint “Armenian.” In particular, Dn. Timothy will speak about Alishan’s insistence that one of the great “universal saints,” St. John Chrysostom, belongs “most of all to the Armenians.” Alishan, one of the most revered Armenian sources of the nineteenth century, helps us to challenge our own understanding of “national saints” and what it means to be an Armenian Christian.
Follow the Zohrab Information Center on Instagram @zohrabcenter to see pictures of Ghevont Alishan. Tune in on Thursday, February 27 at 7 PM EST to hear Dn. Timothy Aznavourian discuss Alishan’s work. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook!