Keynote Address of Deacon Arek Kalayjian Delivered at Saint Gregory's Anniversary Banquet
Your Eminence, Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian, Rev. Baljian, my fellow deacons, members of the Board of Trustees, and fellow parishioners:
With filial love I greet you, Srpazan Hayr. As our newly elected Prelate, I bid you welcome on this your first pastoral visit. Please accept our congratulations on the dual occasions of your election and elevation to the rank of Archbishop.
Dear Srpazan Hayr, today is the 49th anniversary of the consecration of our Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church. You, of course, are familiar with our community. Although small, still we are proud of our achievements. With careful consideration we keep our Sunday School active and vibrant in order to train the new generation in Christian instruction.
Additionally, I would happily add that even upon these far-flung shores, our Armenian ecclesiastical, religious and liturgical traditions are fully kept and are conducted under the meticulous and skillful leadership of our pastor, Rev. Fr. Stephan Baljian. In the past, as Vicar General, you always stood by our faithful community; we pray that that relationship would be preserved and strengthened.
“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118)
I am truly honored to welcome our newly elected prelate, Archbishop Anoushavan, to our community today as we celebrate our 49th anniversary. In the event of a joyous occasion we all feel the urge to share the good news. Such was the case when, last September, I and others from our parish received the following text message: “We have a new prelate: Anoushavan Surpazan.” As the news spread there was elation throughout the community. That elation was partly because Anoushavan Surpazan was one of us. We knew him throughout his years of service within the Eastern Prelacy. We knew him as a humble, capable, dedicated servant of God and a worthy successor to the prelates who came before him, including Archbishops Mesrob Ashjian and Oshagan Choloyan.
Thirty-four years ago Archbishop Anoushavan came to the U.S. to further his education, earning two Master's Degrees in theology and philosophy. His academic pursuits were interrupted when he was assigned as full-time pastor of St. Sarkis Church in Douglaston, NY, where he served for 14 years. There he directed his efforts toward tirelessly spreading the Word by preaching, strengthening religious education for the youth, organizing the Saint Gregory of Datev Institute, and providing activities for the seniors. Thereafter, he served as vicar general of the Prelacy, with myriad administrative responsibilities. While doing so he also completed his doctoral work at Columbia University. In all of these roles he has proven himself zinvor Hayotz yev Asdoodzo. That is, a servant of God and the people.
Archbishop Anoushavan has been well known to our community in his role as Vicar General of the Prelacy. He provided invaluable moral support following the death of our beloved pastor, Father Vartan Kassabian. We were a community in shock and mourning. He saw to it that a visiting priest came to Saint Gregory’s every Sunday. With Der Vartan’s passing coming just before the Lenten season leading up to Holy Week, the good shepherd that he is personally officiated and steered us through the rigors of Holy Week and helped us all to heal.
We rejoice and are glad as we celebrate the founding of our church. Today we are 49 years strong. St. Gregory’s is the northeastern-most outpost of all the Prelacy churches. And while we are small in numbers we are true to the mission of keeping our faith alive. This we owe to the dedication and hard work of all the members of our community.
While we are not officially honoring an outstanding member of our church today, there is a particular group that I would like to recognize. We’re living in an age of intense secular competition to Sunday morning worship. I applaud all the parents of our Sunday school students who instill in their children the notion that going to church every Sunday is a good thing. In fact it’s a cool thing, especially when a youngster standing next to a deacon on the altar with a little prodding starts chanting along with us. That is so gratifying. Also, many times I have contacted parents to ask if their son or daughter could help us on Sunday. Invariably they respond positively. And I would like to say thank you for their encouragement and commitment in bringing their children to church regularly.
So it was for Srpazan, whose family, particularly his mother, instilled in him devotion to the church from a very early age. When he reached the age of 12, a young priest visited his school in Beirut. When he asked if any of the boys would like to become a priest, only one boy shyly raised his hand. That boy was our very own Prelate. Ironically, the visiting priest was Fr. Mesrob Ashjian, later Prelate of the Eastern United States.
Dear Srpazan Hayr, today you ordained 3 of our students as acolytes, the first rank in service to the Holy Church. The hope is that they will find the inspiration in you to make an enduring commitment and contribution to our beloved church.
