With angelic strains of liturgical hymns and the recitation of centuries-old prayers echoing throughout its sanctuary, St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York City held its annual observance of the Feast of Sts. Vartanantz on the evening of February 11, 2021.
Diocesan Primate Bishop Daniel Findikyan presided over the Divine Liturgy, celebrated by Fr. Mamigon Kiledjian, commemorating Armenian military leader and martyr St. Vartan Mamigonian.
Throughout the entire program, the juxtaposition of the fate of St. Vartan and his men during the Battle of Avarayr in A.D. 451 and the tragic challenges and tribulations facing the Armenian people in the Artsakh region today provided countless parallels between the two events.
Revered for having led the Armenian army at the Battle of Avarayr, St. Vartan and his grossly outnumbered band of Christian Armenian defenders took arms against the pagan Persian empire. Although they were martyred in the tremendous military defeat, the battle is significant in that the Armenian’s defense of their Christian faith with their very lives prompted the Persians to eventually abandon their bloody campaign of conversion.
A Never-Ending Struggle
“Today we celebrate St. Vartan’s courage, spirit and Armenian faith and identity,” said Fr. Davit Karamyan, Vicar of St. Vartan Cathedral.
Citing several similarities between the centuries-old Battle of Avarayr and today’s conflicts, Fr. Karamyan drew a clear line over time connecting both events. “St. Vartan and his dedicated army fought the first battle for Christianity on Armenian land, but it was just the beginning. Today, the Armenian people fight the same battle in Artsakh today.”
He further identified those who gave their lives for their Christian beliefs as witnesses of faith and bravery, and referred to the Letter to the Hebrews to illustrate their importance in our Christian faith. “A cloud of witnesses is always above us in the skies in Armenian heaven, including our Armenian martyrs from just a few months ago,” he said. “This is how we understand Vartanantz: it is a fight that started, but has never ended.”
Unwinnable Battle; Unshakeable Faith
Following the Divine Liturgy, Kathryn Ashbahian of the Eastern Diocese’s Youth and Young Adult Ministries department delivered a spiritually moving analysis.
“We are here today celebrating the lives and sacrifices of Vartan Mamigonian and his loyal companions who served as clergy, soldiers and friends in an altogether unwinnable battle.” She described how unwavering fortitude and faith of St. Vartan and his army still shapes, inspires and informs our lives today.
“With many clergy on the battlegrounds of Avarayr, including St. Leon, the soldiers drew strength by fervently praying and reciting the Psalms,” she said. “On the morning of the battle, they celebrated the Divine Liturgy, preparing their hearts and minds for the inevitable defeat and impending martyrdom that lay before them with the peace and love of Jesus Christ.”
She recalled how many of us watched in horror as the beautiful green hills of Artsakh were suddenly and cruelly seized with blasts and gunfire. “Like the battle of Avarayr, many saw this as a doomed battle from the start. Despite knowing the ultimate price they would pay, our young soldiers defended their faith, homes, churches and families, just like St. Vartan and his soldiers did.”
Ms. Ashbahian emphasized that Jesus Christ does not ask of us that which he is not willing to do himself. “Christ gave his own life and sets the example for us. He stormed into battle and fearlessly went to the cross,” she concluded. “I have no doubt in my mind that it was with this strength that our brothers and sisters in Artsakh walked into battle.”
In addition to speakers, several musical selections were presented by St. Vartan choir members Hasmik Mekanejian and Christopher Nazarian. Both sang songs of faith and inspiration by Gomidas Vartabed and Makar Yekmalian, further adding to the emotional and spiritual connection.
At the conclusion of the program, Bishop Daniel shared his closing thoughts, which underscored the significance of St. Vartan and his defense of our Christian faith, and the spirit of our martyred brethren that lives within us all.
Referenced by the Primate, and quoted several times during the service and program, was a passage from the Biblical Letter to the Hebrews that conveys the somber but hopeful mood of the cathedral’s Vartanantz observance in 2021:
“Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and a sin that clings so closely, and let us run with a perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand at the throne of God” (Heb 12:1-7).
- Fr. Karamyan’s message: 1:43:00
- Kathryn Ashbahian’s keynote speech: 1:50:00
- Musical selections by Hasmik Meikhanejian and Christopher Nazarian: 2:08:00
- Bishop Daniel’s closing remarks: 2:23:00
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By Stephan S. Nigohosian