On Saturday the Armenian Church will observe the Feast of St. Thaddeus the Apostle and St. Sandukht the Virgin. The story of these two saints sheds light on the early days of
Christianity in Armenia.
Imagine a time of great political and military struggle, a pagan kingdom ruled by a powerful royal family—this was once Armenia. The kingdom strongly clung to the inherited pagan practices until a strange man ventured to Armenia.
His name was Thaddeus. He was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. He preached in people’s homes, in hidden underground chambers, in marketplaces, and in the streets. The Holy Spirit spoke through Thaddeus, bringing the words of Christ to his followers. People listened intently, eager to hear; moved by the Good News, many converted.
Rumors of this unusual man reached a young girl named Sandukht, the daughter of Armenia’s king Sanatrouk. Sparked by curiosity, the princess disguised herself as an ordinary woman and followed her nurse to a Christian gathering.
Sandukht learned about Christ, and when her nurse confessed her commitment to the Christian faith, the princess promised not to tell her father. Intrigued, Sandukht continued attending the Christian gatherings.
The Christian faith made such an impact on Sandukht’s life that she decided to convert. She declared her belief in Christ and was baptized, and a sign from heaven designated her as a holy virgin. But when the king’s spies reported the news to her father, Sanatrouk was enraged. In an attempt to dissuade his daughter, he promised to allow her to marry the man she loved—an exceptional horseman named Zareh—and to enjoy life in a comfortable palace, surrounded by endless riches.
Sandukht was not tempted by the lure of this extravagant life. Infuriated by his daughter’s stubbornness, Sanatrouk sentenced the princess to jail. Even Zareh could not change Sandukht’s mind. He visited her in prison, begging her to return to him and to her old faith, but nothing could sway Sandukht.
Meanwhile, the news of Sandukht’s imprisonment spread throughout Armenia. Increasingly, people began to accept the Christian faith, and they prayed for Sandukht’s release.
Moved by his love for his daughter, Sanatrouk summoned the princess to his palace to give her one final chance to renounce her new faith. He asked his daughter to choose between the crown and the sword—either she would renounce Christianity and serve as a pagan princess or face death. Sandukht chose the sword, knowing that Christianity would soon blossom in Armenia. Sanatrouk pitied his daughter, but he could not bring himself to turn back on his word.
The young princess was subjected to torture and ultimately ordered to be executed. During this difficult time, she drew strength from St. Thaddeus, who encouraged her to be firm, reminding her that she would soon be with her Savior. Shortly after Sandukht’s death, Thaddeus was also executed by the king.
Zareh was among the many Armenians who were moved by Sandukht’s faith, and who also converted to Christianity. King Sanatrouk continued the orders for the executions of Christians, including Zareh. Their sacrifice planted the seeds of the Christian faith in Armenia—a faith that 300 years later would become the foundation on which Christian Armenia was to be built.
This week, consider the sacrifice of these martyrs and the lessons their lives bear. Think about St. Sandukht’s strong faith despite her father’s efforts of dissuasion, and reflect on the role of this same faith in our lives today.
—Kiersten Johnston interned in the Diocese’s Communications Department three summers ago