Dear Srpazan Hayr, we wish you long and splendorous years. May our Lord Jesus Christ grant you strength and capability, so that you may continue your fruitful activities as Prelate, for the aid of our people and especially for the radiance of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Dear Srpazan Hayr, congratulations on your recent election and elevation to the rank of Archbishop. May our Lord Jesus Christ grant you strength and wisdom to continue your episcopal ministry and leadership. Thank you.
Deacon Arek Kalaydjian
January 27, 2019
FIRST VISIT OF NEW PRELATE, 49TH ANNIVERSARY OF SAINT GREGORY CHURCH CELEBRATED
His Eminence Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian travelled to North Andover, Massachusetts, where he presided over the 49th Anniversary of Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley. This was his first visit to North Andover as Prelate. During the Divine Liturgy, His Eminence ordained four young men, Zareh Bulbulian from the choir, Aram Ozoonian, Edward Gaffny and Armen Kourkounian from the Sunday School, as acolytes. Mr. Bulbulian was also invested with a stole (ourar) to wear during liturgical services. A prayer of blessing was also said over choir director Knarik Nerkararyan and a blessed veil was placed over her head.
During his sermon, Srpazan Hayr spoke about service and commended the young men and Ms. Nerkararyan for their continued service to Saint Gregory Church. He relayed how the higher orders of service to the church, beginning with the minor orders on up, show us that everybody has a role to play in serving God and the Armenian Apostolic Church. He emphasized that not only the ranks of the ordained, but also the lay people – each and every one of us – have the responsibility to serve for the betterment of the church community and the glory of Christ’s name.
Following the Divine Liturgy and requiem service for all the deceased pastors, Godfathers, benefactors, Trustees, NRA delegates and members of affiliated bodies and sister organizations, a celebratory banquet took place in the church’s Jaffarian Hall, with Archbishop Anoushavan presiding. Board of Trustees Chairman, Mr. Krikor Afarian offered welcoming remarks and highlighted some of the successes and challenges of the past year.
As the keynote speaker, Deacon Arek Kalayjian eloquently biographized the Prelate and noted the ways in which he had encouraged and supported the Saint Gregory community during his years as Vicar General of the Prelacy. After thinking the various committees, organizations and various volunteers for their service over the past year, Rev. Fr. Stephan Baljian, Pastor, spoke highly of the Prelate and reflected upon some of the ways Anoushavan Srpazan had been influential in his life and ministry. Archbishop Anoushavan, in his remarks, encouraged the community to remain strong and continue its dedication to the faith and character of the Armenian Church and Nation. He shared his optimism about the work that will be accomplished together during his new tenure as Prelate and he thanked the parishioners for their support of the Prelacy and for their hospitality.
A special moment during the banquet came when Saint Gregory Sunday School intern Meliné Almasian, who received the Prelacy’s Youth Service Award this past May at the National Representative Assembly, presented Srpazan Hayr with a birthday cake and led the attendees in a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Following so many praises and eloquent descriptions of Srpazan Hayr’s strengths and capabilities, there was to be perhaps no greater proverbial demonstration of these than when he proceeded to extinguish every single candle – one for every year of his life on this earth – in one breath.
The Religious and Executive Councils announced last weekend that Very Rev. Fr. Sahag Yemishian has been appointed Vicar General of the Eastern Prelacy. Hayr Sahag has been serving the Eastern Prelacy since 2013 and currently serves as pastor of Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church of Worcester, Massachusetts. He will continue to serve in Worcester while also serving as Vicar of the Prelacy.
Hayr Sahag began his service to the Eastern Prelacy in August 2013. He was born in Yerevan, Armenia, in 1983. He studied at the Armenian Theological Seminary in Antelias, Lebanon, for nine years and was ordained a celibate priest in 2006. He served the Catholicosate of the Holy See of Cilicia for four years as director of the archives, director of the youth department, and lecturer at the Seminary. He also has served as pastor to the Armenian community in Salonika, Greece. In 2010 he received the rank of Vartabed (Doctor).
