One of the most mysterious relics of the Armenian Church—a sacred object from the deepest roots of Christianity—is the Holy Lance of Keghart.
Long associated with the medieval monastery of that name, it is currently housed in the museum of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, and taken out on rare occasions for public veneration, or to be used in the most solemn church ceremonies—like the blessing of the Holy Muron.
Why is it held in such awe-filled reverence?
According to church tradition, the Holy Lance is the spear point used by a Roman soldier during the Crucifixion, to pierce the side of Jesus and ensure that he was dead.
This was done to expedite Christ’s burial on Good Friday, as the Sabbath approached. The episode is related in the Gospel of St. John:
Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the sabbath (for the sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him; but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth—that you may also believe. For these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, “Not a bone of him shall be broken.” And again another scripture says, “They shall look on him whom they have pierced.” (John 19:31-37)
The Lance also implicitly figures in the story of Thomas’s unbelief (John 20:24-29). In John’s gospel, Thomas states that he will not believe in Christ’s Resurrection, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side”—that is, where the spear thrust had penetrated.
Eight days later, Jesus does indeed appear, and commands his doubting disciple to “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” The awe-struck Thomas falls to his knees to worship Christ as “My Lord and God.”
From Gospel to Legend
Beginning in the Middle Ages, the Lance—along with other artifacts of the Crucifixion, such as the Burial Shroud of Christ, the cup of the Holy Grail, and the True Cross—became the subject of legend, usually noted as a receptacle of mystical power. As such it figures in the Holy Grail narratives, Wagner’s opera Parsifal, suspense thrillers—and even American comic books.
Variously known as the “Holy Spear,” the “Spear of Destiny,” and the “Lance of Longinus,” there are several spears with a claim to be the “actual” Holy Lance. One of the most notable is on display at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria.
Armenian tradition associates the Lance with St. Thaddeus: one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus, whose apostolic mission took him to Armenia in the first century A.D. He is considered to have brought the Lance with him to Armenia, where he introduced the Christian religion among the people, and even converted the royal princess Sandukht. St. Thaddeus and his fellow apostle St. Bartholomew are venerated as the “first enlighteners” of Armenia; their feast day around the turn of December is one of the occasions when the Holy Lance of Keghart is brought out among the public.
The Lance in Armenia
The great scholar of the Armenian Church, Fr. Krikor Maksoudian, provides the following details on the history of the Holy Lance among the Armenians.
A short work of Armenian hagiography, titled “The Story of the Apostle St. Thaddeus and the Virgin Sandukhdt,” contains the following passage:
St. Peter, the rock of faith, who was the head of the holy apostles, gave to Thaddeus the lance which had pierced God as a tool to help and support the preaching of the Apostle. And he [Thaddeus], taking the lance which had pierced God, came to the city of Urha [Edessa] to Abgar, the king of the Armenians and the Syrians…
The text in question probably originated in the 13th century or later. But the tradition informing it is earlier than that.
However, there is no firm mention of the Holy Lance prior to the 12th century.
The earliest mention of the tradition is found in a hymn dedicated to the passion of St. Thaddeus, dated 1159. (A “Letter of Blessing,” dated 1119 also mentions the tradition of St. Thaddeus bringing the Lance to Armenia, but its authenticity is in dispute.)
Thereafter there are references to the tradition about the Lance in the works of late 12th and 13th-century writers, such as Michael the Syrian’s Haghags kahanayakan kargats (“On the Priestly Orders”) and the various writings of Vartan Areveltsi and Vanakan Vartabed.
In a text from 1221, the Lance is described and said to be located in Armenia.
The Lance was presumably kept in the Monastery of Ayrivank in the 12th century. In 1215, when the main church of this ancient monastery was constructed, one of its chapels was, according to its inscription, dedicated to St. Thaddeus. This probably indicates that a relic connected with the saint—presumably the Lance—was kept there.
After 1250 this monastery became known as Keghartavank—keghart meaning “lance” and vank meaning “monastery.” In 1268 the patron of the monastery, Prince Prosh, had a special reliquary made for the Lance. The reliquary was replaced with a new one in 1687, but the original inscription of Prince Prosh was copied onto the new box. On the occasion of the consecration of the original reliquary, Vartan Areveltsi wrote a hymn.
In 1655 the European traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier visited Keghartavank and reproduced an image of the Lance in his book. In 1798 the Lance was lent to the king of Georgia to help the victims of a severe plague. It was kept in Georgia for a while and then returned to the Armenians.
Since the beginning of the 19th century, and especially after the Russian occupation of Eastern Armenia in 1828, the Lance has resided in the museum of Holy Etchmiadzin. But last year, visitors to New York City had a rare opportunity to view a replica of the lance on display in its precious reliquary, as part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Armenia!” exhibit.
—By Christopher H. Zakian and Fr. Krikor Maksoudian
Above: The Holy Lance of Keghart, on display in its reliquary at the Museum of Holy Etchmiadzin