Helping the Parishioners of St. Garabed Church in Baton Rouge

August 25th, 2016    |    No Comments »

Last week, we called on all our parishes to hold a special collection on Sunday, August 21, for victims of the severe flooding in the state of Louisiana. As you will recall, Vasken Kaltakjian, the parish council chair of St. Garabed Armenian Church in Baton Rouge, reported that three families in the parish were forced to flee their homes, and one parishioner his business in the wake of the flood.

At this time, we have more detailed information on the status of these Armenian families, and we are asking our parishes to conduct additional plate collections for our fellow parishioners in need in the coming weeks. Other fundraising drives parishes wish to organize as part of this relief effort are also welcome.

Individuals and parishes can make checks out to the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (please write “St. Garabed Relief Effort” in the memo, and mail checks to the Diocesan Center, 630 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10016). Individuals can also contribute  through our Diocesan website.

Four Armenian families in the greater Baton Rouge area have been affected by the flooding:

One family experienced minor damage to their property and has already returned to their home. They are expecting to begin renovations soon.

One parishioner’s house was completely submerged in water. Everything in the house remains unsalvageable, including such basic items as clothing and other personal belongings.

A third family was forced to evacuate their home and will not be able to return for at least six weeks. The first floor of their house was completely flooded, and they lost all furniture, appliances, and other items on the first floor to water damage.

The fourth family experienced damage at their place of business, where two parking lots were flooded and 82 cars were destroyed. In addition, the family owned two rental houses and a fishing camp, all of which were submerged in water.

Two of these families did not have flood insurance as their properties were not located in a flood zone, Mr. Kaltakjian said. Those forced to evacuate their homes are now staying with friends and relatives in the area.

The parish council of St. Garabed Church has been in touch with these parishioners to provide emergency assistance. Their goal is to provide short-term relief while the families await aid from insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

All funds collected in our parishes should be sent to the Diocesan Center no later than Friday, September 16. Please note that all proceeds—100 percent—will go to the relief effort; funds will be distributed by the St. Garabed Armenian Church of Baton Rouge. If you have any questions, please contact Vasken Kaltakjian, the parish council chair of St. Garabed Church, at (225) 413-4620.

Please give generously to support our St. Garabed parishioners in this time of need. And please continue to keep them—and all the victims of the flooding in Louisiana—in your prayers. May God be with our Armenian Christian brothers and sisters, and with all our fellow American citizens, who are enduring the effects of this disaster.

With prayers,

Archbishop Khajag Barsamian
Primate

Between Crown and Sword

July 7th, 2016    |    No Comments »

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

St. Thaddeus, St. Sandukht, and other imprisoned Christians by the 19th-century Italian artist Juliano Zasso.

Narek’s Festal Works, for the First Time in English

May 19th, 2016    |    No Comments »

The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek: Annotated Translation of the Odes, Litanies, and Encomia
By Dr. Abraham Terian
Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2016

St. Gregory of Narek (945-1003) is one the most revered saints of the Armenian Church. He has been widely influential due to his penitential flavor of prayerful expression, particularly through his renowned and deeply introspective Book of Prayers. He has also gained the popularity of those outside the Armenian tradition. Last year, on February 21, 2015 Pope Francis declared St. Gregory a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, joining the company of 35 other important figures and saints such as St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Athanasius, St. Ephrem, and St. Teresa of Ávila.

Besides St. Gregory’s new status in the Catholic Church, his influence lives on in our own tradition. Thanks to Abraham Terian, Professor Emeritus of Armenian Theology and Patristics at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, the Armenian faithful now have the chance to discover–for the first time in English—our beloved mystical poet, philosopher, and theologian through the newly published Festal Works of St. Gregory: Annotated Translation of the Odes, Litanies, and Encomia.

The poetical odes and litanies vary in length ranging from 10 to 165 lines, with headings such as Ode for the Blessing of Water, Ode for the Coming of the Holy Spirit, and Litany for St. Gregory the Illuminator. The assumption is they were composed for public and liturgical use, but how the festal works of St. Gregory were employed (if they were used at all) is unknown. Similarly, we do not know the setting of the encomia: lengthy prose texts dedicated to praising subjects such as the Holy Virgin, the Holy Cross, and the Holy Apostles.

Gregory’s poetry is replete with vivid imagery and descriptors, drawn from his panoramic view of Scripture. Additionally, each of the genres included in the volume embody a sense of the worshipping community’s joyful praise, serving as a perfect supplement to Gregory’s penitential Book of Prayers.

Read, for example, these lines from his Ode for the Raising of Lazarus (p. 43):

The Gift able to transform the speechless, dead body,
The dead body wrapped in burial clothes, to be clothed and sealed with breath again by the Caller to Life.
The seal of death was broken as were the torments of hell,
The torments by the (evil) one who cannot harm the blessed assembly.
The great Hebrew assembly, a galaxy of thousands, praises in song the glory,
The glory of the One who bestows light, now and eternally.
Amen.

