Der Vasken's Sermon on February 24, 2019

Feb 26, 2019

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Next Thursday, on the Thursday before the start of Great Lent, the Armenian Church will commemorate a very important event in our history.  We commemorate a religious war waged between the Persian Empire and the Kingdom of Armenia in the year 451 A.D.  On this day we honor a very well-known hero of the Armenian Nation.  Thursday is the Feast of St. Vartan the Commander and his followers, his soldiers.  Thursday is "Vartanantz" in the Armenian tradition.  Here is a little background history.  The hero of this war was St. Vartan the Commander and all, who fought alongside of this great military leader, and all, who gave their lives in this war, are called "Vartanantz."

Armenia lived peacefully under its own kings and even later under foreign rule for centuries. But during the first half of the 5th Century, Armenia began zealously developing its Christian culture because at that point we had our own alphabet, and at that point the Bible had been translated into Armenian so Christianity flourished throughout the land and the Christian culture of Armenia started to develop a foothold.

In order to force the Armenians to revert to the Persian religion, the King of Persia declared that people under his rule were to only accept the Persian religion of sun and fire worship.  The Armenians wrote a bold letter to the Persian king saying the following:

"Our religion is not like a garment that we might change at will.  It is part and parcel of our bones and blood.  We serve you loyally in your army and we pay you taxes faithfully, and we will continue doing so if you leave our faith alone.  If you try, however, to force your religion upon us, we are ready to suffer and even to die if necessary.  And you should know that there is no power on earth which can force us to change our faith because our faith is not with man but with the Almighty God."

The Persian answer to this defiant letter was to send a colossal army 300,000 strong to Armenia to bring the land back to order.  In 451 A.D., on the field of Avarayr, 66,000 semi-trained and poorly-equipped Armenian soldiers, under the leadership of Vartan Mamigonian, stood waiting for the invading Persian army.  Vartan knew that he was greatly outnumbered, but he put his trust in God and clung to his faith. The day before the battle, history says that the entire Armenian army received Holy Communion and spent the night in prayer.  The next day the clash with the Persian army began and in this battle, which lasted only one day, 1,036 Armenians and 3,500 Persians fell. The Battle of Avarayr came to an end with the fall of Commander Vartan, and the Armenians withdrew to carry on another day.

So why is this battle so important?  For Armenians, embracing the ideals enshrined in the Christian faith has always been a work in progress that has been defended from the first day until today.  The work is not perfect and it's not finished, but through the struggles of our ancestors--men and women, elder grandparents and new parents, children, teachers, writers and merchants, the educated and those who never had a chance for formal education--we have learned over time that the longing for God beats in our hearts as families and as individuals and as a people.  That may be why there are few nations in this world that have stood firmer or fought harder to defend their Christian values than the people who settled along the plateaus of Mount Ararat.

We are a people who showed up to a field called Avarayr, half a world away from here, to defend our faith against a monstrous-sized army and found victory even in our loss, who sacrificed to free our country from invading neighbors from all sides and saw each generation contribute to the prosperity of our land and culture and see it stand the test of time.

Together, in the spirit of St. Vartan, our forefathers met great challenges.  They rose again and again from wars and the ashes of genocide.  They made it through seven decades of atheistic rule and saw the success of a recent Velvet Revolution, which will allow our timeless Christian values to flourish once again in the land of Ararat.  And in that biblical land of Ararat where Noah first walked out of his ark and settled, others have followed suit:

  • St. Gregory planted the seeds of the Armenian Church and those seeds of faith were watered with the faith, hope, love and blood of giants such as:
  • St. Vartan Mamigonian and his brave soldiers;
  • St. Mesrob Mashtotz and his alphabet;
  • St. Nersess Shnorhali and his liturgical music;
  • Poets like Hovhannes Tumanyan;
  • And countless writers, monks, artists, musicians, royalty and common everyday men and women, who lived and toiled the land of Noah and brought us to the present age. 
And now it's our turn; it's our turn to drink the Living Water of Faith, like our ancestors did, that was read to us a few moments ago from the Bible and let it spring up in our hearts and in the homes. 

On a field in ancient Armenia, Vartan and his soldiers suffered defeat but they were victorious in a much more important way. They lost the battle but they kept their land--a Christian land.  This annual feast day serves as a wake-up call to all of us to look at our lives and make sure that our faith penetrates into all of its corners.  And now that you've heard a little bit more about St. Vartan's faith, let's ask God to increase our faith.  "There is no power on earth which can force us to change our faith because our faith is not with man, but with the Almighty God."  These words are written on the back of our Church.  They were placed there for a reason.  May the spirit of these Words be found in our hearts and homes because we, too, are nourished by the Living Water that is our Christian faith.

Amen.