Upon his arrival to the United States, Hayr Sourp first served as an outreach priest for the Prelacy until his appointment as pastor of Worcester’s Holy Trinity Church, where he currently continues his service. In 2016 His Holiness Catholicos Aram I, elevated him to the degree of Dzayrakooyn Vartabed (Archimandrite Superior), which consists of the conferral of 10 advanced theological degrees on top of the four given at the time of elevation to the rank of Vartabed . This elevation ceremony took place at St. Stephen’s Church in Watertown, Massachusetts on May 29, 2016, officiated by Archbishop Oshagan. The Divine Liturgy that day was celebrated by Bishop Anoushavan, who at the time was the Vicar of the Prelacy. During this time Hayr Sahag also successfully completed his advanced theological studies at Boston College and received a Master of Arts degree last year.
Անցեալ շաբաթավերջին, Կրօնական Ժողովը եւ Ազգային Վարչութիւնը յայտարարեցին, թէ Գերպ. Տ. Սահակ Ծ. վրդ. Եմիշեան Արեւելեան թեմի առաջնորդական փոխանորդ նշանակուած է։ Հ. Սահակը թեմիս միացած է Օգոստոս 2013էն ի վեր եւ ներկայիս կը ծառայէ իբրեւ Ուստրի Ս. Երրորդութիւն եկեղեցւոյ հոգեւոր հովիւ։ Ան պիտի շարունակէ իր ծառայութիւնը Ուստրի մէջ՝ առաջնորդական փոխանորդի իր պաշտօնին զուգընթաց։
Հայր Սահակը ծնած է Երեւան, 1983ին։ Ինը տարի ուսում ստանալէ ետք Մեծի Տանն Կիլիկիոյ Կաթողիկոսութեան դպրեվանքին մէջ (Պիքֆայա), կուսակրօն քահանայ ձեռնադրուած է 2006ին։ Ան Կաթողիկոսարանին մէջ աշխատած է չորս տարի իբրեւ արխիւներու տնօրէն եւ դպրեվանքի դասատու։ Եղած է նաեւ Սելանիկի (Յունաստան) համայնքի հոգեւոր հովիւ։ 2010ին ստացած է վարդապետութեան աստիճանը։
Միացեալ Նահանգներ ժամանելէ ետք, Հայր Սուրբը սկզբնապէս ծառայած է թեմիս մէջ իբրեւ արտահաս հովիւ, մինչեւ իր նշանակումը իբրեւ՝ Ս. Երրորդութիւն եկեղեցւոյ հովիւ Ուստրի մէջ։ 2016ին Ն.Ս.Օ.Տ.Տ. Արամ Ա. Կաթողիկոսէն Հ. Սահակ վարդապետ ստացած է ծայրագոյն վարդապետի աստիճանը։ Աստիճանի ստացումը՝ ձեռամբ նախկին առաջնորդ Օշական արք. Չօլոլոյեանի, տեղի ունեցած է Ուոթըրթաունի Ս. Ստեփանոս եկեղեցւոյ մէջ, 29 Մայիս 2016ին, յընթացս Ս. Պատարագի, զոր կը մատուցէր Անուշաւան եպս. Դանիէլեան, որ այդ ժամանակ առաջնորդական փոխանորդն էր։ Տ. Սահակ Ծ. վրդ. Եմիշեան նաեւ ամբողջացուցած է իր աստուածաբանական ուսումը Պոստըն գոլէճին մէջ, 2018ին ստանալով մագիստրոսի տիտղոսը։
Christmas at Saint Gregory
Photos courtesy of Violet Dagdigian, Kelly Janian & Greg Afarian
On Saturday and Sunday, January 5 & 6, Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley celebrated with great joy and ceremony the Feast of the Holy Nativity and Theophany of our Lord Jesus Christ, presided over by our Pastor, Rev. Father Stephan Baljian.
On Saturday evening, following the Jashoo and Vesper prayer services, our Sunday School students read the Old Testament scripture readings for the Jrakalooyts or Vigil service. They also participated in the Vigil Divine Liturgy.
Following the services, the entire congregation, led by Der Stephan and the altar servers processed downstairs to Jaffarian Hall, where a beautiful table had been set for the traditional Christmas home blessing service. Because Saint Gregory Church is our spiritual home, this beautiful ceremony invokes God's blessings over our church and over our church family throughout the new year. After this, a special blessing was said over the new set of vestments given by our community as a gift for Der Hayr's 10 year ordination anniversary.