Although the subject of the ode is the raising of Lazarus, St. Gregory is able to link that event with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, and ground the entire theme in the divinity of Christ. This ode affirms that it is not the story of the person of Lazarus that draws the attention for Armenians, rather what it tells us about Jesus Christ, the Caller to Life, and the temporary chapter that is death.

As a mystic, St. Gregory developed an extraordinary intense sense of God’s presence. Consequently, his language and worldview were different from the experiences of most people today. His festal works bear witness to the profound message of the Gospel transmitted through the Armenian Church.

This book belongs in the library of every clergyman of the Armenian Church, and is of equal interest to specialists in the field of liturgics. But it is also accessible to anyone interested in personal edification, and in enhancing their experience and understanding of the feasts of the Armenian Church.

—Eric Vozzy works in the Eastern Diocese’s Christian Education department.

The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek

The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek

In Memoriam: Archbishop Yeghishe Gizirian (1925-2016)

March 18th, 2016    |    No Comments »

The Eastern Diocese mourns the passing of His Eminence Archbishop Yeghishe Gizirian, the former Primate of the United Kingdom, and a long-serving pastor among the churches of the Eastern Diocese. He lived to find himself the eldest clergyman of episcopal rank in the Armenian Church, and was a true spiritual father to his people. He passed away peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of this morning, at the age of 90.

Archbishop Gizirian answered the call of our Lord as a young man, inspired by the examples of holiness he saw among such great figures as Catholicos Karekin Hovsepiants, Patriarch Shnork Kaloustian, and Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan. In turn, Yeghishe Srpazan became an example of holiness to subsequent generations, through his faithful, humble, loving service to God.

His preaching conveyed authority; yet his personal example was one of humility and quiet grace. He was a leader of great inner strength and conviction; yet his greatest strength was the tender com­pas­sion­ he showed to all—a quality that made him beloved wherever he served.

In Yeghishe Srpazan, one per­ceived those remarkable qualities exemplified by our Lord’s earliest followers: the apostles who illuminated the world, including our homeland, with the Light of Christ.

As a teacher, a pastor to many parishes in the Eastern Diocese, and as Diocesan Primate of the United Kingdom, Archbishop Yeghishe Gizirian touched the lives of countless people. Our Diocese—indeed, our entire church—was blessed to have had his holy example before us. His noble spirit will linger in our community, and in our hearts.

During the past few years, Yeghishe Srpazan agreed to share some of his wisdom and life experience in video interviews. At the following links, our faithful can listen to his life story in his own words, and hear his wise thoughts on the meaning of prayer. Click here to read a brief biographical sketch of Archbishop Gizirian.

We offer our prayers for the repose of Yeghishe Srpazan’s soul, and ask our Lord to receive him into the precincts of God’s kingdom—there to dwell in the radiance of our Lord for all eternity.

Sunday of the Advent

March 11th, 2016    |    No Comments »

Early in our journey through Great Lent we observed the Sunday of the Expulsion, which retold the story of mankind’s first disobedience, our exile from paradise, and the beginning of humanity’s long history of separation from God.

In a nice expression of symmetry and resolution, Lent concludes with the Sunday of the Advent (March 13): that is, the coming of Jesus Christ, through whom God entered human history and restored what had been lost in the exile from Eden.

The Advent calls to mind the birth and revelation of our Savior, his subsequent sacrifice for mankind, and his victory over sin and death. As the last Sunday of Lent, this day is especially devoted to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, reminding us that he is our eternal Lord and King, and that just as everything once began with God, so too will everything one day end with Him.

Click on the following links to learn more about Lent in the Armenian Church, and to view our archived Lenten video series.

Sunday of the Judge

March 1st, 2016    |    No Comments »

A common image runs through the Gospel reading for Sunday, March 6—the Sunday of the Judge, in Great Lent.

In one parable, our Lord tells the story of a widow who would not cease calling on a judge for justice—and we are meant to think about our own prayers to heaven. In a second parable, a Pharisee and a tax collector pray in the Temple, displaying very different attitudes towards God.

Both of these stories are offered in the context of Jesus telling about the end of the world, the coming of God’s kingdom, and the judgment of all mankind.

Listening to these passages, we are forced to realize that as human beings, every day, we stand before God. Indeed, one day, at the coming of His kingdom, we will stand before Him as our judge. And so we must ask ourselves: How should we stand before God?  How should we prepare to show ourselves to Him?

Sunday of the Judge

Sunday of the Steward

February 25th, 2016    |    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?

Unjust Steward

A Father’s Love

February 18th, 2016    |    2 Comments »

Perhaps the holiest moment in the Armenian Divine Liturgy is when the congregation fills the church with the singing of the Lord’s Prayer. We begin with the words Hayr Mer—“Our Father”; but what really do we mean by referring to God as a “father”? Do we mean that God brought us into this world? That He is responsible for our welfare until we can go off on our own? Do we think of God as a stern disciplinarian, who will punish us if we go astray? Or do we expect Him to treat us with fatherly favoritism, and turn a blind eye to our faults and misdeeds?

