Below is the text of a speech I prepared for tonight at the Eastern Diocese,
on the occasion of the Feast of the Saints of Vardan.
The account of Saints Vardan and Ghevond in the History of Eghishē has been reinterpreted over the centuries. Tonight, it was requested of me to speak on the topic: what does the Feast of the Saints of Vardan mean for me as a future priest of the Armenian Church? So, here I go, standing in the tradition of reinterpretation.
I could stand here and talk about how Armenians may have lost the Battle of Avarayr but we won the war, about the unity of our Christianity and nationalism in the person of Vardan, and so on. But the Feast of St. Vardan, to be quite honest, does not mean much to me as a priest-in-training of the Armenian Church. It does not even mean much to me as an Armenian-American. The level at which it does resonate with me, however, is as a human being.
The Armenians were given a choice: either renounce their religion or face the consequences. And I find it interesting that the bishops received the letter from King Yazkert, responded to it, and the military backed them. Another interesting point is that there were some Armenians who supported an alliance with Persia. The history of the events is rather complex. But anyway, let us take that ultimatum seriously, and say that the Armenians had been living peacefully and respectfully under the Persians, paying financial and military dues, while maintaining their religion.
Now, I would like to comment on the term “religion”, because in that time it meant much more than its current connotation. Religion, as philosophy in its Ancient period, did not mean merely a belief system, something which includes religious practices, but a lifestyle. This way of life for which St. Vardan was willing to fight, this patriotism, was one which allowed the Armenian’s political allegiance to be given to a foreigner, but did not allow Armenian morality to be compromised.
Our lifestyle is determined by our morality, and our morality is in turn determined by our beliefs. Yes, we as Armenians are Christians. But what do we do with that fact? What does that even mean to us? What are we willing to do for our faith? Am I willing to die for it? If I am not sure that I would be willing to die, then—and this is the ultimate question—how far will I go to try to live up to Christ’s example? Rather than our Christianity providing answers to all questions, it raises even more.
God, how much am I willing to give up for myself to serve You by serving others? This is a question not only for me as a seminary-educated deacon, serving as a pastoral intern in the preparation for the priesthood. That would be easy. But as a Christian, I have to answer that question—we all must answer that question—every single day of our lives.
However, St. Vardan knew that Christ was the answer to all of his questions. He confirmed his answer not only with his time, his money, and his efforts in life, but with his blood. He did so, according to Eghishē, without fear, for fear is a sign of doubt. St. Vardan’s answer at Avarayr was his last on this earth, his last before going to be with Him whom he confessed.
And I also see St. Ghevond with the soldiers on the eve of the battle, being with them, speaking to their hearts, celebrating the Divine Liturgy, baptizing them, comforting and encouraging these men who were facing certain death. So then, I have to ask, “St. Vardan, could I have been with you—could I have been with you and died with you?”As the Saints of Vartan were inspired and encouraged by the blood of the martyrs before them, through their martyrdom, may we also be inspired and encouraged to die to ourselves, to our egos, on a daily basis for the sake of Christ and for others.