Few images are as universal and enduring as light. Illumination, the Bible tells us, is the beginning of creation. At first, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Then the famous pronouncement: “Let there be light!” The book of Genesis begins with the illumination of the unformed world by God, who then “saw that the light was good.” Light and goodness are paired throughout the Bible. Psalm 27  opens: “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?” The Gospel of John, echoing Genesis, insists, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Later in the Gospel of John Jesus calls himself “the light of the world.” Other traditions and religious texts are likewise saturated with imagery and metaphors related to light and illumination: Diwali, the “festival of lights” mentioned in early Sanskrit texts, is a celebration of the “victory of light over darkness” and the Zoroastrian religion’s emphasis on fire is also a recognition of the force of light. Countless high school English essays have been written about light imagery in the great works of literature.
Much of the power of light imagery comes from its metaphorical extension. Illumination easily extends from the literal glow of the sun or a fire to metaphorical enlightenment. Knowledge has often been associated with light, especially in the thought of Neoplatonic philosophers like Plotinus who were an influence on Christian and Armenian Christian thought. For Christians, following the identification of Jesus Christ as “the light of the world” in the Gospel of John, illumination is saving grace. Light therefore becomes a powerful metaphor for “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” of Jesus Christ, for knowledge of God, and for the spread of the Gospel.
For this reason, St. Gregory is called St. Gregory the Enlightener or St. Gregory the Illuminator, in Armenian Սուրբ Գրիգոր Լուսաւորիչ/Surp Krikor Lusavorich: he brought the light of Christ to Armenia. This Saturday, the Armenian Church celebrates one of several commemorations of St. Gregory the Illuminator, his entry into Khor Virap, the “Deep Pit” where he was imprisoned for thirteen years before he was let out to heal King Drtad and subsequently convert the king to Christianity. We will not rehearse the details of one of the most well-known episodes in the history of Christianity in Armenia, but instead take the opportunity to reflect on St. Gregory’s epithet of Enlightener.
Given what we have said about light imagery already, St. Gregory’s name of Enlightener or Illuminator should make perfect sense: through his role in the conversion of King Drtad and the kingdom of Armenia, he brought the light of Christ to Armenia. By spreading the Gospel, the Good News, he illuminated the land of Armenia. In his well-known role as teacher—The Teaching of St. Gregory, excerpted from Agathangelos’ The History of Armenia is the foundational catechesis for Armenian Christianity—he brought knowledge and enlightenment to Armenia. We can see how easily and quickly the metaphor of light spreads. St. Gregory was both illuminator of souls and enlightener of minds. Light here is both the light of Christ and the metaphorical light of knowledge. Even if you have not visited Khor Virap, the pit where Gregory was imprisoned, it is not hard to imagine the darkness in which Gregory found himself after the descent we commemorate this Saturday. When he emerged from the darkness of the pit into the light—which the Armenian Church commemorates separately in June—he himself was a light and began to spread the Gospel of Christ across Armenia, illuminating and enlightening.
|The Concept of Place in Neoplatonism||A collection of Neoplatonic texts on place with commentaries and additional essays. Neoplatonic thought identified light with knowledge, and the Neoplatonic description of the movement of the soul upwards and downwards was crucial to how they understood light and knowledge.|
|Zoroastrianism in Armenia||By James Russell, the definitive study of the Zoroastrian religion in the context of Armenia. Zoroastrianism was widespread in pre-Christian Armenia.|
|The History of Armenia||Agathangelos’ classic history of the conversion of Armenia, our most complete source related to St. Gregory the Enlightener. Translated by Robert Thomson.|
Beginning with Genesis, fulfilled in the Gospels, and exemplified by St. Gregory, light and enlightenment is a central theme of Armenian Christianity and broader Armenian history. Given the Biblical grounding, it shares this emphasis on light with Christian thinking broadly. Light was central to the intellectual understanding of the Holy Trinity and the relationship between the different persons of the Trinity. In the Nicene Creed, we use light imagery to help contemplate the mystery of Jesus Christ as both human and divine, describing Him as “Light from Light.” The powerful light metaphor can give us a sense of the mystery of the Incarnation. Early heretical movements within Christianity questioned the divinity of Christ. How could a human be God? If Jesus Christ is the Son of God, how can we also call him God? And if he is the Son, doesn’t that mean he must come after the Father? Orthodox defenders gave the example of the sun and its rays: both the sun and its rays share the quality of being light. Yet one, the sun, is the source of light. The rays are not anterior in time to the sun, but always and immediately shine forth from the sun. Likewise, God the Father is the source in that he begets the Son, but they are both divine. Light from light, the Son is of the substance of the Father, but it is only the Father who begets, who is the ultimate source of light. In this image of light proceeding from light, early Christian theologians defended both the unity of the Trinity of the differences of personhood within the Godhead.
