The following are suggested themes for sermon topics for the Feast of the Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide:
By decision of the synod of bishops of the Armenian Apostolic Church, under the auspices of His Holiness Karekin II Catholicos of All Armenians and His Holiness Aram I Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, the countless martyrs of the Genocide of the Armenians were formally recognized as martyrs and canonized as saints of the Armenian Church on April 23, 2015. On the annual day of the commemoration of the Genocide Martyrs the Armenian Church will henceforth pay tribute to the new saints as it does every other saint of the church: by means of dedicated hymns, litanies and prayers that recall the saints and their example, honor them, and ask for their intercession.
Faithful Christians look to the saints and martyrs with hope and joy because by the unshakable faith that they manifested during their earthly lives, they become witnesses to the truth of the Gospel and to the eternal promises Jesus Christ has made to those who follow him. Through them we perceive the highest ideals of the Church: who we aim to be, what we believe, what our priorities are, and what our mission is. The saints are our witnesses to that ideal, but they should also challenge the Church and every one of its members to grow toward the ideal that they embody. The saints provide a useful gauge for the Church to refine its work and commitments, to reform itself where necessary, in order to remain faithful to its sacred mission.
Who are Martyrs?
At the very heart of the Christian faith is the conviction that at a certain time God the Father sent his Son into this fallen world to heal it by becoming a human being through birth to Mary the Mother of God and by experiencing for himself the fullness of human life. The fullness of human life includes especially our travails, suffering and dysfunctions. Jesus the Savior redeemed the world by entering the human condition and identifying himself completely with it, to the point of death (see Philippians 2:5-11). Jesus Christ the Son of God “emptied himself” fully and died. On the third day he rose from the tomb, thereby triumphing over death and evil. In so doing he became the ultimate witness to God’s eternal power, over which no pain, no injustice, no fear, not even death itself can prevail.
Christians martyrs are those people who, in the face of death, imitate Jesus Christ in the certain conviction that no power, no affliction, not even death can separate us from the divine and eternal life that God has promised to those who love him. In this way they became witnesses to the truth of Jesus’ promise to raise to new life those who come to know him and follow him. A more authentic Armenian word for “martyr” is նահատակ / nahadag. Even more expressive is the word vgah / վկայ, which means “witness.” They are witnesses who provide the strongest possible testimony to the truth of what we believe as Christians. Their extraordinary faith and devotion to Jesus Christ are manifested in how they lived their lives. When we study the lives of the saints of the Church, our own faith is strengthened. The saints therefore become paramount witnesses to the truth of God’s Word, the truth of Jesus Christ, and the truth of the Christian faith. In the saints we have proof positive that the Christian faith is true.
The Power of Christian Martyrdom
Let us look more concretely at the phenomenon of martyrdom. We hear of a young woman being marched through the deserts of eastern Turkey, her emaciated baby in her arms. At one point a Turkish soldier confronts her at knifepoint. He demands that she renounce Jesus Christ or die. She resolutely refuses to abdicate her faith, saying, “Jesus Christ is my Lord and my God.” Enraged, the soldier grabs her child, throws him on the ground and plunges his bayonet into her chest.
Chilling incidents like this one are all too common in the memory of the Armenians. What are we to make of this woman? Assuming the story is actually historically accurate, there are only two possible explanations. First, the woman must have truly believed to the depths of her being in the truth of what the Church has always preached about Jesus Christ; she knew deeply and really that God is the source of all existence in this life and beyond; that Jesus Christ has divine power so mighty that it even triumphs over sin, evil, injustice and death. This woman must have had a deep and bona fide sense of God’s presence that was so strong that she could face certain death without fear.
The only other possible explanation for this woman’s radical behavior is that she was simply mad. She was a suicidal fanatic. No one of sane mind willingly sacrifices her life and that of her child for the sake of thin air.
