Living the Resurrection

April 15th, 2014    |    No Comments »

“What does it mean to walk with Christ and live the Resurrection?” writes Archbishop Khajag Barsamian in this year’s Easter Message.

What would such a life look like?

Mary Magdalene’s story from the Gospel of St. John provides a powerful answer. Healed by Jesus, Mary is mentioned in all four gospels, and generally listed first whenever the women are mentioned (except when she stands with Mary, Jesus’ mother, at the cross). She was clearly a formidable presence among Jesus’ followers. Most importantly for us, she sets the example for a life transformed by the Lord, having accompanied him throughout his travels and in his darkest hours—even to Jerusalem, where she saw Christ crucified, and laid to rest in the tomb. Finally, she was the first, according to John, to see the risen Lord and proclaim his resurrection. “Go!” Jesus told her. And go she did, with the joyful words: “I have seen the Lord!”

Click on the following links to continue reading the Primate’s message in English and Armenian.

Mikhail Nesterov, "The Empty Tomb" (1889).

Mikhail Nesterov, “The Empty Tomb” (1889).

An Attack on Kessab

March 28th, 2014    |    No Comments »

On Friday, March 21, the Armenian-populated town of Kessab, Syria, was invaded by armed rebels affiliated with international terrorist organizations. The attacks were reported to originate from across the border in Turkey.

An estimated 670 Armenian Christian families—the majority of Kessab’s population—have been evacuated by the local Armenian community, and have taken refuge in the nearby towns of Basit and Latakia. But a number of Kessabtsi Armenian families have remained in their homes, to care for elderly members too old to move.

This week His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, issued a statement condemning the seizure and destruction of Kessab, and has been in contact with His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, and Bishop Armash Nalbandian, Primate of the Diocese of Damascus, regarding the situation in Kessab and the relief of the people.

The President of Armenia, Serge Sargsian, also issued a statement. In this country, the Armenian Assembly and the Eastern Diocese have sent separate letters to President Barack Obama asking the United States to take steps to safeguard the Kessab Armenians. The Diocese’s Ecumenical Director, Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, had a meeting at the U.S. State Department on the subject. And the National Council of Churches in the USA has sent a letter to President Obama asking the United States to restore stability in Kessab.

Kessab is an Armenian stronghold since the Middle Ages, with Armenian roots dating even farther back, to at least the era of Tigran the Great. Armenians have long been the vast majority of its population, promoting a humane, tolerant, and vital civil, cultural, and religious life. The city has had episodes of tragedy in the past.  In 1909, Turkish armed detachments invaded and expelled the Armenian people, at the cost of nearly 200 lives; and in 1915, during the Genocide, thousands of Armenians were killed in the forced death marches into the deserts of Deir ez-Zor and Jordan.

In a directive issued this week, Diocesan Primate Archbishop Khajag Barsamian called on the parishioners of the Eastern Diocese to offer prayers for our brothers and sisters in Kessab. The Diocese continues to accept donations on behalf of Syrian relief, which are distributed through the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. Individuals may make secure online contributions on the Diocesan website (please select the “Syrian Relief” item in the drop-down menu).

A view of Kessab.

A view of Kessab.

Sunday of the Steward

March 19th, 2014    |    No Comments »

The steward is a figure who comes up in many of Jesus’ parables—a “stock character,” we might say, who would have been very recognizable to Christ’s listeners.

What did stewards do, in the time of Jesus?  What made them so interesting to our Lord?

They were, first of all, servants. But a special kind of servant: They were caretakers, or business managers, as we might say today. They were not owners; but the true owner, the master, had given the steward responsibility and authority. And to be given such things meant that the steward was in a position of trust.

Clearly, Jesus saw this special relationship of “stewardship” as symbolic of the greater dynamic between God and man. In the deepest sense, we are not the owners of the good things in our lives: our families, our healthy bodies, our heritage, our church. To be sure, we are indeed responsible for all these things, and we cannot neglect our responsibility. But our highest responsibility is not really to satisfy ourselves, but to please God.

