CHRIST—OUR LIFE AND RESURRECTION
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5)
For the One who lives forever, on the morning of the Resurrection of our Savior and God Jesus Christ, it was His own messenger who testifies and confirms that the One believed to be dead is alive—eternally alive—and should not be sought amongst the dead. On that miraculous morning He who lives forever opened the road to eternity for humanity, especially for all those who with true faith, self-denial, and good deeds become servants of Christ—the One who is always the same—yesterday, and today, and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)
The anchor of our Christian faith is Christ’s Resurrection. Christ’s entire mission for the salvation of humanity beginning with His Incarnation to His crucifixion and death, receives meaning and becomes a message with His Resurrection. Without this, the foundation of our Christian belief collapses. In the words of Paul the Apostle, “Our preaching is in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:14)
We, the Armenian people, were among the first to recognize and accept Christ’s preaching and salvific sacrifice, and to replicate ourselves and our lives akin to Christ. By the example of Christ’s resurrected life, we modeled our lives and our nation’s immortality on the example of Christ’s resurrected life. For us “living is Christ” (Phil. 1:21), and sacrifice, death, and martyrdom for Him is gaining that life. Th e hope of survival mixed with the immovable Christian faith inspired us to seek ways that along with our individual salvation, would secure our nation’s survival and immortality. We gained that life by sacrifice, death, and martyrdom for Him. With Christian values we gave meaning to our struggle knowing very well that Christ’s Resurrection was to be our life’s eternal shining light that cannot be buried. Th e cemetery plainly became a pause before we continued our journey toward a resurrected life. Otherwise how can we explain and understand martyrdom? A person’s total dedication to Christ’s faith and truth is much more than the sum total of days and years that transcends the wisdom of humanity. For those who doubt the faith of eternity, perhaps even consider it to be absurd, think that Christ’s cross and resurrection are foolishness (1 Cor. 2:20-25). But for those of us who are believers, this is God's power and wisdom that tramples death, and with a nation’s martyrdom we celebrate eternal life. Christ’s cross did not come down our shoulders. We were crucified… crucified…crucified many times, but like Christ we were resurrected, because our wisdom was not temporal wisdom, but rather the wisdom of our Christian faith that does not allow seeking the living amongst the dead.
The best testimony of this in the life of our nation is two dates: 1915 and 1918. The first was crucifixion; the second was resurrection. The catastrophe of the Genocide was so harsh and menacing that together with the loss of our ancestral land and historic Armenia, many believed that this was the end of our physical existence. However, after crucifixion the faith and hope of resurrection was forged on our will “to be” when on a bright May morning of a “rose-colored dawn” we were the witnesses of the resurrection of our nation for the pages of Armenian history. The Armenian people resolutely proclaimed, Why do you look for the living among the dead?
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the resurrection and victory of May, when we contemplate our resurrection from the ashes, and the establishment of new life on our will, without doubt we see that the progress, strengthening, and safety of our Fatherland must become the concern of every Armenian. Any kind of passivity is unforgivable. The Fatherland is sacred soil and history. Building independence entails struggle and martyrdom. Maintaining independence entails total sacrifice, not just as an emotion, but with perfect dedication and participation.
“We lived not to die, but rather we knew death in order to live,” as His Holiness Catholicos Khoren I, of blessed memory, would often repeat with deep conviction.
On the occasion of the Resurrection of our Savior, let us again vivify our faith, keep our Christian image pure, and inspired and girded by independent Armenia together continue our struggle to fulfill our uncompleted vision.
A blessed Holy Resurrection. Christ is risen from the dead.
Congratulations on the 100th anniversary of the first Republic of Armenia.
Prelate Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America
Your Guide to the "Great" Week at St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley
HOLY WEEK IN THE ARMENIAN TRADITION – From the very beginnings of the Christian Church, observations of the defining moment of world history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, have had their place within the faith life and liturgical tradition of the Orthodox believers. Beginning as a weekly commemoration of that day’s events and a Eucharistic gathering in his memory on Sunday or “The Lord’s Day” (Kyriaki in Greek or Giragi in Armenian), by the fourth century developed into a yearly one also, commemorating all the events surrounding the last week of Christ’s life on earth. Here is a brief summary of the Week as it is observed today:
REMEMBRANCE of the RESURRECTION OF LAZARUS – The Gospel of St. John recounts how six days before the Feast of Passover, Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, in order to reveal God’s unsurpassed glory and his compassion for all mankind. The Church sees this as a prefiguring of Christ’s own resurrection and of the cleansing and renewal of all human beings through it. In the Eastern Tradition, the Saturday before Palm Sunday is referred to as “Lazarus Saturday,” as the resurrection of Lazarus is commemorated this day.
PALM SUNDAY – Commemorated by Orthodox faithful as the Feast of the Triumphant Entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, Dzaghgazart (“decorated with flowers”) is a dear and beloved feast day to the Armenian people. On that day we celebrate not the arrival of a triumphant, earthly king into Jerusalem (after all, the same people that hailed his entry would call for his death just a few days later), but of our heavenly king and bridegroom, come to invite all believers into the wedding banquet with him. Following the solemn Divine Liturgy, during which palm branches are waved by the faithful, the Rite of the Opening of Gates (Tûrrnpatsék), performed from within and without the altar curtain, mystically foreshadows our joyful entry into the heavenly kingdom to which all believers are invited by Jesus Christ.
GREAT & HOLY TUESDAY – Each day of Holy Week commemorates a certain aspect of Christ’s last days on earth following his entry into Jerusalem and prior to his death and resurrection, as they are recorded in the Gospels. Holy Monday commemorates the Withering of the Fig Tree by the side of the road (Matt. 21:18-22), Holy Wednesday the Anointing of Jesus at the house of Simon (Matt. 26:6-13). Yet, a most beloved tradition in the Armenian Church is Holy Tuesday’s commemoration of Jesus’ telling of the Parable of the Ten Virgins in the context of his discourse on the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the present age. He describes the heavenly kingdom as being like ten bridesmaids waiting with trimmed lanterns for a bridegroom, five being wise and five being foolish. The five wise bridesmaids brought along extra lamp oil to the wedding, figuring the bridegroom may be late in arriving. The foolish bridesmaids did not, and while they went out to buy more, the bridegroom arrived and took the five wise bridesmaids into the wedding banquet with him. During Vespers on this day, ten young girls bearing lit candles depict the Church as the wise and ready bridesmaids, while the faithful hear the scripture readings about God’s plan to bring about an era of a renewed and sanctified earth by abolition of the present corrupt one.
