The story of a resurrected deer may be our earliest account of the evangelization of the Armenians. The Armenian Church remembers that story with an annual feast day.
The fable-like tradition depicts a meeting on the mountainous Armenian frontier between envoys from foreign lands: on the one hand, St. Thaddeus, the apostle of Jesus credited as one of the “first enlighteners” of the Armenian people; on the other hand, a delegation of ambassadors from Rome led by one Voski (the Armenian version of the Greek “Chryses” or Latin “Aurelius,” all of which mean “gold”) who are remembered corporately as the Voskians.
St. Voski and his companions receive a saint day in the Armenian liturgical calendar, which occurs in the weeks prior to Great Lent (in 2021, the date is February 4). But the brief story of Voski and Thaddeus, with its vivid climax, is little-known today–even though it clearly held meaning for the earliest generations of Armenia’s Christians, who lived under persecution in the kingdom’s pagan social order.
After Armenia’s conversion to Christianity, the Voskians were considered pioneers of the kingdom’s evangelization; their fellowship was held up as a model Christian community, and a precursor to the church’s monastic tradition.
In honor of the Feast of St. Voski, here is a retelling of the story of his conversion:
As St. Thaddeus was speaking to them the Word of Life, a herd of deer ran by toward the mountain nearby. The ambassadors [the Voskians] said to Thaddeus, “If you are a servant of the most high God, and if you want us to believe what you say, tell those deer to stop in their tracks so that we may take one of them and eat it here tonight, for we are far from any building in this uninhabitable place.” Then Thaddeus called to the deer, in the name of Jesus, to come to him. And as if they had understood the words of his command, they came and stopped in front of him. And he ordered the men to take one of the beasts and to sacrifice it, to roast it and eat it.
But in order to work another miracle, and to further engage their attention to his words, he ordered them to keep the bones apart lest they be lost. And they did as he had instructed them. They roasted and ate the stag that night and they gathered the bones in one place. But one of the soldiers secretly kept a bone to himself, to see what Thaddeus would say.
The next day the Apostle had them bring all the bones to him. And spreading the deer hide over the bones he stood in prayer, calling on the name of Jesus Christ. Suddenly the bones came together and right there the animal came alive and began to climb the mountain at the Apostle’s command. But the deer seemed to be limping and couldn’t run freely. So St. Thaddeus said to the men: “Look! Did you conceal a bone, or separate it from the other bones?”
At that moment the soldier who had kept the bone got up and plainly confessed his mental anguish: “I kept it to test whether your word was false or true. And now, henceforth we believe in your God, whom you proclaim because you are honorable and your words are true. No one could work such a sign if he did not have authority from above.”
Then all of them fell down at the feet of the Apostle and believed in Christ’s divinity, and became disciples of the word of St. Thaddeus. And baptizing them, he made them Christians, ordaining as priest their leader, the blessed Voski.
The story is retold in the collection Liagadar Vark yev Vgayapanoutiun Srpots [“The Complete Acts and Witness of the Saints”] (Venice, 1810); the English translation above was made some years ago by Father (now Bishop) Daniel Findikyan.
It bears noting that the majestic Caucasian Red Deer (Cervus elaphus maral, pictured above) was part of ancient Armenia’s natural fauna, and has recently (and successfully) been reintroduced into the territory of the modern Republic of Armenia.
By Christopher H. Zakian