Islam, Turkey, and Armenia, and How They Happened/Chapter VIII
THE ARMENIAN CHURCH.
1. Pre-Christian Religion of Armenia. From the ancient Armenian literature, consisting of national songs, only a few quotations are left, and the earliest inscriptions on the great citadel rock of Van have not yet been satisfactorily made out. What we understand from the authorities existing is that the Armenians, before Christianity, worshiped the heavenly bodies, the sun, the moon and the stars, and the fire, like other surrounding nations. The names of many places and persons, still in use, are the various derivations of the names of these deities. The relics of those ages of heathenism, however, show that their idolatry was not of the coarser and abominable sort. So far as we know, polygamy, human sacrifice and immoral practices in worship were not introduced nor practiced among the Armenians; on the other hand, the sacredness of family life, the fidelity in marriage, the obedience to parents, national enthusiasm, attachment to the "fatherland," social habits, industry, peacefulness, hospitality, and most of all religious zeal and piety—still prevailing characteristics of the race—are traced back to those remote ages. Haig, the supposed ancestor of the nation, is described as "the eagle of the mountains of Ararat," the first hero who ever declared himself for freedom and conscience, His grandson, Aramais, who has built stores of luxuries for himself, is condemned for gluttony, and his hateful character was put into a proverb and passed through generations. The seventh ruler from Haig, Ara the Beautiful (the son of Aram, after whom the nation was named "Armenian"), was highly praised, not only for his personal beauty but chiefly for his fidelity to his nation and temperate firmness against the worldly and impure intentions of the Assyrian Queen Semiramis (Shamiram), even at the expense of his life, which he lost while bravely fighting with the hordes of this ancient Jezebel. Armenian virgins are described as gathering in the Temple of the Goddess of Purity and singing the virtues of virginity and matrimonial fidelity. Heripsimian virgins fled to Armenia as the safest shelter to preserve their honor against the vicious tyranny of the Roman rulers. Santookhd, the only daughter of the Armenian King in the first century A.D., was converted to christianity by the Apostle Thaddeus, declined all the glories of a wordly crown, and in spite of the appeals, promises and threatenings of her idolatrous father, kept the true faith until her innocent blood, together with that of her apostle, was shed on the beautiful plains of Shavarshan, where roses and lilies are believed to bloom out of her blood. These were the ideals of the Armenian nation, even before Christianity was fully accepted among them.
2. Evangelization of the Armenian Nation. Christianity was undoubtedly introduced among the Armenians early in the second century of our era, and towards the end of the third century it was officially proclaimed as the national religion of the country. According to the traditions of the Armenian church, the Armenian King Abcarius, having a chronic malady, and hearing about the miracles of Jesus, sent special messengers to him with a letter, and invited the Saviour to come and live in his capital Edessa (the present Ourfa) and be safe from the enmity of Jewish authorities. Our Lord, the tradition continues, highly appreciated this kind feeling of hospitality, but as he could not go himself he promised to send one of his apostles after his resurrection, which he did by sending Thaddeus, called the Apostle of Armenia. Nobody can tell how much truth or probability there is in this tradition, but that Thaddeus and Bartholomew were sent to the northeastern regions and established there Christian churches, and that among the Armenians many converted Christians were persecuted and some churches were destroyed through the influences of the great anti-Christian emperors of the Roman commonwealth, are historical facts. Still the general evangelization of Armenia dates towards the end of the third century.
