Held up for display before the crowd of expectant onlookers was an eight-inch silver cross—one unlike any other.
Embedded within its central gemstone was a tiny sliver of wood: a holy relic of the True Cross of Jesus Christ—the cross Jesus carried to Golgotha, and on which he was crucified.
On Sunday evening, September 16, that relic was on display in the sanctuary of St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York. It was held with tenderness in the hands of the Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, as he entered the sanctuary in a majestic procession, to celebrate the major feast day known as the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Fr. Findikyan had envisioned and organized this special ceremony in accordance with old traditions of the church, to accentuate the symbolic power of the Exaltation feast—called Khatchveratz in Armenian. It marked the first time the cathedral had celebrated the occasion separately from the morning badarak.
Some two dozen local clergy and deacons—most from the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region, but one from as far away as California—participated in this awe-inspiring Medz Antasdan: a blessing service over the Four Corners of the Earth.
The Primate extolled the profound significance of this mystical event in a brief conversation before the service.
“This service—blessing the entire world—is an incredibly bold statement on the part of Armenian Christians. Who are we—a tiny group of people—to bless the world?” he said with a touch of irony.
“Yet we invoke the blessings of the Lord on the world because we Armenians know the Savior of the world—and we do His work.”
At exactly 6 p.m. on Sunday, the Primate carrying the Holy Cross was led by clergy and deacons in a ceremonial procession into St. Vartan Cathedral. An eager crowd of the faithful were in attendance.
At each station of the church’s four corners, symbolizing the four corners of the world, the clergy chanted prayers for God’s mercy, while carrying a large tray of basil: the “royal” herb (basileus is Greek for “king”) symbolic of the flowering of the land.
A Powerful Message
In an inspiring message delivered with passionate emotion, the Primate related the story of the hardened Roman military commander who stood at the foot of the Cross as the Lord Jesus Christ drew his last breath. Though it was midday, the sky turned black all over the land, as the Hebrew temple veil split in two with a powerful roar.
“A pagan Roman centurion looked up at the bloody corpse on the Cross,” Fr. Findikyan said, his voice reflecting the power of the event, “and realized that he was seeing the true Son of God. Thus, this pagan Roman commander became the first person to recognize Christ as the Son of God.”
The Primate continued: “What motivated a pagan to look at a crucified man, and see in him the love of God? This love has been given to us to find love, joy, life. We have to use our faith and give love to the world, to triumph over every unimaginable cruelty, violence and injustice.”
“We have to redouble our efforts to build bridges and unity not only amongst Armenians, but also throughout the world. This must be the mission of our church.”
Procession to Cathedral Plaza
The clerical procession proceeded to the cathedral’s open-air plaza in the midst of Midtown Manhattan: a suitable place to symbolize the world. There, the Primate prayed before a table on which the Reliquary stood amid a tray of basil. He blessed the large crowd, many with tears in their eyes.
With great reverence, the clergy and deacons knelt and kissed the cross holding the Relic. The people then followed, each with faces reflecting hope and inspiration.
At a reception held on the plaza, many of the attendees reflected on the power of the ceremony.
Fr. Paulos Kuriakose, one of the participating priests of the Syrian Orthodox Church, said that this was his first time in the Armenian Church. “The service was very powerful. Several times, it brought me to tears,” he said.
Frank DeFeo, a New York firefighter who often attends the Sunday badarak with his Armenian wife, called the service “very impressive. The Relic in the Cross was the most holy thing for me. I felt blessed to be a witness at this ceremony.”
Fr. Findikyan, emotional after the ritual, explained that walking outside the church to the plaza symbolized taking the message to the world. “Looking in the eyes of the people standing before the cross on the plaza, I felt that the ritual spoke to them.”
“We need the message of the Relic of our Savior to resonate throughout our communities,” he said.
By Florence Avakian
Above: Worshippers venerate the Relic of the True Cross, held by Diocesan Primate Fr. Daniel Findikyan (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones). To view a gallery of photos, click here.