On Sunday morning, Der Hayr premiered these new vestments to the awe and satisfaction of all. The church was full and the church choir robust in sound as the solemn Divine Liturgy was offered on behalf of all the faithful. In his special Christmas message, Der Hayr (using a story about his recent experience at a musical event) reminded everyone that the birth and revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ were not just happenstance, or even a touching story, but rather they were part of God's pre-ordained plan for the salvation of mankind. The very act of God's humbling himself in order to be born as a human being was an act of compassion and voluntary suffering for the sake of all human beings and therefore has the power to comfort us in our own sorrows and set us free from captivity to sin and death.
Following the Divine Liturgy, the Blessing of Water (or churorhnek) service took place commemorating the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. This year's Godfather of the Holy Cross was Richie Shahtanian, son of Mr. & Mrs. P. Richard Shahtanian, Esq. Our sincerest congratulations go to the Shahtanian and Annaian families.
At the conclusion of the services, our Sunday/Armenian School students presented their annual Christmas pageant, under the capable leadership of school principal Mrs. Sossy Jeknavorian.
A festive spread of delicious foods and holiday treats awaited in Jaffarian Hall, where amidst a warm and celebratory atmosphere, we had our annual Christmas party, complete with a visit from Gaghant Baba (St. Nicholas) and presents for all the children.
Dear Parishioners and Friends,
A little less than a year ago, by the grace of God we celebrated together the tenth anniversary of my ordination to the Holy Priesthood of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which took place on February 16 & 17, 2008 at St. Stephen's Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown, Mass.
Our Prelate at the time, His Eminence Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan (who consecrated me as a priest), joined us on January 28 of last year to lead the dual celebration of our church's 48th anniversary and the anniversary of my ordination that I mentioned above.
The touching tributes and outpouring of grace on that date were very meaningful to me and my family and they will not soon be forgotten. Furthermore, the generous gift of a beautiful new set of liturgical vestments, which the beloved faithful of this parish had made especially for me, was both surprising and moving. The Board of Trustees, Ladies' Guild, Men's Club and some anonymous donors must be made mention of for providing the funds to create this sacred piece of embroidered artwork.
The main parts of the vestment were made masterfully by our very own talented parishioner Mrs. Seta Ohannessian, the entire set was recently completed with the crown and collar made by Archpriest Fr. Vazken Bekiarian. Now that the entire set has been completed, blessed and worn to celebrate the Holy Divine Liturgy, it is my desire to let you know that I was truly touched to have been the recipient of such kind-heartedness and generosity, in this gracious outpouring of your appreciation for my ten years of service as a priest and five years as the pastor of Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley.
Therefore, I wanted to take this opportunity to express my supreme gratitude not only for this gift, but for the all the ways, both great and small, that you have helped me and my family during my tenure as your pastor. Yeretsgin Alice, Nishan & Hovhaness join me in offering our sincerest thanks to you, our parishioners, for this special occasion and for this special gift. We look forward to continuing our service to God and to our beloved Merrimack Valley Armenian community for many years to come. May the grace of God the Father, the love of our Lord Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Fr. Stephan Baljian, Pastor
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear one of my favorite pieces of music, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachtsoratorium), BWV 248. This perennial favorite – the equivalent in the German-speaking world of Handel’s Messiah – is a large scale, structurally exquisite, major work for soloists, chorus and orchestra. It consists of six separate cantatas (a liturgical work consisting of hymns, Gospel passages, and reflective poetry in the form of arias for use in the Lutheran Church’s worship setting), each laid out according to the days of the season of Christmas: the first day of the Nativity, second day, third day, New Year’s Day, the Circumcision/Naming of Jesus and finally the Epiphany or Baptism of Jesus. Composed for the Christmas season of 1734, Bach reworked many sections from his previously written (and discarded) cantatas into this tour de force masterpiece of the Baroque era. His skill and his technical mastery were at the height of their power, and it shows throughout the two-and-a-half-hour long excursion into the heart of the Christmas story and message.