A Christian emphasis on light, while clearly grounded in the Gospel of John, was not always uncontroversial, however. Since light is such a universal metaphor, some have seen remnants of earlier religious or cult practices in the persistence of light imagery in the Christian Church. A Roman cult of the “Sun God,” Sol, later developed and transformed into that of Sol Invictus (“The Invincible Sun”), a late Roman cult that flourished alongside early Christianity. Some have argued against the sincerity of Constantine the Great’s conversion to Christianity by pointing coinage he issued that shows the emperor on one side and an image of Sol Invictus on the back. The argument suggests that Constantine and the Nicene theology he sponsored emphasized light imagery available within Christianity either to continue a kind of sun-worship or to make Christianity palatable to Roman pagans. Similarly, some have seen a persistence of pagan or Zoroastrian dedication to fire and light in Armenian Christian traditions such as jumping over the fire during the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord to the Temple. Historians might continue to argue about syncretism (the merging of elements of different religious traditions in a way that doesn’t always uphold the integrity of any of them) or the intention and strategy of Christian rulers. From the perspective of the Armenian Apostolic Church, however, there is no reason to emphasize anything other than the statement of Christ Himself that He is the light of the world and the insistence that Christians should always be a light on the hill and a source of illumination and enlightenment to the world.
Finally, we can mention an additional important metaphorical extension of enlightenment. Already associated with knowledge, light and knowledge became permanently connected when a group of disparate philosophical ideas were collected together under the banner of The Enlightenment. Associated with thinkers like Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Locke, the movement influenced political ideas as well as philosophy and culture. Many of these ideas found their way into Armenian intellectual circles as well. Concurrent with this period of philosophical reflection in Europe, economic and social changes in the Ottoman Empire led to an increasingly wealthy merchant class. Earlier, high class amiras had sponsored young Armenian men to study in Western centers like Paris. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the new class of esnafs were also sending their sons and sometimes daughters abroad for education. In part through their education, the ideas of the Enlightenment moved through the Armenian community. This knowledge is reflected in the literature of the period as well as the establishment of revolutionary political parties at the end of the nineteenth century. In Armenian history, the influence of ideas from the European Enlightenment and the indigenous developments of Armenian literature and political thinking is referred to as Zartonk or “Awakening.”
With just these few examples, we can see how far the metaphor of light, enlightenment, and illumination can extend. For the Christian, the true light is always Jesus Christ, who enlightened the world when he came into it. St. Gregory the Illuminator enlightened Armenia by spreading the Gospel. Yet other metaphorical extensions are also sources of light, learning, and illumination. May we all be illuminated!
|Light from Light: An Introduction to the History and Theology of the Armenian Church||An incredible resource from Dr. Michael Papazian, this concise but informative book provides one of the best introductions to the Armenian Church. As the title suggests, the book considers light imagery and its use in statements of Armenian Christian faith and theology.|
|Constantine the Great and the Christian Revolution||A historical look at Emperor Constantine and his role in the spread of Christianity.|
|Enlightenment and Diaspora: the Armenian and Jewish Cases||Edited by Richard G. Hovannisian and David N. Myers, this collection of essays explores the spread of enlightenment ideas through diasporic populations and charts the influence of those ideas.|
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