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St. Leontius (Ghevont) and his Clergy Companions

The Feast of St. Leontius honors the sacrifices made by a group of martyred priests, known collectively as the Levontian (or Ghevontian) Fathers, who gave their lives for their faith and their nation. They included Catholicos Hovsep; the bishops Sahag and Tatig; and the priests Arshen, Manuel, Abraham, Khoren, and their heroic leader, St. Leontius.

While his date of birth and many details of his life are unknown, St. Leontius is acknowledged as an illustrious and radiant figure of the first half of the 5th century, the Golden Age of Literature. He was a commonplace priest in the village of Ichevan, of Vanand. Highly educated and having studied under St. Mesrob Mashdots and St. Sahag, St. Leontius worked as a translator, possessed a brilliant mind, and was fluent in Persian. His strong religious faith and fierce nationalism qualified him as one of those select leaders who participated in the Council of Shahapivan (444 A.D.), a political-religious body which developed rules for their society.

The historical meeting in Artashat in 450 A.D., however, marked St. Leontius’ life as a revolutionary. He expressed his intolerance of the presence in Armenia of hundreds of Persian magi who were forcing their pagan religion (Zoroastrianism) upon the Armenians. He roused the other delegates, including Vartan Mamigonian, and influenced them to resist the Persians and defend their Christian faith. When the magi tried to break down the doors of the Armenian church, St. Leontius raised a great cry, creating panic among the Persians, while the people, armed with sticks and stones and clubs, drove the enemy back. This stunned the enemy temporarily until they launched another attack.

In 451 A.D., the Persian Army descended upon Armenia again and the very lop-sided battle (300,000 Persians versus 66,000 Armenians) took place on the field of Avarayr. St. Vartan Mamigonian led the forces, but it was St. Levontius and other priests who fought along with the soldiers, on the front lines, firing the soldiers’ zeal and courage as they struggled to defend their faith.

Many lives were lost in this famous battle. Hundreds were sentenced to die on the spot. Following the initial Vartanantz battle in 451 A.D, the Levontian Fathers were abducted by the Persian king and imprisoned. Eventually, they were brutally tortured and killed. Although the king commanded their bodies not to be handed over to their families so that their remains become relics, a Christian named Khouzik succeeded in placing each of the bodies in a separate coffin.

In the Armenian Church, the Feast of the Ghevontian Saints is celebrated each year on the Tuesday before the Feast of St. Vartanantz.

St. Vartan and the Battle of Avarayr

St. Vartan is considered one of the most famous heroes of the Armenian people. He, along with a brave band of Armenian soldiers, clergy, and companions, resisted the more powerful and larger Persian army and sacrificed their lives in order to defend their Christian faith. The famous battle took place on May 26, 451 A.D. on the plains of Avarayr, in the province of Artaz in Armenia.

Very few biographical details exist about St. Vartan’s early life. However, various sources confirm his noble lineage. He was the grandson of St. Sahag, who, in turn, descended from St. Nerses, and ultimately his lineage is traceable to St. Gregory the Illuminator. His father, Hamazasp, was the sparapet, or commander-in-chief, of Armenia at that time.

St. Vartan was well educated, most likely, by his grandfather, Catholicos Sahag. Instead of entering the priesthood as others in his family had done, he became a soldier. St. Vartan was considered the worthy representative and head of the Mamigonian clan, which in the royal succession of Armenian kings, held the fifth position. He was respected by the King of Persia as the commander-in-chief of the Armenian armies. Equally important as St. Vartan’s dedication to being a good soldier was St. Vartan’s dedication to being a faithful Christian. He believed that one cannot serve one’s people without serving Christ at the same time.

However, the political situation in Armenia during the mid-5th century made it increasingly difficult for Christian-Armenians to practice their faith. The Persians, who occupied the various Armenian regions, initially allowed the Armenians to retain their own rules and practices. However, because of the Armenians’ growing zeal for their religion and the consequent loss of Persian influence, the Persians retaliated.

The Persian ruler, King Yazdigerd II, was a ruthless, evil person, who was fanatically opposed to Christianity. He was particularly cruel to the Armenians. He imposed unfair taxes and demanded that the Armenians abandon their religion and submit to the precepts of the pagan Persian religion (Zoroastrianism) and its worship of fire.

It was during this time a decree was sent out demanding that Armenians convert to Zoarastrianism. In response, Armenian bishops, led by St. Leontius as well as St. Vartan, called a council at Ardashad and unanimously agreed to defend their faith at all costs. They sent their declaration of faith to the king, who became more enraged and issued further threats.

Ultimately the brave Christians led by St. Vartan were forced to fight against the Persians. Numerous accounts exist describing the undying faith of these Christian warriors as they prepared for battle. They prayed, recited the Twenty-Third Psalm, shared their food, and took communion together as they waited to face the powerful Persian army, which outnumbered them.

The battle has been described as bloody and horrendous. Although St. Vartan, along with many of his comrades, suffered defeat and died, their fight to defend their faith was not in vain. The Persians eventually stopped their efforts to convert Armenia to Zoroastrianism.

