THE LIFE OF ST. GREGORY THE ILLUMINATOR AS A TEMPLATE FOR US
Over the past century, the hierarchy of the Great House of Cilicia has designated this weekend as a time for pilgrimage in honor of and respect for the great saint, by whose name the cathedral of the catholicosate has been consecrated Saint Gregory the Illuminator. To this day, the relics of Saint Gregory as well as the relics of other important saints in our Church are safeguarded under the spiritual care of the Catholicos, and on this special feast, the relic of Saint Gregory, which is preserved in an arm-like reliquary, is presented to the faithful for their spiritual comfort and individual veneration during a solemn procession. Therefore today, instead of preaching directly about the Holy Bible, I would like to show the biblical mission and the Scriptural commitment of Saint Gregory to the Armenian people. Let us begin with a brief biographical sketch of our beloved saint.
The name “Gregory” means “vigilant,” and aptly describes the life of the saint. He was the son of the brother of King Dertad (Tiridates). As it happened, two cousins became innocent victims of a Cain-like murder. The father of Gregory, whose name was Anag, treacherously murdered his own brother, King Khosrov, who was the father of Dertad. As a consequence, the this once-noble family’s lineage was exterminated with the exception of Dertad and his sister, Khosrovitoukhd, and likewise Gregory. By providential dispensation, the same three who started as close relatives and became mortal enemies, in the end, reunited as coworkers. They followed in the apostolic mission of the Holy Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew who preached the Gospel and who were ultimately martyred, thus christening the land of Armenia with their holy blood. With this same zeal, Saint Gregory and King Dertad and Princess Khosrovitoukhd would become the three promoters of the new era of Christianity in Armenia.
I am certain that you are all familiar with the oft-told legend. Gregory was a military clerk in the army of King Dertad. Following a victory, King Dertad invited Gregory to offer the ritual sacrifice to the pagan goddess, Anahid. Gregory refused to sacrifice to a pagan deity. When it was revealed that Gregory was not only a Christian but also the son of Anag, the assassin of Dertad’s father Khosrov, Dertad imprisoned Gregory and subjected him to fourteen gruesome forms of torture. Following the tortures, Gregory was cast down into a deep pit, called Khor Virab, where he languished for fourteen years. While Gregory was in the prison, King Dertad began to suffer both physical and mental illnesses which some believe were the consequence of his villainous treatment of Saints Gayane and Hripsime. The physicians at the time concluded that King Dertad’s infirmities were incurable, and were unable to provide treatment. Dertad’s sister, Khosrovitoukhd, was aware of Gregory’s Christian faith, and was convinced that Gregory would be able to heal her brother. Gregory was brought out of the deep pit, invited to the palace, and after praying and laying his hands in the name of the Holy Trinity upon Dertad, the king was healed in body, mind and soul. Armenia, which had been blessed by the arrival of Noah’s Ark, was now blessed again to flourish as the first flower in the world of Christianity.
Historians continue to research the exact details of the legend, and remain uncertain about many of the facts regarding the year of the imprisonment and even the length of time in prison. Some say fourteen years, others say fourteen months, still others say fourteen days. We must realize, however, that the shrine which we visit in Khor Virab today does not resemble the terrifying jail into which Gregory was imprisoned and tortured. Khor Virab was notorious across ancient Armenia as a place of the most horrific torture chambers. Worse, if a person survived the beatings and torments, he was cast into a nearby pit writhing with poisonous snakes and seething with deadly scorpions. For this reason, even if Gregory had remained alive just for fourteen minutes in the midst of such a lethal pit, it would be miraculous. Even after 1,700 years, we Christian Armenians are the witnesses to this day to the suffering and the ultimate survival of Gregory.
Having briefly presented the life of Gregory, I would like to turn now to an examination of the life of holiness and the spiritual understanding of this saint. I would like to concentrate on three important points. First, the idea of “holiness” is not the result of some kind of chemical reaction; it is not some kind of exclusive position, and it is not the central objective of humanity. Holiness is the way to live every part of one’s life by being filled totally with the graces flowing from God. Every saint, including Gregory, is born like each of us from a loving mother’s womb, and like each of us, embarks on an individual path of growth from childhood. Jesus Christ tell us: “That which is born of fleshly body is flesh, but that which is born of the Holy Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Gregory reflected this maxim, and sought to be born anew, transforming his mortal body into a sanctuary of divine holiness. By this understanding of belonging solely to God, Saint Gregory became a living vessel of the mission of God, and always sought to serve the world for the glory of God.
