Saints and martyrs loom large in Armenian Christian spirituality. We look up to them; but could we ever be like them? Is saintliness an unattainable ideal? Or something more ordinary?
* * *
Peter was sitting in the outdoor courtyard when a maid came up to him and said, “You too were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before everyone, saying, “I don’t know what you mean.” … After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them: your accent betrays you.” Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man!” Immediately the cock crowed—and Peter remembered the saying of Jesus: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” He went outside, and wept bitterly. (Matthew 26:69-75)
Christ’s resurrection is our great story of victory, our assurance of triumph. God’s love for mankind won the contest against man’s age-old enemies, Sin and Death. The faithful declare their share in that victory when they announce: Christ was raised from the dead.
But to read the gospels, one is struck by the aura of failure that overhangs the figures in the resurrection story. Consider the situation of the disciple Peter. In a supreme moment of decision, he denies even knowing Jesus, the teacher he has followed for three years. It’s a revealing failure of discipleship—and worse, of friendship.
Yet Peter is clearly not a venal or evil man; in many ways he merely does what anyone else would do in the same situation. Peter’s failure merely proves how ordinary he is.
The all-too-ordinary disciple has plenty of company in the Easter story. Along with Peter’s denial, we witness the tearful despair of Mary Magdalene outside the tomb; the discouragement of the disciples on the road to Emmaus; the skepticism of Thomas; the terror of the main body of disciples hiding out in the upper room. We are tempted to ask: What are these stories doing in the Gospel at all?
Scripture offers no direct answer to this question; but it does lead us to an observation. The great Easter message of hope, redemption, and new life was Christ’s gift to the world. But to carry it forward into the world, Jesus entrusted his gift to messengers like these: the flawed and fearful, the discouraged and doubtful. Ordinary people, whose only distinction was that they had borne witness to something beyond understanding.
How remarkable it is to realize that these were the earliest Christian saints! For eventually, Peter and the rest became martyrs for Christ. They were individuals of no special distinction. But in light of our Lord’s resurrection they found the inner strength to stand with him, and not to deny him, in the end. “Saint” is the name we give to such people.
Sainthood has become a subject of renewed interest in the Armenian Church. In the coming week, we will mark the sixth anniversary of the canonization of the Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide: the first Armenian saints to have been acknowledged as such in hundreds of years. The canonization in 2015 was a great milestone for our nation; but like all weighty moral undertakings, it did not occur without questions. Good and serious people questioned whether it was possible to acknowledge such a large company of people as saints of the church. Indeed, one can say with certainty that the vast majority of Genocide martyrs—people we now regard as saints—were flawed or otherwise unremarkable in their lives, apart from the circumstances of their sainthood.
But now, after six years of living in the consciousness of these “new” saints, perhaps we can find guidance in the Gospel account of those who witnessed the resurrection.
Who could live a saintly life?
The saints are indeed ordinary people. But far from being an obstacle to our understanding, the very ordinariness of the saints is what makes them examples—permits them to be aspirational figures for us. If they were superhuman beings with seamlessly virtuous lives, we might admire them; but we would have a ready excuse, an alibi, for failing to live up to their example. Realizing that they were ordinary people—men and women just like us—places the responsibility to live saintly lives directly on our shoulders.
This is surely one of the great moral revolutions Christianity brought into the world. To the imperial pagan world of Christ’s time, heroes were the offspring of gods—an unattainable distinction. The spectacle of heroic suffering—tragedy—was meant to make ordinary men tremble, while encouraging them to rest satisfied that, as mortals, they were beneath the notice of the careless pagan divinities.
Contrast this with the Christian saints, who have arisen from every station of life, and often are not even recognized as special until some moment of crisis. Their stories are meant to expose the deceit and injustice underlying the world around them—and to disrupt our own self-satisfied appraisal of the world around us. Their suffering is heroic not because it defies unfeeling gods, but because it imitates the experience of God’s Son—who lived, felt and suffered alongside his children, out of love for them.
This miraculous reality is the gift that all the saints embraced. However ordinary their lives may have been, carrying Christ’s resurrection in their hearts magnified them. When their moment of decision came—whether in the Apostolic Age, in 1915, or even today—they refused to deny their Lord.
It falls to us to accept our own role in this drama. As the Gospel shows, Christ entrusted his message of faith, love, and redemption to people no different from us. Carrying it forward has been the work of dozens, hundreds, millions of faithful individuals—our own ancestors among them. That gift now rests in our hands, and whether it continues to be carried forward through another century is largely up to us.
Let that thought guide us, as we experience the season of Christ’s resurrection in the company of our sainted Genocide Martyrs, and affirm with them the everlasting truth that Christ was raised from the dead.
By Christopher H. Zakian