The Feast of Vartanantz, commemorated on the Thursday preceding Great Lent, is both a religious and nationalistic one. It is a symbol of the conscience, the faith, and the general rebellion of Armenians against tyranny, and their effort to preserve their identity and freedom. Although St. Vartan, as leader and patriot emerged as the most revered figure, the many other commanders, priests, and companions who numbered over 1,036 are also remembered on this feast day for their martyrdom. Many churches throughout the Diaspora have been named after the Vartanian saints, including St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York City.

Mesrob the Vartabed (known as Mashdots) (438 A.D.)

St. Mesrob was born in the village of Hatzegatz in the province of Daron.  In his early years, he learned both Greek and Persian and served in the Armenian royal court. Later, he decided to enter the ranks of the clergy, and with some other young men he went to preach in the province of Koghtn around 395 A.D. During this period, he felt the great need of the Armenian people for an alphabet of their own, so he petitioned Catholicos Sahag, and together they requested the aid of King Vramshabouh.

After much research and travel, Mesrob was able to come up with the skeleton of an alphabet. However, it did not meet the needs of the Armenian language. According to tradition, while meditating in a cave near the village of Palu, the saint had a vision, in which “the hand of God wrote the alphabet in letters of fire.” Upon his return to the Catholicos and king, the saint was received with great honors and much joy.

Immediately after the discovery of the alphabet, the Holy Translators worked to translate the Bible; the first words written in the Armenian language were from the Book of Proverbs: “To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding” (Proverbs 1:2).  They also opened schools to teach the newly-discovered alphabet, among whose students were the famous translators Yeghisheh, Movses, Tavit, and Vartan.

After the discovery of the alphabet, St. Mesrob spent many years translating and writing literary and ecclesiastical works.  He went to many provinces where paganism still existed and preached the word of God in the people’s own language, with the light of the Holy Gospels.  During this period, he was invited to Georgia and Caucasian Albania, where he likewise invented alphabets to suit the respective local languages.  His life’s works have been recorded by one of his famous students, Goriun, in his book, The Life of Mashdots.  St. Mesrob was buried in Oshagan in the province of Vaspouragan, where a beautiful cathedral has been built in his honor, and where one may go and pay homage at the saint’s tomb to the present day.

The Book of Ritual used in the Armenian Church bears the name “Mashdots” and is dedicated to this great saint.  Although compiled at a later date, it is based on an earlier sacramental anthology attributed to Mashdots.

St. Mesrob gave the Armenian people the most precious of gifts and continues to serve as an inspiration to all generations.  Beloved by all, St. Mesrob is a special inspiration to Armenian writers and poets.

Above: Detail of Mesrob Mashdots, from G.B. Tiepolo’s “Apollo and the Continents” (1752-3) in Würtzburg, Germany.

St. Gregory the Enlightener

St. Gregory, whose birth name was Suren, was the son of Prince Anag, who was sent to Armenia by the Sasanian, King of Kings of Iran, to assassi­nate King Khosrov of Armenia and facilitate the Iranian occupation of that country.  Our ancestors were convinced that St. Gregory had received the grace of the Apostle because he was conceived near the grave of the Holy Apostle Thaddeus, the first enlightener of Armenia.

Anag and his brother succeeded in murdering King Khosrov in the city of Vagharshabad in about A.D. 240.  They fled in haste, but the Armenian con­tingents stopped them near the city of Ardashad and slew Anag’s entire fam­ily.  Only two infants, Gregory and his brother, were saved from the massacre.  Their Christian nurse Sophia took the boys to Caesarea to Eski Shehir, southwest of modern Kayseri in Anatolian Turkey.

In Caesarea, Gregory was christened and brought up as a Christian. When Gregory was of age, he married a Christian girl named Mariam, daughter of David. Gregory and Mariam had two sons, Vrtanes and Arisdages.  Three years after Arisdages’ birth, the couple willingly decided to part from each other.  The elder child, Vrtanes, was placed in the care of his nurse and Mariam took the younger Arisdages with her as she withdrew to a convent.  The custom of Christian couples dissolving their marriage ties to seek monastic life was common in the 4th century.

Gregory himself headed for Armenia to serve as King Drtad’s secretary. At the time of King Khosrov’s assassination, Drtad, the king’s son and heir to the throne, was still an infant.  Drtad was saved and taken to Roman territory. Also saved was Drtad’s sister Khosrovitukhd. Drtad was raised under Roman protection and later joined the Roman legions.  He achieved fame as a valiant soldier and the Romans recognized Drtad as king of Armenia and helped him to reclaim his ancestral throne in 274.  While eastern Armenia was still under Iranian sovereignty, Drtad ruled for two years before he was ousted from his kingdom.