Second, the life of Saint Gregory was not exempt from ups and downs. He was someone who lived in this world and yet confronted the challenges of the world with an individual resolve to remain centered upon God. Very often, he was subjected to the assaults more than others. Indeed, we all are aware that in athletic competition, the better players are those who persevere against the assaults of the opposing team. For that reason, whenever Saint Gregory found himself in the midst of tribulations, he was strengthened by the words of Paul the Apostle: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the Love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
Third, as we noted earlier, the name Gregory is a Greek word which means “awake, vigilant, prepared.” In its spiritual application, it refers to being awake and vigilant in the context of all of life’s circumstances and predicaments. Indeed, history teaches us that when armies become careless and inconsiderate in the celebration of an earthly victory, suddenly the maw of their spiritual vigilance hurls them into the dark abyss. Let us not forget that Satan, through deceptive temptation, attempted to entrap our Lord Jesus Christ, but Satan’s efforts failed. They tell another story about a holy monk who was lying on his death-bed. His fellow monks were trying to offer him comfort by saying that he would soon be united with Christ. The dying monk rebuked them even at that moment by saying, “As long as I have the breath of God in me, I will always urge caution against the evil tempter.” Yes, the saintly person is the one who remains awake to God and vigilant in prayer, and who can differentiate between the temptations of this earthly world and the choice of goodness in the world yet to come.
Today, the entire world, including all of us Armenians living around the globe, has been plunged into the terrifying darkness and frightening pandemic of the coronavirus/COVID-19. Gregory was alone in the deep pit, and because of today’s quarantine mandates, many of us, beloved faithful, are living an isolated life, filled with anxiety about how to act, what to believe, and where to find clear answers. Like Gregory, I pray and ask that each of you remain awake to the world around you. In the first instance, let us always remember that we are created by God in His loving image and faithful likeness, and that each of us individually is imbued with the immortal Breath of God. The Divine Wisdom is united with earthly power and reflects the heavenly foundation in each of us. With this knowledge, let us strive to live with safety and with caution. As many of us are urged to stay at home, let us not be dismayed but rather let us use the opportunity in a positive and proactive manner to replicate a saintly lifestyle based upon continuous prayer, vigilance about health, sharing our love, and extending concern for our family and neighbors who are in equal fear and need.
In the second instance, let us remember that Jesus Christ and all of us who follow Him, must inevitably drink from the cup of bitterness. Being a Christian does not permit an escape from the deadly clutches of disaster. Tribulations and suffering should not cast us into despair or betray our belief in God. On the contrary, like Gregory in the deep pit, we must turn misfortune into fortitude, that saintly strength of character which God gives to each of us, and which each of us, even groping in the perceived darkness, will discover within ourselves. Paul the Apostle teaches us: “But we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the Love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us” (Romans 5:3-5).
Thirdly, the very name of Gregory the Illuminator conveys the message to all of us that we must remain awake and vigilant. Staying awake does not only mean keeping one’s eyes open. It has a far broader meaning of staying alert in our minds and staying ever-vigilant in our souls. It means being heedful to professional advice, prudent in daily activities, rational in thoughts, and forgiving in spirit. The Corona Virus is but one of countless poisonous afflictions which people are suffering all across the world, and we are all called to be safe and alert in the midst of so many different kinds of threats. Indeed, as society has transitioned from the 20th to the 21st century, there have been unprecedented successes in so many places and in so many fields. And yet, greater achievements in one area often cast others headlong down into the abyss of uncertainty, anxiety, and depression, and without realizing it, turn the hearts and minds of some away from God and toward godless actions and behavior. Gregory was thrown down into a poisonous dark pit because he would not bow to the threats of godless actions. He remained awake and prayed in vigilance, and emerged out of that darkness to illuminate and to enlighten the Armenian people to the Light of God. His saintly example burns as an everlasting lamp to our feet to this day.
On this occasion, I extend warmest greetings to our Prelacy cathedral in New York City, and to our parishes in North Andover, Massachusetts; Indian Orchard, Massachusetts; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Granite City, Illinois, which have been consecrated in the name of Saint Gregory the Illuminator. I likewise offer the traditional Armenian wish, “Anounovt abrik!” “May you live a long and healthy life” to all those who have been baptized with the name of Krikor (Gregory).
I pray for all, especially for those who are suffering in the midst of the current pandemic, and offer these resounding words of hope and strength, composed by another great saint in our Church, Nerses Shnorhali:
Awaken, O new people! Awaken to sing a new song to the one who renews life! Alleluia!