GREAT & HOLY THURSDAY – Holy or “Maundy” (French mon + Dieu, “my Lord”) Thursday is possibly the most significant day of the Christian Church’s calendar, perhaps even more so than Easter Sunday or Christmas Day, at least judging by liturgical substance. It is, beyond a doubt the longest and weightiest liturgical day of the year, one very close to the hearts of the Armenian people throughout the centuries, and one that even in the time of Egeria the faithful waited for with great anticipation. Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, passion and betrayal of our Lord. The central feature of Holy Thursday is the Holy Eucharist in commemoration of the Last Supper. Because of this, it also historically became the day when the penitents (those with an imposed excommunication because of a serious sin or crime) would officially be received back into good standing. Eventually, this extended to all members of the Church, and what evolved was a special service for this (Gark Abashkharoghats) performed in the morning. Following the Holy Eucharist of the Last Supper and communion of all the faithful is the Rite of Washing of Feet (Vodûnlûva). During this service, twelve young men beautifully portray the Apostles while the celebrant portrays Christ himself, taking off his outer robe and washing their feet as a sign of humility and servitude. During this time also, (animal) oil is blessed and used for the anointing of feet. The faithful are given a portion of this oil to bring to their homes at the conclusion of the service. Undoubtedly the most spiritually compelling and moving of all the Armenian Church’s services is that of Tenebrae (Khavaroom), which is the festal vigil (Nocturnes & Matins) for Good Friday (liturgically part of Good Friday, but in actuality performed late on Holy Thursday). During this service, we keep vigil along with the Apostles, who did so while Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. They are represented by twelve candlesticks placed on the altar. During the vigil portion, six Gospel readings are read while interspersed with Psalms and hymns. Following each Gospel lesson, the candles are extinguished two by two, until the whole church is left in darkness. Then is sung a most beautiful and haunting poetic ode (dagh) about the sufferings of Christ, entitled “Where are you, my mother?” (Oor és mayr im). Customarily, during the reading of each Gospel lesson the faithful tie one or two knots on a string, which they will later tie around their wrist or bedpost, keeping the blessings of the Gospel with them until the Feast of the Ascension Christ forty days after Easter. At the conclusion of the service, the Worship of the Holy Cross (Khachi Ko Krisdos Yérgirbakanémk) is conducted on bended knee. Traditionally, Armenians have always attended Khavaroom in large numbers, with the seeming attitude “the longer and the later, the better!” While indeed, this important vigil service in many places throughout the world can be of great length, lasting into the late hours of the night, for practical purposes we have condensed much of it to a more suitable length.
GREAT & HOLY FRIDAY – Good Friday (as it is called in the West) commemorates the crucifixion and burial of Christ. In the afternoon, the Rite of Crucifixion (Gark Khachélootyan), a service of Psalms, hymns and readings commemorating the crucifixion, final hours and final sayings of Christ, is performed. The Worship of the Holy Cross is performed once again, but this time with all standing, as there is no liturgical kneeling allowed on Good Friday during the daytime. Later in the evening the Rite of Burial (Gark Taghman) is also performed, this being also one of the more beloved services of the Armenian people. During this service a “tomb” is draped in black and decorated with candles and flowers, which the people bring as an offering to the crucified Lord of glory. During this service, a very beautiful and haunting rendition of the hymn “Soorp Asdvadz” is sung. The Worship of the Cross is performed once again, while kneeling. At the end of the service, the faithful are invited to approach and venerate the tomb, and to receive a flower. Truly, one should not miss out on this most moving service!
GREAT & HOLY SATURDAY – On Holy Saturday, in the evening, the Vigil Office of Lighting of Lamps (Jûrakalooyts) commences at sundown, the entry into Easter Sunday. During this service of twelve scripture lessons, the faithful hear the prophecies, prescriptions proud heralding of Christ’s resurrection. The crossing of the Israelites through the Red Sea, the taking up of Elijah in the Chariot of Fire, the story of Jonah the Prophet and the salvation of the Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace are all among those readings which foreshadow mankind’s salvation, the victory over death and the destruction of hell brought about by Christ’s resurrection. The vigil readings give way immediately into the Vigil Divine Liturgy, the first to be celebrated in triumphant commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection from among the dead. Here we first hear the joyous and life giving proclamation “Christ is risen from among the dead!”
HOLY PASCHA – On this day, the entire world rings out with the proclamation “Christ is risen from among the dead!” The faithful gather for solemn Divine Liturgy, bring the good news to all through their joy. After the Liturgy, it is customary to crack eggs and eat choreg made with the blessed butter from Holy Thursday. The celebration of Holy Pascha (Soorp Zadig) continues every day for forty days, and in light of the promises it brings, the faithful should attend church frequently during that time!
PASCHA MONDAY/ REMEMBRANCE OF THE DEAD – As with all the other major feast days of the Armenian Church calendar, the Second Day of Holy Pascha is set aside to honor and remember all the departed faithful. This is traditionally done by performing Divine Liturgy and Requiem service, and by blessing graves in the cemetery.
Prepared by Fr. Stephan Baljian
Photos courtesy of Violet Dagdigian, taken from the February 23 & March 16 events
For Saint Gregory parishioners, the 2018 Great Lent season came to an end with the last of a series of Lenten dinners and vigil services on Friday, March 23.
The first Friday of Great Lent, Friday 16, was reserved for our annual celebration of the Presentation of the Lord to the Temple (Dyarnuntarach) with its traditional bon fire. The weather was a challenge for some of the events, but when we were able to meet, we had a wonderful time of fellowship and nourishment, both physical and spiritual.
The dinners were hosted by our community organizations in the following order:
February 23 Saint Gregory Men's Club
March 2 No dinner due to storm
March 9 Board of Trustees
March 16 ARS Lowell "Lousintak" Chapter
March 23 Saint Gregory Ladies' Guild
We would like to thank all these organizations and their members who helped to make these dinners a beneficial and much sought out part of our Lenten journey.
There is still plenty of room for more of our parishioners to attend these in the future. Increased prayer and "slowing down" are part of any Christian's spiritual journey and Great Lent affords us a great opportunity to put this into practice.
Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley Delivered at the Annual General Membership Meeting by Gregory Afarian, Chair, March 11, 2018
Throughout the entire year, the Board of Trustees has progressed with our four goals. The following is a summary of the accomplishments within the year.