I had fallen in love with the Christmas Oratorio when I was a music student in college, on account of its thrilling choral numbers, stirring arias and the readily recognizable Gospel narrative of Jesus’s birth (the wise men, the shepherds, the angels, etc.) that runs throughout its entirety. Among my vast collection of CDs it is a work that gets guaranteed play time at least once a year, if not more… simply when I am in the mood to listen, not because it is the Christmas season, but because of how likeable and inspiring the music is.
For this reason, when I had heard earlier this year that the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus were planning on performing this great work in its entirety, at the start of the Christmas season in early December, I knew I just HAD to take the opportunity to hear it live and enjoy the music I had fallen in love with so many years ago.
I invited my mother to attend with me (as a fellow music lover, she has been my “concert buddy” throughout the years) and she readily accepted the invitation. A few sniffles from an early season cold did not deter me from attending and enjoying this music. However, as we entered Boston Symphony Hall and the ushers were handing out program booklets, they were also handing out a supplemental booklet that had the English translation of the entire German text. She handed one to my mother. I went to reach out my hand to receive a copy as well -- there was an abrupt change in the usher’s demeanor.
“Are you two together?” she asked. “I’m sorry, only one per party. The print run was limited and we don’t have enough for everybody.”
“Uh-oh,” I thought. “Will there be supertitles over the stage?” I asked cautiously, referring to a common practice at orchestral halls where vocal works with foreign language texts are to be performed. But by that time it was too late. We had already been “ushered” in to the hall and she had already begun explaining the situation to the next patrons.
When we took our seats, I quickly glanced above the stage to look for a small projection screen. There was none. Gulp.
In my mind, I quickly reviewed my knowledge of the piece and made an assessment of just how much I would be able to follow, with my limited German language skills, culled mostly from diction classes and studying music scores when I was a music student and from that week-long class trip to the Germanic countries my junior year in high school. Furthermore, I took into consideration the fact that the backbone of the text was formed by the Biblical narrative of Christ’s birth, coupled with the arias (solo numbers) containing relatively short amounts of text repeated frequently and the choral numbers just being so musically magnificent that I wouldn’t care much about the words anyway.
It was all in a split second but at once I became very reassured, self-confident even. My mother handed me the text booklet to use. “We can share it back and forth, if you want,” she offered.
“No need,” was my cavalier reply. “I should be able to follow most of it,” a little grin forming in the back of mind for being able to say that. I reassured her that it was fine and that she could follow the booklet (good thing I did, because she used it the entire time), and I settled in to concentrate on the glorious music that was about touch my ears and my heart.
About a third of the way in, during Part III about the arrival of the Shepherds to the stable, a beautiful number came up, a duet for Soprano and Bass, accompanied by two oboes. As I was listening to the text, I suddenly realized that I could understand what was being sung! Now, prior to this I had been able to understand some of the text due to the factors I mentioned earlier, but that was because of my having had some familiarity with it already. This was the first time during the performance in which I was able to casually understand what was being said.
And here are the words that I understood: Herr dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen, tröstet uns und macht uns frei… “Lord, thy compassion, thy mercy, comfort us and make us free.” (For those German language scholars who are reading, please forgive me if my translation is not entirely correct; I am simply offering the translation as I understood it that evening.)
Thus, as the text was being sung repeatedly, as a musician I began to relish the thought of what I had accomplished, but as a priest and a believer I now began to contemplate the words that were being sung.
“Lord, your compassion and your mercy comfort us and set us free…”
“Compassion and Mercy”
To begin to understand the meaning of this sentence in a Theological context, we must first examine the German word “mitleid.” It is a meaningful word that fuses the words “mit” meaning “with” and “leid” meaning “sorrow.” Thus, an accurate translation would be “to feel sorrow with,” or “to suffer along with.” This corresponds with the English word of Latin origin “compassion,” which could readily be translated to mean the same thing.