Jesus’s parable about an unjust steward who was accused of cheating his master (Luke 16:1-17—the reading for the third Sunday of Lent) is famous for being difficult to understand.  But it gives us some very concrete clues about what it means to be a “good steward.”

Jesus tells us: “He that is faithful in a little, is faithful also in much” (Lk 16:10).  He asks: “If you have been dishonest with another man’s belongings, who will give you something of your own?” (Lk 16:12).  And he concludes with the famous saying: “No servant can serve two masters” (Lk 16:13).

These words of wisdom should be “food for thought” for us, during our journey through Lent.

But the most important words in the parable come at the very beginning, when the Master asks the Steward: “What is this I hear about you? Give me an account of your stewardship” (Lk 16:2).

Surely, this is the larger point Jesus was making throughout his teaching on stewardship.  God has entrusted us with many serious responsibilities.  He has given us many beautiful gifts and blessings.  But we are called to make an account.

When our Master does so, will we show ourselves to have been good stewards?  Or neglectful ones?

But let’s return for some final thoughts on the parable of the Unjust Steward.  As mentioned, it’s difficult to understand.  Some interpreters strive mightily to make the desperate, swindling steward into an exemplar of moral conduct.  But these attempts are unpersuasive, given Jesus’ larger themes about what constitutes being a “good steward.”

Perhaps a key to its meaning can be found in an overlooked point in Luke’s account.  We learn (Lk 14:14) that Jesus was addressing the Pharisees: the religious teaching authorities of Jesus’ time, entrusted with the job of telling the people what God wanted from them.  But in order to make themselves popular, they had “watered down” the message: like the unjust steward, they had “discounted the debt” that man should rightfully owe to God.

Through the parable of the Unjust Steward, Jesus seems to have been warning the Pharisees—and all authorities in positions of trust—that while this might make them welcome in the homes of men, eventually there would be an accounting—and did they think that God would congratulate them on their shrewdness?

In this reading, Jesus is being ironic when he says (Lk 16:8), “The lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely.” But that mood certainly fits better with the stern lessons about honesty, integrity, and the impossibility of serving two masters, which immediately follow the parable.

Read the passage for yourself. What do you think?

A 17th-century Dutch etching of the Parable of the Unjust Steward.

A Light for Revelation, and for Glory to thy People

February 13th, 2014    |    No Comments »

On Friday, February 14, the Armenian Church will observe the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord to the Temple, a beautiful story from the infancy of Jesus, in which he is confirmed as the Holy Messiah or Christ—the world’s long-awaited savior. In Armenian, it is known as Dyarnuntarach, or “the bringing forward of the Lord.”

Forty days after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph brought the baby to the temple, as was the pious custom at the time. There they encountered Simeon, an elderly and devout Jew who had prayed to God to keep him alive so he would see the savior promised to mankind.

When Simeon saw Mary and her baby, he sensed God’s presence, and said: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

Click here to read a meditation on the Presentation, taken from our Primate’s 2006 Christmas message, “A Light for Revelation, and for Glory to thy People.”

The Presentation at the Temple, The Gospel of Khizan (1499)

Remembering Hrant Dink

January 23rd, 2014    |    No Comments »

Hrant Dink

We Have Lived To See This Day: A Reminiscence, After a Year*

At first hearing, the news seemed like the build-up to a joke. Dink’s been shot? The name itself never failed to amuse me, no matter the context. And pictures of the man had always showed a pleasant, expressive Armenian face, slightly ironic, and confidently composed even amid the Keystone-Coppish antics of Turkey’s legal system. Besides, he was only a writer.

Dink’s been shot? What an improbable idea. Go on—what’s the punch line?

It turned out there was more than one punch line—and quite different from what I had expected. Dink’s been shot—and he’s dead. Dink was shot—in broad daylight, on an open street. He was shot in the back of the head. He was shot coming out of his office. He was shot, and the punk who did it cursed him in Turkish as he ran away.