Spiritual Growth - Of all of our goals, we must continue to view this goal as our most important – the one that should drive our entire mission at St. Gregory. Teaching, involvement and participation are instrumental in achieving this goal. To that end this year, we continued the practice of having parishioners partake in the Epistle and Confession readings during Divine Liturgy. Lenten Dinners and Easter services were very well attended, while American and Armenian Christmas attendance numbers were strong this past year. Sunday School and having parent volunteers has been a new approach to help with teachers. Getting kids involved in church duties is something the BOT would like to continue as we are trying to implement new roles for our youth. This was our first year for our Sunday School Graduate Interns, which was successful. We had a successful family movie night during Lent. Our bowling trip was another great event, very well attended as well as a new activity, which was a prayer hike. Der Hayr’s weekly email previews, using video and social media is another way we are engaging with fellow parishioners. Adult Education Course will be taking place this spring and we need all parishioners to do a better job of wanting to further their spiritual growth!
Uniting the Community – This is also a key goal as we must continue to reach outside of our community and provide assistance and outreach to the larger community. This past year, St. Gregory was a sponsor for 10 total orphans through the Prelacy. The Avak Program / Luncheons was well attended last year considering the loss of Tom Vartabedian as coordinator of Avak. Greg Minasian took over for Tom until the end of the season and we thank him for his efforts. Our family nights, hosted by the Ladies’ Guild continued as a way to bring our community together in fellowship. We also participated in many Genocide events – including Flag Raising in Lowell & Peabody and as well as participating in the annual Armenian Genocide Commemoration at the Massachusetts State House. We continue to donate to the House of Hope and this year the Sunday School had a successful canned food drive for the Lazarus House in Lawrence. We also donated prepared foods to the House of Hope and our North Andover Fire Department.
Church Growth - We are proud to say that we again have made significant headway in the area of church membership this year. At year-end, we now have a total of 110 paid members in good standing! (doesn’t include 8 members in arrears) One of the key areas that we want to foster is keeping the connection with our former Sunday School students. We are working on getting out our popular care package program for all former students who currently attend college this year. Many were elated to receive word from their church while they were away from home! Thank you to Melanie Tokatlian for spearheading this effort again! Our Choir has never sounded better with the addition of several new members! We added a new and vital member to our choir in the person of Anthony Alexander as our organist. He has been a great addition and valuable member.
With the completion of the 3-stop handicap/elevator lift we have moved towards the final Building Committee project to put back our steeple that is sadly missed! We have gotten our design approved and are looking for donations. We have raised some $35,000 with a target of $75,000-85,000. Thank you to Rich Shahtanian as Chairman of the Building Committee and the rest of the Committee! You’ve all worked timelessly on something that is very dear to our hearts “Our spiritual home” and have brought her back to better than new status. What we’ve accomplished is glorifying to our God and I’m sure he is pleased with our community!
Financial Stability - 2017 ended with a net income of $1,000. This is troubling considering our organizations had banner numbers! The Ladies Guild contributed $18,000 to the church while the Men’s Club contributed $30,000 to our income, with another very successful Cigar Night event. Our church picnic generated over $6,500 in profit for the church. Special thanks for all efforts including the Avak Luncheon, and other program/event leads for the work they do to help us financially. I also would like to thank our volunteer grounds crew Paul Demoorjian, Mike "Red" Boloian, and John Dagdigian who stepped up this year again and allowed us to save a considerable amount of money in landscaping fees. The TD Bank Affinity Program is still ongoing and we hope to grow in this area over the coming year and online giving is continuing to grow. Our new website and our blog with the help of John Boloian and our very own Der Hayr is the main vehicle to promote and enhance user communication / experience for our parishioners. We are rolling out our Aghavn-E Newsletter for church communications for events and church happenings. Finally, our Saint Gregory Endowment Fund program is growing! Through the grace of our Lord we received another generous bequest of $59,000 from the estate of Ms. Elizabeth Koorkanian. This means that during the year 2017 we grew our Endowment Fund to $290,000, making our goal of $1,000,000 in the next 10 years seem attainable. This goal will ensure St. Gregory’s financial stability for years to come and ingrain our spiritual legacy for generations to come!
Last year I pleaded that if everyone gave an extra $25 a month towards a pledge we could eliminate any potential shortfall.
100 members multiplied by $25 for 12 months totals $30,000! How can we spend $100 on a dinner out on the town without a blink of an eye, but not cringe at the fact our spiritual home is in need financial help?
Plans for 2018: As always, the work continues and we are always looking for new people to step up to help the Church / Community to glorify Our Lord Jesus Christ! As many of you know, running a church is NOT an easy task! Even though membership was strong this past year our overall weekly attendance has been mediocre! I must admit as Chairman this deeply saddens me. Our church and community has much to offer. I think a good question for everyone to ask themselves is, “How is your spiritual walk with God and our Lord Jesus?” Our own personal goal should be to try and gain a higher relationship with our Lord! We hope to increase attendance for Sunday worship and continue to make “time for church” a weekly priority in parishioners’ lives. As we did with last year, we plan to kick this off during the Lenten services, and the Easter season. This year we have the privilege to host the NRA May 9-12. Our Chairlady for the event, Christine Kourkounian, and the NRA Steering Committee have a tremendous amount of work to do -- and may ask you to block some of that time off to volunteer to help. This is a great opportunity to highlight our community and our parishioners. On top of it all, if things go well “God Willing” this will be a great way for the church to unify its members and also contribute to our bottom line.
The Board of Trustees has also chosen to support Neighbors in Need where we will build further commitment to our North Andover community and to its less fortunate and have plans to offer meal assistance at the Lazarus House in Lawrence. (more info to come) Our goal will be to engage in more outreach activities to help the less fortunate in our own surrounding communities to fulfill our true Christian mission.
I would like to thank Der Stephan for his commitment and his spiritual guidance to St. Gregory and our community. It is not easy being a priest in this secular world we live in and I feel very privileged to not only have a wonderful spiritual leader to help build our community but also a true friend! I would also like to thank all of the Board members – I’m very grateful for their support and all of their hard work. I am so grateful to have such strong BOT Members, friends and brothers-in Christ. It is because of people like this and their dedication why we can continue to thrive. We love you guys! We have accomplished much this year but as St. Paul says constantly we MUST finish the race! I am confident that we will continue to accomplish great things for the benefit of our beloved church but we need everyone’s help! Thank you all again for all of your support!
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."
May the love of Our Lord Jesus bless you all!
Gregory Afarian, Chair
Board of Trustees
Annual Report of Rev. Fr. Stephan Baljian, Delivered to the General Membership Meeting of Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley, March 11, 2018
Reverend Deacons, Esteemed Trustees, Distinguished NRA & NALG Delegates, Beloved Members of St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church,
As always, we begin by praising God Almighty, the All-holy Trinity for sustaining us through the successes and challenges of the past year.