The historical founder of the Armenian church was Saint Gregore "the Illuminator," an Armenian prince, related to King Tiridates, who during the first part of his reign was a great persecutor of "the new faith transplanted frown Judea." The young prince Gregore, resigning his wordly position, consecrated himself to the enlightemnent of his people in spite of all the difficulties and severe persecutions he suffered from the people and the king. Tiridates being very anxious to change his mind and course, shut him in a dungeon or several years, but could not prevent the rapid progress of the flame of Christianity which was already consuming the remains of the pagan ages. The most cruel thing attributed to Tiridates was his killing some maiden refugees, who, persecuted by the Roman emperor, had fled to Armenia for shelter. His remorse and shame of this guilt was so strong that he is related to have lost his mind for some time, until one night in his dream he saw the graves of the said martyrs illuminated by a bright light, and upon this vision he at once released Saint Gregore and was baptized by him with all his subordinates, and proclaimed Christianity to be the religion of his dominions. Soon churches were established and the visionary light which was believed to illumine the graves of the martyrs was spread over the country; and at the very site of that heavenly light a magnificent church was erected by the name of "Echmiadzin," the Descent of the Only Begotten, which is until this day the most sacred headquarter of the Armenian church and the seat of the highest religious authority called "Catholicos of the Whole Armenians." (276 A.D.)
Saint Gregore, the Illuminator, being consecrated Bishop of Armenia in 302 A. D., was the first Catholicos or father of that sacred seat, and uninterrupted succession is kept until this day. The present head of the Armenian church is His Holiness Mugerditch Khrimian, the honored and the beloved Archbishop. The Bible was translated into the Armenian language early in the fifth century by Mesrob, who also invented and introduced the present alphabet, composed of thirty-six letters. (Three more letters were introduced afterwards for foreign sounds.)
3. The Relation of the Armenian and Greek Churches. Though Christianity was introduced first among the Jews and the Greeks, the Armenian church has the honor of being "the First National Church in Christendom." Nothwithstanding her national independence, she acknowledged the church universal and conducted herself in unity with the sister churches in the East, the principal one of which was the Greek church. St. Gregore, the Illuminator, was trained and even ordained in the Greek school at Cæsaria, and was authorized to represent the Armenian branch of "the Church Universal" in the general councils. The early history of the Christian church shows that the Armenian delegates of these councils had their own share in the discussions of various theological and ecclesiastical subjects; so much that the Western delegates and the Bishop of Constantinople, and even the Emperor Constantine himself, could not help to admire and appreciate their superior intellect and zeal for the interest of the church. Especially at the celebrated discussions of Arius' doctrine against the divine nature of our Saviour, the Armenian bishops, as opponents to that heresy, expressed the greatest zeal for the preservation of the old orthodox doctrine. And the Necean creed that was arranged as a protest and defense against the erroneous teaching of Arius was at once adopted by the Armenian church and used in her worships until this day. Saint Gregore, the Illuminator, added to it some sentences in order to emphasize its general spirit.
The Council of Chalcedon, 451 A. D., the Armenian bishops could not attend on account of the Persian persecutions, and not being contented with the resolution of that Council in regard to the number of the natures of our Saviour, refused its decrees in 536. Accepting the Mono-physical Doctrine (that is, in our Lord's person the divine and the human united to one unseparable nature), she proclaimed herself independent of the Greek church, and since then had no formal union with her, although she regards her as a "sister church." This separation, in spite of its political disadvantages, has proved beneficial for the maintainance of the purity of the doctrines and the practice of the Armenian church.
The seven sacraments of the early church, as mass, confession, absolution, unction, matrimony, baptism and eucharist, though practiced in the Armenian church, are rather formal than doctrinal, as is proved by her susceptibility to internal reformation. The following hymn, composed by Nerses the Graceful, the Armenian Archbishop who lived in the twelfth century (about 400 years before the Reformation of Martin Luther), and sung in the Armenian church until this day, is one among many that shows the doctrine and spirit of that ancient church:
O dawning brightness! Sun of righteousness! Shine forth upon me.
Fatherly issue (spirit), in my heart renew Pleasing words for thee.
Treasure of bounties, thine hidden riches grant my soul to see.
Open mercy-door to confessing soul, with heavenlies rank me.
Thou one in three, Carer all that be, on me have mercy.
Arise Lord helping, raise the slumbering, like angels to be,
Eternal Father, Co-existent Son, ever ghost holy,
Loving name Jesus, with thy love bruise my heart-stony.