October 07, 2013
Movsesian on St. Vartan's Armenian Cathedral
My colleague Mark Movsesian gave this fine address on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the construction of St. Vartan’s Armenian Cathedral on the east side in Manhattan (I was privileged to attend a service there with Mark a couple of years ago. It is quite lovely). A bit from Mark’s talk, which touches on matters we frequently discuss here at MOJ:
[T]he builders chose to dedicate the cathedral to Vartan. We all know the story of Kach Vartan—“Brave” Vartan. In the fifth century, Armenia was under the control of the Persian Empire. The Persians were Zoroastrians, and they deeply distrusted Christianity. Christianity provided a link to Byzantium, and thus posed a threat to Persian rule. So the Persians attempted to force Armenians to renounce Christianity in favor of the Persians’ own religion.
Some Armenian nobles did convert. But others, led by Vartan Mamigonian, organized a revolt. In 451, at the Battle of Avarayr, Vartan led a vastly outnumbered force against the Persian army. In a letter to the Persian commander before the battle, Vartan and his companions explained that they were willing to resist—and die, for they could hold no illusions about their chances of success—in order to remain Christian:
From this faith no one can shake us, neither angels nor men, neither sword, nor fire, nor water, nor any, nor all, horrid tortures… If you leave to us our belief, we will, here on earth, choose no other master in your place, and in Heaven choose no other God in place of Jesus Christ, for there is no other God. But should you require anything beyond this great testimony, here we are; our bodies are in your hands… Do not, therefore, interrogate us further concerning all this, because our bond of faith is not with men to be deceived like children, but to God, with Whom we are indissolubly bound and from Whom nothing can detach and separate us, neither now, nor later, nor forever, nor forever and ever.
The Persian army crushed the Armenians at Avarayr. Vartan and eight of his generals were killed. The revolt continued, though, and the Persians eventually concluded that their campaign of forced conversion was too costly and gave it up. Our Church has viewed Avarayr as a great moral victory and has honored Vartan and his companions as Christian martyrs and saints to the present day.
It’s easy to understand, then, why the builders dedicated this cathedral to St. Vartan. First, it was a way of linking the Armenian story to the American. St. Vartan’s story fits very well with foundational American ideals. It would be wrong to understand Avarayr completely in today’s categories, of course; one should avoid that sort of anachronism. But the history of Vartan and his companions resonates with the concept of religious liberty that is so fundamental in American culture. Vartan and his companions were, in a sense, standing up for religious freedom—for the right to worship God. When they told the Persians that they would be loyal subjects, but that they would not give up Christ, they were anticipating, by many centuries, the arguments of waves of immigrants to America, many of whom came to this continent precisely so that they could worship God free from state compulsion. Naming the new cathedral for St. Vartan was thus a way to introduce the Armenian story in terms that American culture would find immediately recognizable.
Second, the choice of St. Vartan also links the cathedral with another, older theme, one that predates America by millennia and which, sadly, continues, in parts of the world, even today. The other epithet for Vartan, besides “brave,” is Garmeer: “Garmeer” Vartan– Red Vartan, as in “bloody.” The story of Avarayr, after all, is a story of blood and sacrifice; of martyrdom—and survival. It is thus emblematic of our history as a Christian people from the beginning. Many times in our history, it has seemed as though Christianity in Armenia would die at the hands of persecutors: Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Bolsheviks. Always, with God’s help, the faith has survived; not without great cost, but it has survived.
This lesson would have been immediate for the people who founded this cathedral. The Armenian Genocide of 1915, which some of the cathedral’s builders experienced firsthand, and which all of them had heard about from friends and relatives who had survived, was only one of many trials that Armenian Christians have had to endure. Surely, the choice of Brave Vartan, a martyr for the faith whose legacy down the centuries is one of strength and triumph, was meant to associate this new, American cathedral with the message of survival and rebirth.
For Armenian Christians in America today, the future looks secure. We apparently are not called to suffer persecution and martyrdom. For our brothers and sisters in other countries, though, very grave threats remain. Many congregants at St. Vartan today escaped the pogroms that took place in Baku and Sumgait in the 1980s; they know what persecution means. In Syria, Armenian and other Christians are being forced to flee, lest they become victims of a radical Islamism that seeks their subjugation. Our cathedral’s name, St. Vartan, should serve as a reminder to us that in other parts of the world, Armenian Christians continue to pay a price for their faith. The name of our cathedral is an admonition: We must do what we can to help our brothers and sisters who are persecuted for their religion—our religion–and welcome them when, like our ancestors a few generations ago, they come to America to seek a more stable life. May this cathedral be a symbol of hope to them.
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