It was at that time (between 274 and 276) that Gregory, who had found out about his father’s vile deed, decided entered the service of Drtad under a false identity to make amends. He pursued his duties faithfully over a period of several years. Drtad, once again with Roman help, was permanently established on the throne of western (Roman) Armenia in 287.  Soon after, the relationship between him and Gregory deteriorated.  The ceremony of thanksgiving and sacrifice to the pagan goddess Anahid in the village of Yeres (province of Yegeghik in western Armenia), following Drtad’s great victory over the Persians.  When Gregory refused to offer wreaths and thick branches of trees to the altar of the goddess at the king’s request, he was incarcerated.

King Drtad ordered him to be subjected to twelve different kinds of torture at a site located to the imme­diate south of Erez, the present-day city of Erzinjan in Turkey.  A monastery dedicated to the passion of St. Gregory was erected at this site.

After withstanding numerous incidents of torture, St. Gregory was transferred to the city of Ardashad and thrown into a bottomless pit reserved for notorious criminals condemned to death and located in the citadel of that town.

It is reported that Gregory survived in the pit for thirteen years. Gregory’s survival was made possible through the charity of a widow who lived in the fortress where the dungeon was located.  She had received a command in a dream to prepare a loaf of bread every day and throw it down into the pit.  That served as the source of Gregory’s sustenance for thirteen years.  At the site of the bottomless pit, there is now a monastery called Khor Virabi vank (Monastery of Khor Virab, a place of pilgrimage facing Mount Ararat and almost on the border of present-day Armenia and Turkey).

His Sons and Grandsons

The Feast of St. Gregory the Illuminator’s Sons & Grandsons

The calendar of the Armenian Church singles out four members of St. Gregory’s family—his two sons, Sts. Arisdagés and Vrtanés, and his grandsons, Sts. Krikoris and Husig—and assigns them a special day of commemoration called “The Feast of the Sons and Grandsons of St. Gregory.”

The day of commemoration (according to the present calendar in force since 1774-75) falls on the Saturday before the Third Sunday of Transfiguration. Originally it was observed on the Tuesday following the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. The feast of the discovery of the relics of St. Krikoris, however, is observed separately on the Monday following the Fifth Sunday of the Exaltation. Excluded from this group of saints are the rest of the members of the Gregorid family, namely Sts. Nersés the Great, Sahag the Parthian, Vartan and his daughter Shushanig. The latter are commemorated on different days during the year.

St. Hripsime and Her Companions

According to legend, Hripsime and her 35 female companions formed a group of devout Christian nuns who lived as hermits in a Roman monastery around 300 A.D. Hripsime was believed to be a descendant of the royal family of Rome. She was extremely beautiful and had attracted the attention of the Roman emperor Diocletian, who vowed to marry her.

To avoid his forceful advances and to maintain her chastity, Hripsime, her fellow nuns, and their leader Gayane, fled Rome. After traveling to Alexandria, they finally arrived in the vicinity of Vagharshapat in Armenia, where, it is said, they found an old building of an abandoned wine press and settled there.

The Roman emperor continued his pursuit of Hripsime and the nuns. He asked the pagan Armenian King Drtad’s help in returning them to Rome. However, when King Drtad’s soldiers discovered where the nuns were hiding and King Drtad saw the beautiful Hripsime, he, too, fell in love with her and commanded her to marry him. When Hripsime was brought before the king, she refused to deny her Christian faith and to accept the marriage proposal of the king. She chose the love of Christ over the title of queen, with all the pagan trappings.

The king then pressured Gayane, the leader of the sisterhood, to convince Hrispime to marry him. However, instead of advising Hripsime to submit to the demands of the king, she told her to resist and stand firm in her faith. Hripsime and Gayane escaped from the palace and returned to the winery. Because of her refusal, the king’s forces inflicted fiendish tortures upon Hripsime, Gayane, and the other sisters. According to the various accounts, the soldiers cut out their tongues, pierced their eyes, chopped up their bodies, and burned them.

The martyrdom of these women took place in the last year of St. Gregory the Illuminator’s imprisonment in the deep pit by King Drtad. Upon his delivery from the pit in the early 4th century, St. Gregory built chapels over the relics of the nuns. Later, during the time of St. Sahag Bartev, these chapels were rebuilt and, during the pontificate of Catholicos Gomidas (7th century), two beautiful cathedrals were erected; one of these, the Cathedral of St. Hripsime, remains a monument of Armenian architecture. St. Hripsime, along with her companions in martyrdom, are venerated as the first martyrs in Armenian history.

In 1979 His Holiness Vasken I, the Catholicos of All Armenians, reported joyously to His Holiness Khoren I, the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, at Antelias, that as a result of recent archaeological excavations firmly sealed graves were found and thought to be those of the witnesses, Hripsime and her companions.

His Holiness Vasken I wrote: “It is with deep emotion that we wish to inform you that the ancient tomb discovered during the past year under the walls of the St. Hripsime monastery has disclosed graves of interred bodies without heads. It is highly probable that those remains are those of some of the maidens.” Because of the indication of how the bodies had been severed, the direction in which they were buried, and the absence of pagan-like burial practices, the archaeologists were able to confirm the authenticity of Hripsime and her followers’ relics at the site.

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