I would also like to, on behalf of our entire church community, thank our beloved Prelate, Archbishop Oshagan for his fatherly care and guidance throughout the year. Last year, Srpazan Hayr visited us during a very busy time of year, on May 21, to celebrate our church’s 47th Anniversary and dedicate the new Vartabedian Memorial Library. Srpazan also presided over our year end activities for our Sunday/Armenian School. We also extend our appreciation to His Grace Bishop Anoushavan Tanielian for his fatherly guidance throughout the year as well as to the Religious and Executive Councils of the Prelacy, offering our gratitude for all the ways they assisted us as well.
I would also like to publicly thank the Board of Trustees and its executive for all their hard work and devotion throughout this past year, and especially Chairman Greg Afarian, who carries out his responsibilities with great faith and devotion to God.
My thanks also goes out to the following: the Ladies’ Guild, the Men’s Club, the Maintenance/ Groundskeeping Crew, Building Committee, Sunday/Armenian School staff, Deacons/Altar Staff, Church Choir, with director Knarik Nerkararyan and organist Anthony Alexander, and in general ALL who have gone out of their way to help our church and its pastor with time, talent and treasure in the last year.
Once again, throughout the year 2017, the hand of the Lord was upon us as we went about our pastoral mission to the Armenians of the Merrimack Valley. 2017 saw the dedication of a new library, the vision of our late beloved parishioner, Tom Vartabedian. We also continued with our plan to reconstruct the steeple for the front of the church, which has now moved to the final stages before construction begins. We received an additional generous donation (on top of the one we had received in 2016) to our Endowment Fund from the estate of Elizabeth Koorkanian. In total, the Koorkanian Estate donation enriched our Endowment Fund by more than $109,000, something for which we are exceedingly grateful.
By the grace of God, the pastoral ministry of the Church, in its liturgical, social, educational, humanitarian and administrative aspects was carried out by me and by you, working and praying together to the best of our abilities. Regular liturgical services were offered for the participation of the faithful both on Sundays and on many other special occasions (including Great Lent and Holy Week). This year, we welcomed Anthony Alexander to our church family as our paid organist. Thus far, Anthony has proven to be a gifted musician, mature beyond his years and sensitive to the needs of our community. He has been and will continue to be a blessing to our community.
This year, I also experimented several times with broadcasting many weekday festal services (morning or evening) over Facebook Live, to very good reception. This year we were honored to offer six baptisms and two weddings, as well as humbled to offer funeral prayers six of our dearly departed parishioners. Prayer and the sacraments are the main pastoral function of the Christian Church and form the cornerstone of any pastoral ministry. I would also like to mention that despite an overall trend in declining attendance at church services (in many churches of many denominations), I was pleased to see that our attendance on Sundays, for Lenten services, Holy Week and special feast day services remained steady if not encouraging. I was particularly pleased with the resurgence of attendance at Sunday School and especially this past Christmas Eve and Christmas, with the robust participation of our Sunday School students and their families. Even the summer months, which are notoriously abysmal in terms of attendance, saw a steady number of attendees and only dipped to alarming levels once or twice over those four months.
We made every effort to reach out to those who were in need during the year, because of sickness, bereavement or spiritual needs, doing so through home, office and hospital visitations, telephone calls, emails and interactions at social events. We also attempted to keep in contact in general with all our parishioners on a regular basis to let them know that the church is their home and that there is always a welcoming place for them to live out their Christian faith in the reality of the sacramental life of God’s Kingdom.
Despite being a relatively small parish, our social life was VERY active for the year 2017! We all maintained a very busy schedule, and I tried to attend as many Men’s Club and Ladies’ Guild meetings, AVAK luncheons, Family Nights, other committee meetings and annual events (like picnics and bazaars) as I could.
We put regular Bible Study sessions on a short hiatus this year. We noticed an overall decline in participation over the past several years (mostly due to the aging population) and have begun to think of ways we can branch out and bring the study of the Word of God (Jesus) to a wide variety of our parishioners (because every one of us is in need of it, including me). Some ideas for the future include separate daytime and evening sessions, “neighborhood” studies at different homes (let me know if you’d be interested in hosting) and youth studies – perhaps in E-format? I am not sure what direction we will ultimately take, but I am happy to announce that we will begin a 10-week Bible Study course on the Acts of the Apostles (the Early Church) immediately after Easter.
2018 will undoubtedly present new challenges for us. One of our biggest efforts yet will be hosting the upcoming National Representative Assembly of the Armenian Prelacy, the yearly general assembly convened by the Prelate and Executive Council with the participation of delegates from all Prelacy parishes. This is done in order to examine the work of the Prelacy and the parishes of the previous year, to refine policy and to elect a Prelate, Religious & Executive Council and make other key decisions for the life of our Church. We are overjoyed to have been given this honor and we look forward to hosting Archbishop Oshagan and the entire Prelacy Community on May 9 – 12 of this year. This will certainly require a lot of effort and teamwork, but I am confident that the amount of satisfaction we will receive will be even greater.
In closing, I’d like to remind everyone of the words of St. Paul in the Letter to the Hebrews, when speaking about living together as a Church, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
By the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, let’s remember the faith that has been taught to us and let’s come together often in love and thanksgiving to encourage one another for the betterment of our church and community and for the glory of God. May the Lord continue to guide St. Gregory’s parish.
Fr. Stephan Baljian, Pastor
March 11, 2018
The 2018 General Membership Meeting of Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley convened on Sunday, March 11, 2018, the Sunday of the Judge. Following the Divine Liturgy, Sunrise and Requiem services, the parish's membership congregated in Jaffarian Hall where a delicious Lenten luncheon was provided by the Board of Trustees. The meeting commenced precisely at 12:30 PM and the more than thirty members who were in attendance got down to work.
This meeting, convened annually, is mandated by the By-Laws of our Prelacy and usually takes place in February or early March. It's purpose is to review the pastoral and administrative activities of the parish for the previous year, hear reports of the activities and finances of the church's organizations, review the annual operating budget and adopt a new proposed budget for the current fiscal year (2018). In addition, elections are held for positions on the Board of Trustees and delegates to the National Representative Assembly of the Prelacy. It also affords our members the opportunity to ask questions, make suggestions or express concerns about certain aspects of the church's life and ministry for consideration by the pastor, membership and Board of Trustees.
Representing the Prelacy's Executive Council this year was Mr. Mark Philips of Providence, Rhode Island, a member of the Executive Council and the National Representative Assembly. During the meeting, on behalf of the Prelate and Executive Council, Mr. Philips greeted the Pastor, Board of Trustees and Membership of the church and congratulated them for another successful year of ministry. He also relayed the Council's full confidence and anticipatory sentiment for our parish's hosting of the 2018 National Representative Assembly, which will take place from May 9-12 of this year.