The details trickled into the Reporter’s offices throughout that day, but there was hardly time to greet them with the reverence they deserved. Energy could be spared for a periodic sad shake of the head, an angry grinding of teeth. But what took possession of me and my colleagues in our scattered offices was the emerging news story—already developing in astonishing ways on the streets of Istanbul, and rippling outward to Armenian communities across the world. How would we cover it? How would we do justice, not simply to the immediate event, but also to the accelerating pace of reactions and counter-developments? How would we convey it all in a timely way, with an original perspective?

In some ways the reaction was coldly forensic; but there was a touch of poignancy in the realization that the victim himself, in decidedly different circumstances, would likely have been approaching things in a similar way.

It was not until two days later, in church, that the full weight of Hrant Dink’s fate fell on me.

Already by that time, the Internet was alive with headlines and slogans seeking to encapsulate the greater meaning of Dink’s death. Dink was said to have died in 1915. He was designated Victim Number one-and-a-half-million-plus-one of the Armenian Genocide. He was the hero-martyr killed for speaking the truth. All of these were thoughtful, helpful, even true in their own ways.

And yet not the whole truth. Even in the Republic of Turkey, there are others willing to speak and write about the Genocide; some have been roughed up, threatened, sued, forced into exile. But none of them was selected for an execution-style murder. That distinction was reserved for Hrant Dink, and what recommended him for that fate, in the eyes of his killers, was not the kind of man he was or wasn’t, or even what he said or did, but rather the very fact that he was an Armenian.

That thought weighed on me as I stood in our church sanctuary, among fellow countrymen, but also by myself. The sharagans came from me raspingly, haltingly. Surely there was comfort to be found in those immortal sounds, which have outlived every Armenian who ever existed, and link us with those who were, and those who are yet to come. But on that day there was also a sense of defiance in the mere utterance of those Armenian words, and more than once, when I felt I couldn’t continue a given phrase, I found myself forcing the words out, through clenched teeth, and at the expense of tunefulness, just to assure the invisible powers listening that our words would never easily be silenced.

It was just after the singing of Der voghormia that I felt my son at my side, up from Sunday School to receive Communion. Earlier that morning, I had tried to explain something of what had occurred in the previous days, and in his wise little way he stood close by me now, without any words, as if to console the troubled heart of his father. Every child, I think, represents a parent’s desire to redeem the wrongs of the past, and to cast a vote for a better future—certainly that’s the perspective of many Armenians I know. And my own firstborn son, named for the departed grandfathers he never knew, is no exception. But in the midst of that mostly happy thought, it came hard upon me that this same boy, freshly turned six the week before, would be no different from Dink in the eyes of the killers: equally expendable, equally worthy of extinction. Equally guilty of the sin of being an Armenian. So are we all.

Looking back from the vantage of a year, it is still astonishing to me that I have lived to see a day on which such a realization could occur. For reasons of politics, which are not unworthy in themselves, we pretend that what happened in 1915 was the act of a now-defunct regime. Even the attempt to link Dink’s death directly to the Genocide seems, to me, to be an attempt to isolate it, historicize it, emphasize its anomalous, retrograde quality—as if in the passage of 90-odd years the world has outgrown such things.

But the thing that most impresses itself upon me a year after the day Hrant Dink was shot is that the passions of hatred and contempt which made something like the Genocide possible, even plausible, a century ago, are still alive, still easily accessible, still there waiting to be unleashed today.

I fear that this hatred will always follow our people. Certainly, I cannot see how all the easy talk about reconciliation (whatever that entails) will ever overcome it. Dink’s killers, an amalgam of the faceless state, and the otherwise nameless lowlifes for whom a moment of violence is the only path to notoriety, are in their typology as old as man himself. They are the images of enforced order and mindless chaos which have allied themselves throughout history, whenever the conceit of human freedom, human distinctiveness, human dignity, arise, and need to be put down—violently, carelessly, with only a token of remorse.