Here is the power of Christian martyrdom. Surely there are and have been lunatics who have given their lives for a fantasy. But there are many martyrs who can by no means be considered to have been crazy. Indeed, the Church recalls and salutes many of them. These were people of wisdom, integrity, and above all Christian faith, whose unimpeachable character was acknowledged by many people who knew them and preserved their memory. These are the true martyrs who present the closest thing we can have to the assurance of the truth of our faith. It is that assurance that is our precious inheritance from all of the church’s martyrs. This is the priceless legacy of the new martyrs of the Genocide: authentic, tangible, indisputable witness and testimony to the reality of God and His boundless, eternal love for us.
Putting in a Good Word: The Intercession of the Saints
The Church believes that, unlike the dead who are asleep until the second coming of Jesus Christ, the saints are alive, enjoying God’s eternal presence in heaven. Thus, we believe that the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide are not dead but alive and in the precious company of God. They have reached their eternal reward and no longer have any need for our prayers. If the saints are alive, fully sharing heavenly life with God, then it follows that they are praying for us. Consequently, the Armenian Church will no longer offer Hokehankeesd requiem prayers for the martyrs as a whole. Instead, we will now ask for their intercession with the Lord for our needs, just as we routinely ask for the intercession of Mary the Mother of God, John the Baptist, Gregory our Illuminator and all the saints during the Divine Liturgy and other services of the church.
The Armenian word for this concept is much more evocative than the technical term “intercession.” Parekhosootyoon / բարեխօսութիւն literally means “good speech,” or “putting in a good word.” That is precisely what we ask the saints to do for us. As human beings, they lived in this world just as we do, and they witnessed the good, the bad and the truly depraved of human life. Now, graduated to God’s presence, they naturally pray for the healing of this world, which was the place of their birth. We welcome the saints’ intercession just as anyone seeking the support of a superior would welcome the intercession of a trusted colleague who “has the ear” of the boss.
Whether as a church or as individual prayerful Christians, when we open the eyes of our heart to the martyrs, and the entire “communion of saints,” and ask for their continuous intercession, we align ourselves with them and speed our passage to the heavenly harbor that they have attained.
The Holy Martyrs’ Witness and Our Witness
In the poignant closing lines of the decree of canonization, the Catholicoses turn to speak directly to our innumerable, nameless, holy Genocide martyrs:
And now, Holy Martyrs, remembering you eternally, in prayerful supplication, we appeal to you: Receive our prayers and intercede for us so that we too, with fearless love, may also continually glorify the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Now and always and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Our Catholicoses pray that every child of the Armenian Church may also be worthy to discover the fearless love (աներկիւղ սէր) with which our martyrs were blessed: a life-creating love for God and for one another that is so potent and vital that all adversity, all fear and all pain vanish in its midst. Yet again we see that the true significance of the holy martyrs of the Genocide and of this centenary year is far more than the worthy memorial of a tragic chapter in one small nation’s history. It is even more noble than the cause of political justice and human rights. In the end, our martyrs dare us to set our sights on an even higher aspiration, a still more noble dignity:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)
It is in baptism that a person becomes a member of the church—the Body of Christ (Ephesians 5:23-24)—and sets out on the life-long path of following Jesus Christ. As followers or disciples of Jesus Christ, we seek to come to know God and to discover God’s love for us. As we attend to that vocation, we grow to trust and to love God. We grow in faith. For St. Paul, such people become “sanctified” through an intimate bond with Jesus Christ called “communion.” Consequently, if any human being is to be considered soorp, it can only be by the grace of God. No human being can earn his way to sainthood. One can only be considered a saint because through communion with Jesus Christ, God shares his divine holiness with that person.
In the Genocide, God called on the first Christian nation once again “to be crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20), and with Christ, to show the world, through the blood of our martyred grandparents and great grandparents, that “by dying he has trampled on death and given us the gift of eternal life.” The awareness that our ancestry contains great saints should inspire us to live more godly and Christ-like lives, whether those saints are far removed from us in time, martyrs of the Genocide, or perhaps alive in our homes and churches today. Inspired by their example, let us witness ever more sincerely and hopefully to that gracious and vital mystery. To Christ our God be glory forever.
Content taken from the publication titled From Victims to Victors by Fr. Daniel Findikyan, 2015