Elected to serve on the Executive (Tivan) of this year's meeting was Mr. Richard Shahtanian Esq. as Chair and Mrs. Kim Almasian as Secretary. Serving on the Nominating Committee (elected at the previous year's meeting) were Christine Kourkounian, Lelsie Boloian and Olga Sarkisian. We thank them all for their role in this year's meeting and for their service to Saint Gregory Church in general.
A special item on this year's meeting agenda was an update on the plans for the National Representative Assembly made by NRA Steering Committee chair Christine Kourkounian. During the presentation, she reminded everyone of the great honor our community would have to host the Prelate, Councils and National Representatives at this year's Assembly and also of the great amount of assistance and manpower that would be required of the community in order to plan and execute it successfully. Amid an optimistic and excited atmosphere, she received a thunderous round of applause.
We would like to share with you an excerpt from the late Patriarch of Constantinople, Archbishop Shnorhk I Kaloustian's book Saints & Sacraments of the Armenian Church regarding Great Lent...
What is Lent?
Lent is intended to commemorate the forty days of fasting of Our Lord (Matt. 4:2). In our Church, as well as in all Eastern Churches, the great fast of Lent begins with the Monday following the Sunday of “Poon Paregentan.” Lent is a period of forty days counting from the above-mentioned Monday to the evening of the Friday before Palm Sunday.
The whole Lenten period, including Holy Week, is intended to be one of self discipline. In this period, particularly, we should consider our shortcomings, and make efforts to rectify them. It is a time set aside by the Church for self-examination and self-appraisal, to strengthen our character and to renew our purpose in life. None of us is so perfect that no room is left for further moral and spiritual improvement. We all have faults, weaknesses and sins, and Lent is the most appropriate time in which to make penance and to correct them. To achieve this goal, examination of conscience is the first necessary step, followed by a resolution to be more humble, and gentler, and to exercise self control over our appetites, which is the main principle behind the practice of Lent.
How do I take part in Lent?
Prayer and Reflection
Prayer means speaking with God in spiritual communion. Reflection requires examining your life seriously and thoughtfully. Together, they help us learn more about God and ourselves. We receive spiritual strength by learning to rely on God as well as on our own inner resources.
Fasting During Lent
During Lent we are like athletes in training to "fight the good fight" and "finish the race" as St. Paul expressed it. What we do externally can affect our inner condition. So we take on an outward discipline that will balance the inward discipline of Lent. Part of that outward discipline is fasting. Like the strict regimen of athletes, it is meant to strengthen and firm our spiritual self.
The Church's rules prescribe that for 40 days preceding Palm Sunday we abstain from all animal products: meat, poultry, eggs, and milk. We should also refrain from parties, movies, and frivolous entertainment. In our day, many find this difficult, but every faithful Christian can do the following to remain in the spirit of Lent:
1. Keep Wednesdays and Fridays as fast days.
2. Cut down on outside activities.
3. Put aside a regular and consistent amount of time daily for private prayer, and for reading the Bible and spiritual books.
4. Attend all Lenten church services and Bible Studies faithfully.
Good Deeds and Almsgiving
These consist of self-sacrifice to serve and benefit others. Christ and His Apostles spent their lives serving others. Christ instructed His followers to do good deeds for spiritual rewards, not for human recognition. By doing good, you can ease the emotional and physical pain of people in need. But you also encourage compassion and charity in your daily life and strengthen your Christian soul.
-From Saints & Sacraments of the Armenian Church, Patriarch Shnorhk Kaloustian
Sunday, February 11, 2018, saw the annual observance of Poon Parégéntan at Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church. Traditionally, Poon Parégéntan is the entry into the liturgical period known as Great Lent (Méds Bahk) and is the equivalent of the Western "Carnivale," "Mardi Gras," or "Shrove Tuesday." Poon Parégéntan is observed over the weekend immediately prior to the start of Great Lent (always on the following Monday). In the old country, the entire community would revel and celebrate for those two days, while also attending church on Saturday evening to witness the official closing of the curtain in front of the main altar, where it was to remain closed for the next forty days, the entirety of Lenten period. Sunday morning's Divine Liturgy celebrated behind the closed curtain would be a stark reminder of the period of spiritual reflection and sobriety required of the next six weeks. This would be accomplished through a strict fast of abstinence from meat, dairy products and alcohol, increased prayer and worship giving of alms to the poor. All of this, of course is done in preparation for Holy Pascha, or the Feast of the Holy Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Other cultural traditions include various types of dances, masquerade balls and displays of traditional village costumes. One peculiar tradition involves decorating an onion with intricate, colorful designs, sticking seven quill feathers in the onion and hanging it prominently in the house. At the end of each week of Great Lent (plus the Great Week), a feather is removed from the onion, reminding all in the household that they were one week closer to their destination of Easter. Many activities were also geared toward children, and Parégéntan remains one of the most beloved time of year for Armenian children throughout the world.
Following the Divine Liturgy, Der Stephan invited all the parishioners to fill in the front pews for a brief seminar on practical observances of Great Lent in one's daily life. Using a brief passage from a book by the late Patriarch Shnorhk of Constantinople, Der Hayr outlined the origins, purpose and practice of fasting and of observing Great Lent in general He spoke candidly about some of his personal experiences, both personal and anecdotal. He encouraged the faithful to spend more time in prayer and worship before God. He urged them to find some way to observe within reason the traditional way of fasting in the Eastern Churches -- that of communal abstention from meat, dairy products and alcohol -- as opposed to the more prevalent, subjective Lenten tradition of each individual identifying something to give up. Above all, he emphasized that fasting without increased prayer and devotion is misguided and counter-productive. Using the words of the Church Fathers, he reminded everyone that for the glory of God the most important thing to try to abstain from is sin.
Meanwhile, Saint Gregory parishioner and noted artist and scholar of Armenian cultural tradition, Ani Babayan gave a wonderful presentation to our Sunday/Armenian School students about the different customs and activities surrounding Parégéntan. She explained to them about some of the folklore and children's activities associated with Parégéntan. She also engaged them with some artistic projects.
Following these educational activities, all parishioners were treated to a festive Parégéntan meal prepared by a team of our Sunday School parents with alumni parents Markar & Andrea Frounjian at the helm. The children then participated in a whole host of fun activities and games, including a pie eating contest, musical chairs and the yearly appearance of the candy filled piñata!