Certainly, there was reason for unexpected hope in the immediate aftermath of Dink’s murder. Perhaps one day it will amount to something. There was likewise reason for disappointment in the political developments (or non-developments) of the past 12 months. But the fluctuating highs and lows are, I fear, in the scheme of history, ephemeral. What persists is a hatred directed at our people—as it has been directed at other people, elsewhere. It will always be with us.

By all accounts, Hrant Dink was a decent man in life; certainly a brave one. We should remember that whenever we memorialize him—and we should be grateful that we can remember him as such a man. But good or bad, none of that mattered to his killers. Dink was shot—because he was an Armenian. That’s the terrible “punchline” that has stayed with me these past months.

To be honest, the thought does not keep me awake at night, or pollute the joy I find in life’s many beautiful and noble aspects. But I am also all too aware that I have accepted the responsibility for bringing four new Armenians into this world, to carry on our family tradition, and to add their voices to the chorus of our ancestors. Someday, somehow, I will have to find a way to tell them that, despite their breathtaking purity and innocence, the weapon that targeted Hrant Dink is aimed at them, too.

—Christopher H. Zakian

* This essay was originally published in The Armenian Reporter on January 19, 2008—the first anniversary of Hrant Dink’s murder. Mr. Zakian was managing editor of the Armenian Reporter from 2006 to 2008.

Faith Through Song

January 16th, 2014    |    No Comments »

Monday is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States—a day off from work for many of our fellow citizens, but also a day for serious thought and reflection. Editorials on this day typically (and justifiably) focus on King’s political legacy. But often overlooked is how his mission was a consequence of his ministry—grounded in a religious vision of human dignity and family-like solidarity, under the fatherhood of a watchful God. Reverend King’s splendid oratory had its rhetorical roots in the cadences of the King James Bible: in the prophetic poetry of Isaiah and Micah, and certainly in the Gospel utterances of Jesus.

It found another source in the vernacular of America—especially in its tradition of songs: from old-time Protestant hymns, to spirituals, to anthems of wholesome patriotism.

Armenians might find a special point of contact here, for our music likewise resonates in deeply religious ways. Through our sharagans, our people express, in a unified way, an entire system of belief; an experience of sorrow; but above all a sense of hope: a faith, really, in the ultimate beneficence of God.

Similar chords are struck in Reverend King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.  Its concluding words weave together the strands of religious redemption and national aspiration, using the common thread of song. The uplifting result is not so different from what churchmen of another time and place accomplished when they penned the sharagans of the Armenian Divine Liturgy. In the badarak, as in the following words of Reverend King, song creates a unity of distinct voices, lifting our hearts and our thoughts upward:

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Martin Luther King

Advent Reflection

January 5th, 2014    |    No Comments »

Read Luke 2:8-20

Christ is born and revealed amongst us! Blessed is the revelation of Christ!

On the eve of the Feast of Holy Nativity and Theophany of our Lord Jesus Christ, let us reflect on the beauty and mystery of the incarnation of Jesus. God, the Creator of the universe and the Author of our lives, chose to reveal himself to us in the most humble of ways. Our indescribable, limitless, and almighty God came to earth in the form of a helpless baby wrapped in cloths. The shepherds found him cradled in a manger alongside Joseph and Mary, surrounded by hay and animals. This doesn’t strike you as the sort of entrance that the “Messiah, the Lord” would have, does it? Yet the angels guided the shepherds to this baby boy, and they knew within seconds that he was the one who would turn everything around. He was the “great joy for all the people,” the one who they foretold as Emmanuel: “God with us.”

This, folks, is what the Gospel is all about. This is the “good news.” We don’t serve a God who is far away, uninterested in the day-to-day lives of his creations. We serve a present God, one who is with us and never, ever leaves us. We serve a selfless God, one who chose an earthly life to give you and I a life of eternity. We serve an everlasting God, one whose revelation as a man is but one chapter of the grand story he is weaving for the redemption and glory of us all. Tomorrow, as you enter into your churches to worship God, remember who you are praising. Remember the babe who was born to die, who was born to bear the sin of the world upon his shoulders. And remember that he overcame death to give us life to the fullest. Ever blessed is this beautiful revelation, both now and forevermore.