I would like to emphasize here that the compassion or co-suffering of our Lord is not an abstract emotion or merely a sense of empathy (although that, I believe, is present as well), but rather a true physical suffering. Just as we human beings go through the rigors and difficulties of life and suffer in our flesh because of sickness, disease and persecution, our Lord Jesus Christ as a human being suffered through all those difficulties we do – and in his case, even more so, since in his earthly life he met such a brutal and tortuous end. When speaking about Jesus’s perfection in the role of “High Priest” of God’s Temple, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews refers precisely to this concept, when he writes, “Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God… Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” (Hebrews 2:17-18)
So, Jesus’s compassion is not theoretical, like anyone of us may reach out to a suffering brother or sister and say, “I feel sorry for you,” or even take compassionate actions to try to alleviate his or her suffering. His is the actual kind of compassion, because he personally experiences the same suffering we do.
The next word we need to take a look at is “Erbarmen,” which is the German language correspondent of the Greek word elyon, or voghormootyoon in Armenian. This is the word that describes the kind of “loving kindness” that God shows to his people. In times past, it was translated as “mercy,” but it could be argued that the meaning of that word has changed significantly since the time when the Bible was first translated into English. In our day, the term “mercy” conjures up an image of a petulant, inconvenienced bully deciding at his or her whim the fate of an unfortunate inferior.
The “mercy” of God as described in the Bible is quite different, however. It is understood to be the very goodness and Fatherly love that God contains in his nature, and that has been shown lovingly toward mankind since time immemorial… the same loving kindness Jesus himself embodied and emulated throughout his earthly life, which of course culminated in his ultimate sacrifice on the cross. This loving kindness was evident in all of his personal interactions that we read about in the Gospel.
The entreaty “Der voghormya” (or Lord, be kind to us) epitomizes this perpetual quest for God’s goodness in our lives. It is used profusely throughout the Old and New Testaments, as well as in the liturgical prayers and hymns of our Church. By saying “Der voghormya” or “Lord, have mercy,” we are not begging or groveling, rather we are humbly admitting, “Lord, show us your loving kindness… Be good to us, because we sure need it!”
It may not be evident at first, but there is a connection between the two – compassion and loving kindness. Compassion must be present in order for loving “elyon” to take place. Recall that when the crowds were following Jesus, the Gospels record that he had compassion on them and then started healing them and performing miracles In the Gospel of Matthew 14:13-21, we see a prime example of this, wherein upon seeing the crowds – even though he himself was still suffering from the devastating news that John the Baptist had been beheaded – he had compassion on them and began healing them from their illnesses; then he fed a crowd of more than 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish! Compassion and loving kindness in action.
Here, we would be wise to ask the first of two question: what do these two concepts, compassion and loving kindness have to do with Christmas, or more specifically the birth of Christ? Of course, with a broad perspective, we understand the compassion and loving kindness of Jesus to be evident in the life that he lived and the works he did. Taken as whole, one could say that entire course of his life, as charted in the Gospels, he was dedicated to this two-fold work of compassion and showing the loving kindness of God the Father.
Jesus Christ did not come into the world simply to “find his way,” or anything else. Compelled by his compassion toward mankind, the Son was sent from the Father in order to save the world and show his loving kindness. He came with a certain mission, and in order to fulfill that mission, he accomplished a certain set of acts that we recognize as necessary elements of this saving mission. In Theological terms, we refer to the entirety of these acts as the “economy” of salvation. Traditionally understood, these encompass primarily his betrayal, his passion, his crucifixion, his resurrection, his ascension and his second coming.
How then, you ask, do we understand the incarnation and the birth of Christ in terms of his suffering? After all, from the Gospel narrative it doesn’t seem like there was anything perilous occurring. Furthermore, why would we be contemplating suffering and compassion during the joyful season of Christmas anyway? Aren’t those things supposed to be for Holy Week and the Easter Season? Shouldn’t we be singing about “glad tidings” and “peace on earth” and so forth?
But we must also remember that part of this saving economy was also his incarnation, his birth, his baptism, his presentation to the Temple and his earthly ministry of preaching, teaching, healing and performing miracles. Therefore, while it doesn’t seem obvious at first, these elements of Christ’s economy of salvation that encompass the beginning of his human life are an integral part of its entirety.
