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