The yearly transition to summer is a special time in the Armenian Church calendar. In quick succession, we observe our Lord’s Ascension, Pentecost, St. Gregory’s release from the pit, and the birth of Holy Etchmiadzin.
What these all have in common is that they mark beginnings: the beginning of the Apostolic mission, the start of the Christian church, the re-birth of Armenia as a Christian kingdom, and the founding of its greatest institution.
During the season when the natural world seems to start anew, we are reminded that the church, too, had its beginnings.
It’s hard for us to imagine today, but there was indeed a time when Christianity itself was new and untried: in its infancy, so to speak. The Apostolic epistles, in the latter part of the Bible, open a window onto the church’s infancy period.
St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy gives just such an insight into the early days of the Christian movement. Paul writes to Timothy much as a teacher might write to a beloved former student: offering advice and the wisdom of experience. Here’s what he has to say:
“I urge you to tell certain people not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies, which only promote speculation instead of the divine training in faith. Because the aim of our teaching is love, which issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.” (1 Tm 1:3-5)
From this letter, we infer that among the Christians of Paul’s time—the first generation following Christ’s resurrection—there was some confusion about what the Christian message meant. Some people had become absorbed in technical doctrines, or devoted themselves to myths, or tried to find some secret meaning in the sequence of generations. St. Paul tells Timothy that this kind of thing is little more than guess-work; and at worst it’s a distraction from the central teaching of Christ, and the central obligation of every Christian.
Even after the passage of 2,000 years, Paul’s words are fresh and timely. His meaning is clear: “Forget about arguing over minor points of doctrine. Our goal as Christians is simpler and deeper than this: it is to love each other. And the source of that love is a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.”
Because of Love…
Elsewhere St. Paul makes the same point a bit differently. “So what if one has prophetic powers?” he asks; “or if I understand all mysteries; or even have enough faith to move mountains? If I don’t have love—then I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2).
This message of love is the beginning and ending of the Christian story. Because of his love for mankind, God became incarnate as Jesus Christ. Because of his love, God lived among his creations, cared for their needs, healed their afflictions, taught them the word of Truth. Because of his love, God sacrificed himself on the cross, as a ransom for our salvation. Because of his love, he rose from the dead, and promises to share that victory with all who honor him, on the day of his judgment.
As Armenians, we should feel humble gratitude that our tradition has upheld this teaching. We must uphold it as a lamp to guide our fellow Christians, and to illuminate the world.
The uniquely Armenian “Feast of Holy Etchmiadzin” is a reminder of this sacred role. As the story goes, St. Gregory the Illuminator was granted a vision of Christ, who descended from the heavens, and struck the ground with a great hammer. The earth quaked, and a great church arose out of the rocky soil: Holy Etchmiadzin, which means “the place where the Only Begotten Son came down.”
The story reminds us that Etchmiadzin was first established in the landscape of St. Gregory’s heart, before it was carved out of the rock and stone of Armenia. We might humbly add that the name “Etchmiadzin”—“Christ came down”—is written on our hearts, too, as the children of the first Christian nation.
And as we see in St. Paul’s letters, the simple meaning of that name is Love. Love is the way of life embodied in the name “Holy Etchmiadzin.” It calls to us today. And in that call, we can hear an echo of the voice of God.
Above: Detail from Tadevosian’s “Vision of St. Gregory the Illuminator” (1901), in the collection of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.