By Florence Avakian
They lost the battle. But theirs was a moral victory-its powerful implications surviving and strengthening until today. Vartan Mamigonian and his outnumbered Armenian fighters set an example not only for Armenians, but for all beleaguered people who are fighting against great odds for justice, human rights, and the basic freedoms.
For Armenians, the 451 A.D. Battle of Avarayr was a heroic fight to maintain their Christian faith. On Thursday evening, February 12—a bitter, frosty evening—more than 200 people attended the Sts. Vartanantz Day commemoration in Haik and Alice Kavookjian Auditorium, under the auspices of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), with the participation of the Mid-Atlantic Region Knights and Daughters of Vartan, who sponsored the evening’s dinner.
Following the invocation by the Diocesan Primate Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, and the singing of the American and Armenian national anthems, the Master of Ceremonies Tigran Sahakyan, a dedicated leader of the Brooklyn Armenian community, warmly welcomed the crowd.
Keynote speaker Christopher Sheklian, in a profound analysis of this historic event which occurred in 451 A.D., started by declaring that “for the Armenian nation, Christianity is the unshakable core for us not only as a church, but as a nation, as a very people.”
What Did Vartan Fight For?
Sheklian, an anthropologist from Chicago, addressed the concept of “culture.” What is Armenian culture? he asked. It is church architecture, a 1600-year-old almost completely ecclesiastical literature, miniature paintings in manuscripts, sharagans. Therefore, “almost everything we come up with that defines Armenian culture is related to our holy apostolic church.”
However, he continued, “there is a fundamental danger in the immediate association of the Armenian church and nation.”
There is no doubt that Vartan definitely fought for Christianity. But was he fighting for the Armenian nation? In the context of the 5th century, there wasn’t a concept of the nation as it is known today. “Even if St. Vartan wasn’t fighting for the Christian religion, and the Armenian nation, he was still fighting for the Armenian people and the Christian church. He was fighting for both ‘the immortal king’ who is Lord of the living and the dead, and also to protect the ability of a certain group of people to be able to keep their Hayreni Orenk.”
Referring to the author Yeghishe, he stated: “There is nothing inherent about an Armenian that should make him or her a Christian. Rather, those who have entered into a covenant, an oath, an ukht with God recognize that the Armenian people are-as are any people-at their strongest when Christianity is at the core of the being, their daily lives. Armenian is the body and Christianity is the soul, and the body and soul are inseparable. Ultimately, dying as a Christian for the Armenian people to remain Christian is what made St. Vartan and his companions martyrs. It is not the sacrifice for the Armenian people per se that makes one a martyr.”
Approaching the question of martyrdom in 2015 when those who died in the Armenian Genocide will be canonized, he said: “One is not a martyr for the nation. One is a martyr for the living God Jesus Christ. And for us today as Armenian Christians, remembering St. Vartan is an opportunity to assert the centrality of Jesus Christ to our lives as Armenians. No separation between these two parts of our lives is possible.”
Brief statements were read by Grand District Representatives. Dr. Edward Panossian, speaking for Knights of Vartan Grand Commander Steven Kradjian, paid tribute to the resolve and sacrifice of St. Vartan and his soldiers. “We stand on the threshold of the future, and we need to sacrifice to uphold the great accomplishments of, and help for our homeland. The roles of the Knights and Daughters of Vartan,” he said “are interdependent in continually providing support and leadership in this regard.”
Emma Artoun, speaking for Daughters of Vartan Grand Matron Lisa Kradjian, pointed out their constant support of Armenian schools, and encouragement of Armenian women in Armenia, and all over the world.
Delighting the audience, the St. Vartan Cathedral Choir sang a medley of beloved Armenian patriotic and religious songs under the leadership of Maestro Khoren Mekanejian, with Lucine Badalyan accompanying on the piano. Earlier in the evening, the choir had also participated in the Divine Liturgy in St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral, celebrated by the Rev. Fr. Hagop Gevorgyan, who had advised the church attendees in his sermon to follow and live with the spirit of Vartanantz.
Immortal Martyrs of the Church
Thanking the Knights and Daughters of Vartan, and St. Vartan Cathedral Dean the Very Rev. Fr. Mamigon Kiledjian for organizing the event, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian delivered a message before the benediction. Interspersing his talk with Armenian and English, the Primate stated that “it’s a great opportunity to pray, to dedicate and to reflect on where we are as Christians. Our wise church fathers put Vartanantz before Great Lent because it’s a springboard on what to do, what to think, and the commitments we should make.”
Reflecting on the words of the keynote speaker, he pointed out that on April 23, at Holy Etchmiadzin, the martyrs of the Genocide “will be declared saints of the Armenian Church. This is a most powerful and most important victory for the Armenian people. The martyrs of the church are immortal. All of us, no matter who we are, come and go. This is a temporal world. I invite you to reflect on how to follow the example of St. Vartan. Christ has been our martyr and our strength. Let us live every day, hour by hour, with the strength and spirit of St. Vartan and our martyrs.”
To read Mr. Sheklian’s remarks, click here.