Catholicosal Encyclical Read at Saint Gregory February 4
His Holiness Catholicos Aram I of the Great House of Cilicia, on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the establishment of the First Republic of Armenia, has declared the year 2018 as the "Year of Independence." His Holiness issued an encyclical, in which he outlines the historical circumstances under which the Republic came into being and encourages our people in Armenia and throughout the Diaspora to further contemplate the significance of our homeland and ways in which to further her progress.
On Sunday, February 4, 2018, by order of our Prelate, His Eminence Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan, the text of the encyclical was read aloud in all Eastern Prelacy churches, including Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley.
We present the full text of the encyclical below:
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ARAM SERVANT OF JESUS CHRIST AND WITH THE UNFATHOMABLE WILL OF GOD AND THE ELECTION OF OUR NATION, HEAD OF BISHOPS AND CATHOLICOS OF THE ARMENIANS OF THE GREAT HOUSE OF CILICIA GRACE, LOVE AND PEACE FROM THE LORD AND PONTIFICAL GREETINGS FROM US AND BLESSING FROM THE RIGHT HAND OF OUR FATHER, SAINT GREGORY THE ILLUMINTOR
The desire and will to live free and independent, even at the risk of known death, has become one of the most remarkable aspects of the many decades of Armenian history beginning with Haig Nahabed. Our history is rich with heroic struggles against oppression. This is what happened in our recent history on May 28, 1918, when the Armenian people, with the faith and determination of Vartan Mamigonian and Ghevont Yeretz, re-established its own sovereign country to live free on its ancestral land in accordance to the collective will of the people. May 28 is a precise and meaningful turning point in Armenian history after the fall of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia (1375) making the Armenian people subject to foreign powers. What a providential event this was when considering that just a few years earlier the Armenian Genocide took place in the Ottoman Empire, and in Yerevan the Armenian nation’s tricolor flag of independence was raised!
The establishment of the first Armenian Republic on May 28 was not easy. Indeed, the wounds left by World War I had not been resolved. The October Revolution (1917) that took place in Russia led to Russia’s departure from the Caucasus leaving the Armenians alone against the Turks. On the external front the circumstances surrounding Armenia and the geopolitical gains to be received were not in our favor. On the internal front Armenia was fragile and did not have an organized army and healthy economy.
Under these conditions the Turkish army begins to move toward Yerevan. It was, without doubt, difficult for the small Armenian forces to defend the length of the battleground, stretching from the Black Sea to Vasporagan. The Armenian people were faced with a new Avarayr. At this decisive moment Aram Manoogian was declared supreme commander. Our people, young and old, clergy and laity, intellectual and commoner, follow Aram’s appeal and under the motto “freedom or death” shed blood in Karakilisa, Sardarabad, and Bash-Abaran for the independence of the fatherland with their conscience engagement. At the battles at the doors of Yerevan, the victorious Armenian people declare their fatherland’s independence.
The Republic of Armenia born on a small portion of historic Armenia faces serious crises, refugees and orphans everywhere, famine and epidemics spreading, and no foreign assistance. In spite of the many terrible internal and external problems surrounding the new Republic, the country gradually forms its parliament, government, judicial system, and army. The Republic’s tricolor flag is confirmed, “Mer Hairenik” is sung, and Armenia receives international recognition.
The Armenian Church had a significant role in the forming of Armenia’s independence. V. Rev. Fr. Karekin Hovsepian (later Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, 1943-52) was a participant in the battles at Sardarabad with his fiery sermons encouraging our soldiers. Kevork V, Catholicos of All Armenians, directed a message to our people, “Do not put your hope on foreigners,” and “mobilize all of our nation’s capability for the sake of a free fatherland.” From the suffering Cilician world, Sahag II, Catholicos of Cilicia, in the claws of tribulation, raised his voice in prayer beseeching God “Let the rainbow beautified by Armenian blood that connects Mt. Taurus to Massis be the promised land for all Armenians in the world. Let it be the fiery column that leads to a united, total and free Armenia.” Hovhaness Toumanian, the spokesman for the intelligentsia says, “Our dream of yesterday is already a reality. Armenia is free. She is recognized throughout the world as a sovereign republic, standing in line with the other nations with her tricolor flag.”
Genocidal Turkey continues to brandish its sword toward Armenia with continuous attacks on various fronts, economic blockades, and diplomatic pressure, and they begin to wear-down Armenia’s internal strength. The expected military and economic assistance from Russia does not materialize. The Treaty of Sevre (August 10, 1920) signed in view of Armenia’s hopeful horizon is rapidly obscured. As noted by Simon Vratzian, the last Prime Minister of Armenia, “Armenia is placed between the Bolshevik hammer and the Turkish anvil.”
There are fateful times in history when it is advisable to shun adventurous approaches and partisan considerations, and adopt a correct decision departing from the nation’s or fatherland’s general and supreme selfinterest. Indeed, acting against the Soviet Union could lead to Armenia’s destruction. The salvation of the fatherland is above all else. In this dangerous situation the Sovietization of independent Armenia (December 2, 1920) and bearing the heavy and bitter consequences of the totalitarian regime, was the right path.
The popular February uprising (1921) that took place in Armenia against the oppressive communist regime, is reminiscent of the events in Turkey of April 24—arrests, exile, and death. Under popular pressure by the people, the committee for the salvation of the fatherland replaces the communist leaders, who had fled, but they could not save the undefended, famished, epidemic-ridden fatherland. On April 2, 1921, the Red Army marches toward Armenia. The last leaders of the Armenian Republic leave Armenia taking with them the tricolor flag of independent Armenia, to continue the ideological struggle for Armenian independence in the Diaspora.
Centuries of human history testifies that regimes are temporary, regardless of powerful support. Nations with their fatherland and culture are eternal. The communist regime was unable to kill the concept of freedom in the lives of the Armenian people. Indeed, the Diaspora with its divisive policy could not extinguish the hope of independence and obscure the vision of all-Armenia and of united Armenians. And therefore, the first Armenian Republic established on May 28, 1918, and the dictated conditions of December 2, 1920, with the change of regime, the Armenian Republic re-established its independence on September 21, 1991.
Independence is a sacred value and the people are the establishers and defenders. Therefore, Armenian independence must remain above all ideological and political approaches and differences. The first Armenian Republic established after the Genocide and under international turmoil has deep meaning for Pan-Armenians. It is necessary therefore to evaluate and celebrate the 100th anniversary of this historical event on this platform.
The Caucasus has always been filled with inner turmoil and subject to decisions by far and near powers, and geopolitical interests and decisions. We lost Armenia’s first independence because of the strong storms surrounding us. Today also the Caucasus area is in the same condition. Therefore—be careful! Armenian people, let us correctly read “the signs of the time,” and not distance ourselves from the soil of our fatherland, and remain faithful to the independence of our fatherland, to the sacred posterity left by our old and new heroes who established independence with their blood, and strengthen Armenia’s military, economy, and international diplomatic ties. The strengthening of Armenia and Artsakh and the strengthening of independence are the foundation of our national demand and our guarantee of our nation’s bright future.
