The Illuminator’s Final Years

relic of St. Gregory the Illuminator

On Saturday, June 19, the Armenian Church will observe one of several feast days associated with St. Gregory the Illuminator. This particular feast is dedicated to the saint’s later years and the discovery of his relics.

Below, church scholar and historian Fr. Krikor Maksoudian retells the story of the Illuminator’s final days, and what came after.

St. Gregory in Solitude

As St. Gregory grew old and became more involved in solitary life, King Drtad asked him to ordain his younger son Arisdagés a bishop, and to take him on as Gregory’s assistant. Gregory had already retired by A.D. 325, when the Holy Council of Nicaea took place, and he sent his son Arisdagés in his place to participate in this first ecumenical gathering of bishops of the Christian Church. In his retired state, however, Gregory continued his pastoral work by preaching and writing homilies, employing a simple language so that people could understand.

St. Gregory’s favorite spot as a solitary was a site called “the Caves of Mané,” located on Mount Sebuh near Erzinjan, now in eastern Turkey. This place had previously been the residence of the Virgin Mané, one of St. Hripsimé’s companions. It is unclear how long St. Gregory lived there, and when exactly he died. After some time had elapsed, shepherds chanced upon his body and buried him at the spot where they found him, not knowing who he was. During the fifth century, a hermit named Karnig was guided by a vision to the grave of the saint and discovered his relics.

It was customary in those days to distribute relics of saints to various churches in different parts, and it seems that the same practice was implemented in St. Gregory’s case. Karnig took the body of the saint to the village of Tortan, located to the east of Mount Sebuh, and buried some of the relics there; the rest were taken elsewhere. On or near St. Gregory’s unmarked grave there stood a church, built at a later time and still extant in 1915. The exact site of St. Gregory’s grave in Tortan was not known even to visitors in the tenth century; but nine other graves existed inside the church, and were said to belong to King Drtad, his queen Ashkhén, his sister Khosrovitukhd, and other members of St. Gregory’s family. These were still extant as late as 1915.

Holy Relics

The remaining relics of St. Gregory were later taken to the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Pakavan, where St. Gregory had baptized King Drtad and the Armenian people in the Aradzani River. The relics were kept in a box and taken out on important occasions. In A.D. 450, when a rumor arose in Armenia that St. Vartan and the Armenian magnates had accepted the Persian religion during their visit to Persia’s royal court, the returning magnates were met by a gathering of priests, noblemen and common people, who held forth the box of St. Gregory’s relics as a reminder of their Christian roots. Similar incidents occurred at times of turmoil and joy.

The relics of St. Gregory were later taken and laid beneath the massive columns of the Holy Zvartnots Church, whose ruins are still visible near the airport of Yerevan. The saint’s skull was kept separately in a box. At some point the skull was transferred to the West and is now kept in the church of St. Gregory the Armenian in Naples, Italy. (Some other relics of St. Gregory deposited in that location were transferred to the Armenian Church by the Roman Catholic Church, as a tribute to the 1700th anniversary of Armenia’s conversion to Christianity.)

Today, relics of St. Gregory may be found at Holy Etchmiadzin, Holy Jerusalem and Antilias. The relic at Holy Etchmiadzin, encased in an arm-shaped reliquary, is used to bless the Holy Chrism (Muron) once every seven years. It is on display in the treasury of the Holy See.

In the calendar of the Armenian Church, the discovery of the relics of St. Gregory is an important feast and is commemorated on the Saturday before the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost.

King Drtad, Queen Ashkhén and Princess Khosrovitukhd are regarded as saints of the Armenian Church because of their role in the conversion and spread of Christianity in Armenia. It is obvious that St. Gregory could not have succeeded in his mission without help from the royal family. It is also important to note that from the very beginning, there was lay par­ticipation in the founding and administration of the Armenian Church.

While St. Gregory serves as an example of a fatherly figure for all Armenians, King Drtad, Queen Ashkhén and Princess Khosrovitukhd stand out as the forerunners of lay benefactors. The church cannot func­tion only with priests and bishops. Without lay participation very little is achieved. No matter what our station in life, we must make ourselves humble before God and do our share to achieve Christ’s mission.

By the Very Rev. Fr. Krikor Maskoudian, adapted from his book “The Holy Feasts of Saint Gregory the Illuminator: Celebrating the Life & Lineage of Armenia’s Patron Saint” (2003).

Above: The arm-shaped Reliquary of St. Gregory the Illuminator (from the treasury of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin), believed to contain the bones of Armenia’s patron saint.

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