Lord, we are so grateful that you gave us salvation through your son, Jesus Christ. We pray for the grace and love of Jesus to surround us as we celebrate his birth and majesty.

Advent Reflection

January 1st, 2014    |    No Comments »

Read Luke 20:41-21:4

Have you ever felt that Christmas is a show of self-importance rather than a show of selfless service? In American culture, we want success, we want fame, and we want to be well-liked. In something of a vicious circle, these goals arise from and then reinforce self-absorption and false piety. Like the scribes that Jesus is criticizing, we often make an exaggerated effort to gain approval and respect from those around us. We “like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect.” In one of his many counter-cultural moves, Christ says that these are the exact people who will be “punished most severely.” But why?

When we call ourselves Christians, we are claiming that we love Christ more than anything else in the world. We put aside our own desires and put the love of Christ before our love of self. That’s why Jesus praises the woman who gave the last two coins she owned. She gave all that she had out of her love for Christ, and she didn’t make a big show of her donations like the scribes did. Christ honored her genuine selflessness. God isn’t looking for the person who seeks the approval of others by wearing the nicest clothes, throwing the most lavish parties, or giving the most expensive gifts. Quite the contrary, He is calling His children to humility, kindness, and sincere service. During this Advent season, don’t get caught up in the popularity game of the scribes; serve others and serve Christ with your whole heart, in the sure knowledge that by doing so you are pleasing the only Person whose opinion of you should matter.

Lord, this world entices us to love wealth and power. Guide us to a path where we tame our desire to be popular and embrace a life of loving service.

Advent Reflection

December 25th, 2013    |    No Comments »

Read Luke 18:18-27

Sell your car. Sell the necklaces, the DVDs, the game systems. Sell all of your clothes except what you have on your back, and make sure you sell those watches and those shoes, too. Sell everything in your house until nothing remains, until everything you once owned is now reduced to a pile of cash and checks. Then, go out and give that money away. Give it to the homeless man you pass every day on your way to work. Give it to the single parents who are struggling to put food on the table. Give it to the kids who have never gotten a new toy on Christmas morning, let alone any other morning. Give, give, and give, until you literally have nothing left. And then rejoice, “for you will have treasure in heaven.”

This is a tough pill to swallow, isn’t it? Christ tells us that becoming poor in this life will make us rich in the heavenly kingdom. Some of us are opening Christmas presents this morning, and some will be opening them soon in January. Imagine receiving those gifts and then immediately selling them in order to give that money to someone less fortunate. Are we willing to trust the Father with everything that we have? Are we willing to listen to Him when He beckons us to a life of selflessness and sacrifice? It is not enough to just obey the rules. As we read in James, “Faith without deeds is dead” (2:26). Christ gave everything he had to give us the riches of heaven. As we celebrate his birth this Advent season, let us remember that our true treasure lies in Christ and His eternal kingdom.

Lord, let nothing of this material world satisfy us the way the hope of Your heavenly kingdom satisfies us. Put it on our hearts to give sacrificially so that we might help others in greater need.

Advent Reflection

December 22nd, 2013    |    No Comments »

Read Isaiah 40:18-31

Do you know who your God is? Especially during the chaos of the Christmas season in America, we have the unfortunate habit of creating other gods. We put so many things on pedestals: our perfect dinner parties, our final grades of the semester, our paychecks, our newly-wrapped Christmas presents. These gods slip into our minds and our hearts, and they do a great job of averting our eyes us from the God who is the only One worthy of our affection. He is “the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” The same God who set the earth on its foundations is the same God who planned our salvation through his son Jesus Christ. Can the gods we covet in this life say the same? Dear readers, let us praise the God of the universe, who gives us faith and allows us to “soar on wings like eagles.” This is the God of our Advent season and the God of our whole lives.

Lord, forgive us for turning to false gods in this holy season of preparation. Give us the faith and the strength to put our hope in You and not in the things of this world.