Now, therefore, on January 1, 2018, at the threshold of the 100th anniversary of the first Armenian Republic, with this Pontifical Encyclical from the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia in Antelias, we direct this appeal:
To our Prelacies: To mark this important date in our recent history with prayers of thanksgiving for the Republic and with community oriented events and various programs.
To our Organizations: In the spirit of unity make this historical event worthy with various events that commemorate and evaluate it with popular and wide participation.
To our Educational Institutions: In our efforts to establish Armenian identity in our life, emphasize the meaning of independence as the strong foundation of our fatherland’s strength and perpetuation.
To our Intelligentsia: Through research and lectures in Armenia and the Diaspora analyze and re-appreciate the role of the first Republic, protect the spirit of independence, and revive the ideals of the creation of Armenia’s second independence.
To our People: Have a broad knowledge of the first Armenian Republic and reflect on the unique importance of independence in the life of our people by reading, listening, and attending different events.
We must remain faithful to the fatherland’s independence, built with blood and sweat and defend it at all cost. This is the message of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Republic. Those who shed blood on the road to independence are heroes and martyrs. Therefore, let us bow down to the creation and defense of the first Armenian Republic, just as from May 28 up to this day we bow before the memory of our known and unknown innocent heroes who fought, served and were martyred.
May you live forever in the Lord, be strengthened with the grace of the Holy Spirit, and be forever blessed by us. Amen.
CATHOLICOS OF THE GREAT HOUSE OF CILICIA
Encyclical delivered at the Catholicosate in Antelias, Lebanon, in the year of our Lord, January 1, 2018, and the Armenian year of 1467.
Saint Gregory Church Celebrates 48th Anniversary of Consecration, 10th Anniversary of Pastor's Ordination
NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. - His Eminence Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan visited Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church on Sunday, January 28, where he celebrated the Divine Liturgy and delivered the sermon. His visit was on the occasion of our parish's annual celebration of the church's consecration, which took place 48 years ago on January 29, 1970, by then Prelate, His Eminence Archbishop Hrant Khachadurian of blessed memory.
Our community also had additional cause to celebrate as this year marks the tenth anniversary of the ordination of our pastor, Fr. Stephan Baljian. Following the Divine Liturgy and Requiem service for all deceased pastors, Godfathers, Trustees, NRA delegates and Ladies' Guild members, a celebratory banquet was held in Jaffarian Hall in honor of these two joyous occasions.
Der Stephan was ordained by Archbishop Oshagan on February 17, 2008 at St. Stephen's Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown. A highlight video of Der Stephan's ordination was shown during the banquet. After serving for five years as pastor of St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Granite City, Der Hayr has served the Merrimack Valley community for nearly five years as well.
The faithful of Saint Gregory's, as well as Der Stephan's family members were in attendance. Acting as M.C. for the day was Mr. Krikor Afarian, Chairman of the Board of Trustees. Several area clergy were also in attendance at the banquet. Der Stephan's father, Der Antranig Baljian, made congratulatory remarks and presented a gift on behalf of the family. He also revealed that as a young, nineteen year old college student preparing to enter the seminary he had traveled with his family from Worcester to witness the consecration of Saint Gregory Church.
The highlight of the afternoon came when our parish presented Der Hayr with his anniversary gift -- a new set of liturgical vestments, beautifully crafted by devoted Saint Gregory's parishioner and former seamstress for the Catholicosate of Cilicia, Mrs. Seta Kantardjian Ohannessian. Der Stephan was visibly moved to tears by this meaningful gift.
In his remarks, Der Stephan thanked the entire community for the gift, its acknowledgement of this important milestone in his ministry, the support he has received during his tenure as pastor and for its dedication to the mission and work of the Armenian Apostolic Church among the Armenian community of the Merrimack Valley area. He reflected on some of the benefits and difficulties of being a priest. He thanked Yeretsgin Alice and their two sons, Nishan and Hovhaness for their love and support. He also pointed out that it is not too early to begin planning for the next milestone ahead -- our church's Golden Jubilee, which is just a couple of years away! Turning his sentiments toward Archbishop Oshagan, he thanked Srpazan Hayr for travelling to North Andover to celebrate with our community and for the support that he had offered to the community and to himself during his tenure as Prelate. Inviting Srpazan Hayr to deliver his message, he assured him that wherever his future endeavors may take him, he would always have a home at Saint Gregory in North Andover.
Oshagan Srpazan, in his remarks, congratulated Der Stephan and the community on these dual achievements. He charged Der Hayr to remain in God's service and continue in the calling he had received at the Holy Altar ten years ago. He encouraged the parish to keep up the work of supporting the priest and the spiritual mission of the church. He expressed satisfaction at having seen the church grow with several new families and continue to thrive. He once again expressed confidence in our parish's ability, as it prepares to host the upcoming National Representative Assembly in May. At the banquet's conclusion, all joined in a moving rendition of "Giligia"
This past summer, while I was on vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Yeretsgin Alice and I happened in to a small art gallery at one of the main shopping areas in that resort town.
As I poked around and looked at the different paintings, many of which were religious themed, one particular painting caught my eye.
It was of a firefighter sitting in a church lost in prayer, gazing devoutly at a stained glass icon above the altar. The icon to which his gaze was directed was a peculiar one – something that we are not used to seeing so prominently in the church, but a recognizable one nonetheless. It was of the three Hebrew youths, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were employed in the court of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (these were actually their assumed Babylonian names, as their true Hebrew names were Ananias, Azaria and Misael). This took place during the “Exilic period,” which refers to the time after the Babylonians had invaded Israel, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and taken the Jews captive in Babylon.
The story of these men is found in the third chapter of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament (the extended Armenian version of the text includes two lengthy praise songs and some additional parts of the narrative). Nebuchadnezzar was a grandiose king to say the least. He had a massive graven image (idol) of himself, made out of precious metals, erected in his court and decreed that every time his subjects heard his court musicians playing a certain music they must stop everything and immediately bow down before the statue in worship. Of course, being faithful believers in the one true God, these three young men very respectfully but decisively refused to do so.
Well, the punishment for refusal was execution by being thrown into a burning, fiery furnace, stoked with pitch, naphtha and other plant life that would make it burn especially hot. When Nebuchadnezzar heard of these three young men’s defiance, he ordered them to be brought before him for questioning. When they refused to swerve from their conviction, asserting that the only God they worship is able to save them from the furnace, he made the decision to have them thrown in right then and there.
