It was the feast of the Dedication at Jerusalem; 23 it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered round him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; 28 and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.” (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Second Sunday following Pentecost, Feast of the Universal Church of Holy Etchmiadzin), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
The Only-Begotten Descended
Landmarks are significant to a culture or society, whether local, national, or global. Armenians especially trade stories about their visitations to various landmarks particular to Armenia. These sites of pilgrimage such as Khor Virap, Artsakh, and of course the Holy See, Etchmiadzin carry deep meaning for many of our faithful. Speaking of the Holy See of the Armenian Church, why was the site on which it was built named Etchmiadzin, meaning “The Only-Begotten Descended?”
Following his emergence from the pit at Khor Virap and the conversion of King Drtad, St. Gregory the Enlightener had a vision. In the vision, as described by the historian Agathangelos, St. Gregory beheld the architectural shape of what was to become the cathedral of the Armenian Church with its pillars, arches, and dome. He also saw Jesus Christ, the Only-Begotten Son of God, descend from heaven with a golden hammer and strike the ground where the cathedral was to be erected, which happened to be the site of a pagan temple, the remains of which still exist today underneath the Holy See. There are many names and descriptions of Jesus, so why choose the name “Only-Begotten” for the Holy See, a name that refers to his incarnation? Furthermore, why was the Mother Cathedral originally named after the Virgin Mary and not the Incarnation explicitly? Why not name it in honor of the Holy Trinity?
When Christianity was brought to Armenia long before the official national conversion in 301, the practice of venerating Mary came with it. In fact, the naming of churches after Mary was a common practice in the Early Church, since, like Mary, the Church begets children of God through the baptismal font. In a very real way then, she is the Mother of the Church; she loves us and cares for her Church as she lives in intercession, putting in a good word to her Son on our behalf. In this way, both the Church and Mary are truly dwellings or shrines of God. The Armenian word for the Mother of God Աստուածածին / Asdvadzadzeen means, “Birth-Giver of God” or “God-Bearer.” In a way, Mary is the embodiment of the Church, and so we often refer to the Church with maternal or parental imagery. During the service for the Feast of Holy Etchmiadzin, the priest prays,
With a golden hammer you struck the abysmal depths and put to flight the bands of demons. There you miraculously designed in luminous form, Holy Etchmiadzin, our Holy See. You made it a storehouse of your unfading divine grace so that it may be the parent, teacher, and overseer of all the Armenian Churches.
Indeed, the Mother of God is an image of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God. This is why in Armenian churches we place an image of the Virgin Mary and Child over the altar table where Holy Communion is celebrated, where the gifts of bread and wine, by way of the Holy Spirit, become the Body and Blood of Christ. It’s an image of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, as the Mother of God is the portal by which God himself entered the world as flesh and blood.
St. Gregory of Narek affirms the imagery of the Church as our mother and the connection of the Church with the Incarnation of Christ:
Just as without the Father, there is no Christ, so without the womb of the mother Church, the soul cannot be fulfilled.
He continues his prayer dedicated to the Church:
This spiritual, heavenly mother of light cared for me as a son more than an earthly, breathing, physical mother could. The milk of her bosom was the blood of Christ. (75 K-L)
As we celebrate the Feast of Holy Etchmiadzin, we join our prayer with St. Gregory of Narek, that the Church, universally, as well as our very own Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, would function as a parent, a mother under whom we are raised and nurtured in Christian life and faith.
Etchmiadzin, the Universal Church, and The Pit
The Feast of the Universal Church of Holy Etchmiadzin (Կաթողիկէ Եկեղեցւոյ Սրբոյ Էջմիածնի Տօն) is celebrated on the second Sunday of Pentecost, following the Saturday celebrating the deliverance of St. Gregory the Enlightener from the pit. The building of the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin is a significant turning point in the life of the Armenian people in that the Holy See was built over the site of a pagan temple. Thus, a true conversion and penitential event took place as Christianity literally and symbolically displaced pagan beliefs with a new worldview, the center of which is God, the Creator, and his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. The feast is a celebration of both the universal Church and the Church of the Armenian people who belong to the one Body of Christ. Holy Etchmiadzin has always been an extension of the universal Church established by the Apostles (Ephesians 2:19-22) as we recite in our Creed: “We believe also in only one universal and apostolic holy Church.”
The week prior to the Feast of Holy Etchmiadzin recalls early Christianity in Armenia. Following the evangelistic efforts of the “First Illuminators,” Sts. Thaddeus and Bartholomew, the faith in Armenia grew due to the early presence of other Christians, including three remarkable women, St. Santookht (a student of St. Thaddeus, and the first Armenian martyr), Sts. Gayane and Hripsime, as well as Sts. Voski and Sookias and their respective companions and disciples, all of whom find their origins outside of Armenia. Eventually, it was the missionary efforts and heroic evangelization of St. Gregory the Enlightener, a Parthian bishop taught and ordained in Cappadocia.