Our Church Fathers pointed out in many ways that Jesus’s incarnation itself was an act of great compassion. That the all-powerful, all-knowing God of all Creation, whose glory is uncontainable, would undertake to be confined in the womb, be born as a tiny child in the most modest of circumstances was, in their eyes the ultimate act of compassion and loving kindness toward the human race. The incarnation and birth – as much as the passion and crucifixion – of our Lord were seen as acts of suffering and temptation inasmuch as the unconfined God would be gracious enough to be placed within the confines of human flesh, if it meant saving his people from their sins (which is what the word “Jesus” means in its Hebrew definition). In this act also there was seen an infinite measure of God’s love for and care toward humankind. In this very humbling and sacrificial act one could sufficiently see the love and compassion of God in heaven being poured out amongst the peoples of the earth, a beautiful reminder that all of the trials and passions of Jesus’s earthly life were not in vain, neither did he lose his life in vain (we are reminded of this every Easter Sunday), and that there is true power in God’s being moved to suffer for us and show his goodness to us.
Now, that Jesus Christ suffered in his flesh is no matter of speculation or philosophical contemplation – it is historical fact and a necessary reality if we are to accept him as “perfect God and perfect Man.” If he truly was perfect in his humanity, as we Orthodox claim, then he would have experienced the whole gamut of passions and sufferings that life as a human being promises. (That he experienced them without sinning in their wake is another subject for a different message.)
So now we must ask the second and final question: How do the compassion and loving kindness of Christ, shown in his incarnation, birth and suffering in general, comfort us and set us free?
I believe that these two – comfort and liberation – are the natural outcome of having a God who suffers with us and shows us infinite amounts of kindness and love.
As far as comfort, in the face of disaster and personal tragedy, we are comforted to know that God is with us in that he himself suffered and knew much tragedy and adversity. The word “comfort,” or mûkhitarootyoon in Armenian, appears numerous times in both the Old and New Testaments. It is part of who God is and what he does. He comforts those in affliction, he speaks comfort to his people, he sends “the Comforter, the Holy Spirit,” to teach us and remind us of his Word. (John 14:25)
As Armenian Christians, throughout many centuries of persecution and Genocide in our homeland, the consolation of God, which received through our Armenian Apostolic Holy Church, kept the Armenian spirit alive and allowed us to continue on as a people. This was all because our ancestors knew that whatever cross they had to bear, whatever height of Golgotha they had to traverse in pain and agony, our Lord Jesus Christ had done it with them and therefore was a source of great comfort to them in their most difficult hours.
Lastly, to say that God’s compassion and loving kindness “set us free” is first and foremost to acknowledge that we are in captivity. This may seem far-fetched, yet we see around us every day countless examples of men and women being enslaved to such treacherous sins as worship of self, addictions, disregard for authority, disrespect for family members, sexual sins, slander, dishonesty, idolatry, worship of material wealth and perhaps the most grievous of sins: self-delusion. Delusion that we are own creator, delusion that we are our own redeemer, delusion that we can do anything we want without being harmed – delusion that we are God. If we are not careful, this very same self-delusion can lead to a delusional and erroneous understanding of that freedom that has been given to us through Jesus’s compassion and loving kindness.
We often have a hard time coming to grips with the fact that we are in captivity, especially as we mature spiritually and our enslavement to sin and our own sinfulness begins to become more evident. (Read Romans 6:16-19 for Saint Paul’s take on this). Often, it seems as though when we finally do turn to our Lord to set us free, we become even more restricted than when we were “slaves to sin!” We have to go to Divine Liturgy, read the Bible, pray every day, confess our sins, live in righteousness, care about others, obey the law and try to be good in God’s sight at all times (which is virtually impossible).
Yet in Christ we come to understand that true freedom is in what he offers us – salvation, holiness and eternal life – and not in anything else we can conjure up by working on our own. Through his compassion and loving kindness he has placed us in his good graces (“under grace” to use the biblical terminology). What we must realize is that those things mentioned above are what we do to stay in the good graces of the one who set us free in the first place, because we acknowledge that is is the best possible place to be!
When my youngest son gets frustrated because he didn’t get his way, sometimes he slumps his shoulders, puts his face down and says in a fit of frustration, “I’m going to go and do whatever I want! Humph.” To him, this is what freedom looks like. In his mind, he thinks he will finally be freed from the oppressive overreach of authority and be at liberty go wherever he pleases and do whatever he pleases.