We are told in the Bible that the followers of Jesus were also struggling with this question. The answer that Jesus gave is probably the best summary of Christian love that has ever been uttered: the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

This gospel passage (Luke 15:11-32) should be familiar to everyone—it provides the reading for the second Sunday of the current season of Lent—but let us try to see it with new eyes.

Bowing to the request of his younger offspring, a man divides his property between his two sons. The younger son takes his share and leaves home, but quickly squanders his wealth. Destitute and disgraced, and feeling unworthy of his father, the boy swallows what little pride he has left and returns to his father’s house, where he expects a cool reception. To his surprise, the father welcomes him with embraces and kisses, ordering the servants to make preparations for a great celebration: “My son was dead, and is alive again,” the father announces; “he was lost, and is found.”

Jesus could have ended the parable here—with the “happy ending” of a father celebrating the return of his lost son—and had a simple story expressing God’s undying forgiveness for man, and His joy when a sinner repents.  But Jesus did not stop there: he switches the scene to the field where the older son is working—and has been working diligently his entire life. The older boy is outraged when he learns of his father’s behavior, and corners his father to complain bitterly of the injustice of it.

From a public celebration, we are pulled into a private family argument, and it is as if reality suddenly bursts into the story. In the real world, grand public displays of forgiveness are easy to make; but in private—in the family, so to speak—resentments still linger. The older son’s anger has the ring of truth: he has worked hard to do the right thing, taken responsibility for his life. He has earned his father’s love.  One might ask whether a father who throws away his affection on an undeserving child is so very different from a prodigal son who squanders his inheritance.

Part of what makes this such a touching parable is the way the details seem drawn from real life. Jesus shows himself not as a teller of moral fables, but as an acute observer of human behavior and the human heart. An upright son who demands fair play and just deserts; the uneasy feelings of competition which brothers harbor for a parent’s approval and love—these are all too human, and all too recognizable even to us. The father’s response to his eldest son is the same: having already lost one son, he does not want to lose the other; yet he can offer no counter-argument, nor appeal to any greater standard of justice.

The best he can do is to repeat what he said to the onlookers when his wayward son first returned.  But this time, in this quiet, private setting, the same words have a different feeling: not a joyful announcement to the world, but a father’s plea for understanding from his son: “Your brother was dead, but now he is alive again.” What person who has ever lost a family member—to whatever circumstance—can hear those words and not be moved? The love of a parent for a child is very strong; but to lose that child, and then to get him back again—this must bring forth the most powerful love of all.

This is what God’s love for us is like. This is what it means for us to be able to call Him “Father.” With regard to God, we are all like children who want to be close to our parents: we wonder which child they love best, and worry that we may become unworthy of their love. These are not small concerns, but in our child-like way, we miss the point about our father’s love, which is not necessarily the same for all, but which is so deep that it makes no sense to set up a ranking of least to most favored. It is a love whose depth cannot be measured, and which sometimes is not even fully recognized until it confronts the prospect of loss.

It is a powerful lesson, and a fine example of the kind of teaching that made Jesus famous during his mission to the world.  He offers not a fairy tale where actions have no consequences and love conquers all, but rather a full portrait of what real love requires, and of the obstacles such love presents to real people.

—Christopher Hagop Zakian

A painting found in London's Dulwich Picture Gallery (c. 1630s).

A painting found in London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery (c. 1630s).

 

 

 

Expulsion and Temptation

February 12th, 2016    |    No Comments »

The Armenian Church lays special emphasis on the season of Great Lent as a “school” for personal spirituality. The faithful are guided on a kind of “pilgrimage of the soul,” with each Sunday of Lent dedicated to a story from Scripture, based in a parable of Jesus, or in prophecies concerning him.

However, the first Sunday of the series—the Sunday of the Expulsion—seems at first glance to have no direct link to the life of Jesus.

Lent is the period of personal sacrifice when we are meant to remember (and re-enact) Christ’s sojourn in the wilderness, and the temptations he overcame there. The story of the Expulsion, on the other hand, concerns Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden. On the surface, the stories have little to connect them.

But perhaps there is a deeper connection to consider. Identifying that connection is the subject of a short article published as a web exclusive of First Things magazine, by Christopher Zakian, the Diocese’s director of Communications.

By starting Lent with the Sunday of the Expulsion, the Armenian tradition helps us to appreciate the depth of our human intimacy with Jesus.

Click here to read the essay.

The Soldier’s Psalm

January 28th, 2016    |    No Comments »

Through the centuries, soldiers have prepared themselves for the dangers of battle by reading Psalm 91—the “Soldier’s Psalm.” Today, on Armenia’s Army Day, we offer this prayer for all who have ever found themselves in harm’s way.

THE SOLDIER’S PSALM

1 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.

3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. 4 He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.

5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; 6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

7 A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee. 8 Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.

9 Because thou hast made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; 10 there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.

11 For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. 12 They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.

13 Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet. 14 Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.

15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him. 16 With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.

SoldierPsalm