Are we following the example of Sts. Gayane and Hripsime? Like them, are we consistently faithful, enduring suffering, doing the work of the evangelist, and fulfilling our ministry? (II Timothy 4:5) Does the story of St. Gregory inspire us only as patriotic Armenians with ancestral pride, honoring our historical heritage, or does it compel and change us as Christian Armenians to do the work of Christ in this world, to endure suffering as we are cast aside, rejected, experience hunger, sickness, violence, and anxiety in the dark, lonely pits of life? What “pit” do we find ourselves in today? While we find ourselves in the darkest of “pits,” is our fear and doubt displaced with faith and peace, are we converted and sustained by God’s mercy and grace, and as a result do we bring healing and conversion to others? Pray with the Psalmist:
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to thee,
the night is bright as the day;
for darkness is as light with thee.
Ես եւ Հայր իմ մի եմք
The annual Feast of Dedication, also known as the “Festival of Lights” (also called Hanukkah), commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was destroyed in 167 BC (see I Maccabees 1-4). The Temple of God was displaced and enemies were worshipping and offering sacrifices to their gods, gods foreign and false to the Jewish nation. Through the revolutionary efforts of Judas Maccabaeus and the mercy of God, the Temple was returned to its former glory once again as the House of God. It was a time to celebrate and give thanks to God, as well as a time to remember the kings and leaders of their past, many of whom were shepherds themselves (see Gospel reading context: John 10:1-21). At this time, the Jews were oppressed under Roman authority, and so tensions were perhaps high when they approached Jesus and demanded that he tell them plainly whether or not he was the Messiah. What was truly behind their question? Were they looking for a Messiah that fit their agenda, political or otherwise? Do we ask Jesus to prove himself to us when he doesn’t sync with our worldview, plan, or timetable?
What Jesus makes plain for his listeners is that his words and works already answered their question (John 5:36, 10:38). If they are unaware of who he is, if they don’t believe in his words and works, it is because they don’t belong to his flock, they don’t know him as their Shepherd. He then pushes it even further by revealing himself to be fully God! «Ես եւ Հայր իմ մի եմք:» (“I and my Father are one” John 10:30) To be one with the Father is to be of the same essence or nature. A central tenet of Christianity is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the second person of the Holy Trinity, that is, Jesus is God along with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit (one God in three persons).
The Jews clearly recognize his claim of divinity and thus accuse him of blasphemy, but how is the divinity of Jesus Christ relevant to their demand as to whether or not he is the Messiah, or his promise of eternal life, or the image of a Shepherd? What difference does it make that Jesus is God and not just a prophet, a man? St. John Chrysostom offers some insight:
For since it was impossible to see his Essence, from the equality and sameness of the works [Jesus] offers an unvarying proof as to his Power.
If Jesus were less than God, if it is unclear to us today as to who Jesus really is, then the hope we have for eternal life would be unclear as well, uncertain even. Jesus tells us (John 17:3),
And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.
Eternal life is all about knowing God, and thus it is a quality of life, a life of communion with Jesus Christ, a mode of existence in which we believe the saints of our Church live such as Sts. Hripsime, Gayane, and St. Gregory the Enlightener, all of whom the Armenian Church celebrated just a few days prior. Eternal life is sharing the very divine, unwavering love expressed and perpetuated in the Holy Trinity, and sharing means we are able to love with the same love of God, as long as we abide in him (see John 15:9-10). He helps us overcome our wavering “love,” i.e. our selfish, fleeting, ego-driven emotion that we mistake for authentic Christ-like love.
The foundation of his promise of eternal life is his union with the Father, the unbreakable bond of love between them. It is a bond into which we are invited and can experience now, and to love, as Jesus teaches us, is to obey his commandments (John 14:21). To do the will of our Shepherd is the work of the Church, the path to experiencing love and unity in the life of our community. What is the voice of the Shepherd? It is the voice that calls us to repent, forgive, reconcile, and give thanks for everything. What marks his sheep are those who willingly obey his voice. To know Jesus Christ and to boldly preach his name is the life of the Church, its heart and mission.
As a parish, as the Armenian Church, are we like Jesus’ listeners in this passage? Do we allow the life and works of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, as well as the present day, to speak to us as to who he is and how much he loves us, or do we demand other signs, forcing Jesus into a mold of our own making? How can we exercise our faith to know God more, to live in union with him and with each other? What are the specific obstacles which prevent us from doing so?