Of course, the outcome is not what we would come to expect (or is it?). Not only does the fire not kill them, but it doesn’t even harm them – not one hair on their head was singed and not even the smell of smoke was on their clothes, when Nebuchadnezzar finally in absolute astonishment called them to come out of the furnace.
It was a passage all too familiar to me. Every Christmas and Easter Eve growing up, I would prepare to chant along with my companions the famous “Voch inch é bido” passage, which refers to the first line of the three young men’s response as it is written in Armenian. I knew the story and the chant very well, even more so now as a parish priest as I read and re-read it twice a year in preparation for the vigil reading service (Jrakalooyts) of these two major feast days.
What happened to the three young men while they were in the furnace? It must have been a spectacular sight; spectacular enough to make a fascinated Nebuchadnezzar order that they be brought out at once. The scripture tells us that while they were in there, “the angel of the Lord came down into the furnace to be with Azariah and his companions, and drove the fiery flame out of the furnace, and made the inside of the furnace as though a moist wind were whistling through it.” (Aza. 26-27) Hence, the above mentioned fact that they came out unscathed and unharmed by the fire!
In the Old Testament there are many recorded episodes where God himself sends his angel (“messenger”) to intervene in human history in a miraculous way. This is indeed one of those episodes.
In later Theological interpretation of the fathers of the early Church, this shadowy “fourth man in the fire” (yes, this is from where we get the modern expression) is seen to be the Christ figure – God the Son – in a pre-figuration of his incarnation and descent to earth. God sent his messenger-angel, Christ, to save mankind from the flaming furnace of his sin.
Going back to that summer day in South Carolina, this is why the firefighter in the painting was praying in front of this particular icon. It took me a moment to realize the significance, but when I did, I was particularly moved. Here was a man whose job it was to jump into fires and save people from the burning flames. God only knows if, in this artist’s interpretation, he had maybe just come from performing this very act, possibly bereaved at having lost some of the victims or humbled at having been able to save some – or possibly both. Here he is in the House of God, finding comfort in the knowledge that the Lord God and creator of the entire universe, upon seeing his servants engulfed in the flames of the fire, rushed down in a very similar manner to help these helpless men and to liberate them from certain doom. It was a touching moment that brought tears to my eyes, as I thought of both the comfort that a heroic firefighter could possibly receive from this image, and also of the reassurance we all could receive that Jesus is with his servants when we are most in need.
More recently, I was looking through Old Testament biblical passages that would be appropriate to read at our American Christmas Eve service a few weeks ago. At first, I was drawn to this passage because of the obvious imagery that it conjures – God sent his only Son to earth to save his servants from peril. After all, wasn’t this the quintessential message of the Nativity and Theophany (Christ’s birth and revelation)? I hesitated, wondering back and forth if it would be too long, not readily understood, etc. I also began to contemplate in a deeper way why our Church Fathers in their wisdom selected this reading for Christmas Eve? What was its true significance? What is its relevance to our situation?
Then it hit me; something that after so much study of this passage, after so many years having overlooked, stood out at me in a magnificent way.
The scripture records that before being thrown into the furnace, these three young men were tied up securely. “But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire” (Dan. 3:23) (notwithstanding the fact that the fire had been stoked to such an high temperature that the body guards that brought the men to be thrown in it were themselves killed). But when King Nebuchadnezzar saw inside the furnace, he asked his advisors, “Was it not three men we threw bound into the fire?” (Dan. 3:24) Then he exclaimed, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” (Dan. 3:25)
You see, not only were they saved from the fire in an existential sense, they were also liberated from captivity while they were still in the flames! They entered into the furnace bound, but when they encountered Christ they were unbound. This powerful element of the story had escaped me until now. I began at once to think about the “double” helplessness of not only being thrown into a fiery furnace, but also to have my hands and feet bound as well.
I began to contemplate in a real way how I would have handled being in that situation. I thought about the human survival instinct and how I would probably have at least held on to the thought (no matter how wishful) that once I got into the furnace, I could rely on some of my own faculties – a little bit of footwork, some artful dodging and half a miracle might buy a little time and maybe even a chance to find some crafty way out!
But no… thrown into a flaming furnace and completely unable to move due to being tied up means absolutely no hope in surviving on one’s own. The only thing I or anyone could do in that situation would be to turn my life, my trust, my well-being and my salvation over to God, knowing only he could set me free. Total admission of powerlessness and complete surrender would be the only “way out.” I also began to think about all of the other Christian martyrs throughout the history of the Faith, St. Vartan, St. George, St. Sarkis, St. Hripsime, the Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide and all those brave men and women who came up against the powerlessness of their final hour and chose with conviction and certitude to hand their lives over to the God that they knew in their hearts had the power to protect and liberate them from the proverbial flames.
Naturally, as I thought about the literal implications of this precarious scenario (however improbable for me), my mind and heart then wandered over to the much more familiar figurative (read: spiritual) implications of the whole matter.
That furnace is, for us today, the world; the flames, its dangerous perils and the grievous sins of mankind. Our own sins and the difficulties of our lives are also represented by the flames and the furnace. All of these things – from personality defects to damaged relationships to wholesale violence, murder, starvation and suffering – are utterly out of our control. Like the flames of the furnace, we are both powerless to extinguish them and helpless to escape them.
This is why these three young men, Ananias, Azaria and Mesael, and the holy martyrs who followed them in history, placed their trust in a God who is powerful to both fend off the flames (remember the moist wind?), liberate them from their bonds and save them from the fire.
This passage reminds us yearly of the promise of Christmas: namely, that God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to do exactly these things for you and me and for the entire world.
In the liturgical rite of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the dual praise songs of these three men are chanted daily during the Morning Office (liturgical prayer hour), followed by a hymn (sharagan) composed on its themes. In the short exhortation (maghtank) that follows, the priest recites the following words, “Rain down, O Lord, the dew of your benevolent mercy upon our sinful persons. Extinguish the flame of the furnace of our sins and save us from the eternal fire.”
Even though I am not a firefighter like the man praying in the picture, I can now better grasp the grave and solemn circumstances under which he found himself, one who is called to save, bowing before the Savior of us all.
Sometimes it seems that our lives are engulfed in flames. Sometimes it feels like the entire world is on fire around us. Praise be to the Almighty Father that he is powerful to save us from it all. He sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to free us from our bonds, protect us from the peril of the flames and save us from the fiery furnace of the world.
Fr. Stephan Baljian,
Holy Nativity & Theophany 2018