What he doesn’t realize (especially at that tender age) is that he would also be fleeing the care and kindness of a loving father, who in ways that he cannot yet begin to fathom, has sacrificed for him and suffered along with him, and without whose care for even a day he would have great difficulty surviving in this world.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Shrugging our proverbial shoulders at our heavenly Father, we ask things like, “Why do I have to apologize first?” “Why am I responsible for doing this or that thing for church?,” “why do I have to give up that sinful habit if I enjoy doing it?” and so on.
Much like the example of my son, what we must realize is that our freedom – or more specifically, our intelligent perception of it – should not be used to flee from our responsibilities and actions as newly freed believers, but to come into and remain in the presence of the one who set us free, and not to flee from him altogether. The latter would not be called freedom; this is called being “lost.”
There is a big difference between being “free” and being “lost,” although there may be a thin line separating the two with a lot of gray area surrounding it. Sadly, many people in this world mistake being “lost” for being “free.” A sheep may stray from its shepherd and believe it is free, but that sheep can only stray so far before it finds itself in great peril of being lost forever! So too, we must be careful that as Armenian Apostolic Christians our attitudes toward our freedom in Christ wouldn’t result in our being lost altogether and falling out of his good graces.
A person who is truly free in the knowledge of Christ remains in the service of Christ, knowing that he or she has the best chance of being nurtured, guided and safely led to the best place for that person to be in his/her life. Freedom is not in doing whatever we want (as my son sometimes concludes), but in our being made wise enough to know our boundaries, understand our limitations and the endless amount of support and power we have in God’s loving kindness, in the faith which he laid out for us in the families, communities and roles he places us in.
I pray that during this holy season of our Lord’s Nativity and Theophany you would more and more come to the knowledge that his compassion for mankind and the infinite loving-kindness that he showed through his incarnation, death and resurrection can give you great comfort from the sorrow of your sins and set you free from captivity to evil and death.
Քրիստոս ծնաւ եւ յայտնեցաւ: Օրհնեալ է յայտնութիւնն Քրիստոսի:
Christ is born and revealed! Blessed is the revelation of Christ.
Fr. Stephan Baljian, Pastor
Holy Nativity & Theophany 2019
Transcription of Video Message:
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
On Behalf of His Holiness Catholicos Aram I of the Great House of Giligia, Religious and Executive Councils and the Eastern Prelacy family, I would like to congratulate you all and say, “Shnorhavor Nor Dari; Tsez yev Mez Medz Avedis; Krisdos dzunav yev haydnetsav.” [Happy New Year; glad tidings to you and to us; Christ is born and revealed.] I am sure that you all enjoyed -- on December 25, with our brothers and sisters – the Western Christmas. You sang carols, you exchanged gifts; well, let me ask you a personal question: among all the gifts, what kind of gift did you present to the birthday boy, Jesus Christ?
You might be perplexed, saying, “Wow! God doesn’t need any gift… how can I present a gift?” Don’t worry… believe me, God needs a gift as much as we do.
Let me give you an example: Your parents. No matter how much they own, the greatest gifts you can present to them are your smile, your love, your respect. In the same way, God expects us all to present a personal gift to him. In that regard, I assure you that, when this Sunday you go to church, come forward to Jesus Christ and say – as you would embrace a baby and say, “I love you, my baby, my child" – in the same way, say, “Jesus, I love you with all my heart.” I assure you that God will come and dwell in our hearts.
Because, after all, we read again in the Old Testament, and again in the New Testament with the same understanding, that God loves meek and humble hearts the most. And he says, “Where should I dwell, if not in the hearts of the humble?”
Therefore, with this understanding, let us make a very simple commitment. We don’t need to rush to gift shops. I know that your credit cards are already overburdened. Just make a commitment: when we go to church this Sunday, and when we greet anyone saying, Tsez yev mez Medz Avedis; Krisdos dzunav yev haydnetsav, let Jesus come in our hearts and change us—our hearts, our minds, our outlook, our perspective.
I assure you that you will enjoy a celestial chorus singing for us – with us – “Rejoice, rejoice!” because you have granted your heart to God.
May God’s peace and joy dwell in your personal life, your family life, in your business, in your neighborhood, wherever you go. Let that joy shine, and everybody will know that you are a son or daughter of Jesus Christ. Amen.