Every year before Lent, Armenians all over the world celebrate St. Vartan’s day. When I think about Vartan and his comrades, the following verses of the Letter to the Hebrews comes to my mind. “There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced … chains and imprisonment… they were killed by the sword. They went about … persecuted andmistreated… They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground." (Hebrews 11: 35-38)
In this chapter, the apostle writes of heroes who enjoyed God’s miraculous intervention because of their steps of faith, despite challenging situations. They “quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword” and gained divine promises by witnessing wonders and miracles, experiencing military victories, despite being weak (11: 32-34).
But immediately after, the scripture mentions "others" whose experiences could be seen as defeat or not something to be proud of, but they are included in the list of heroes for their steps of faith and sacrifices they endured because of their faith and trust in the Lord and His promises. The chapter ends with these words: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect." (11:39-40)
I can clearly see Vartan and his friends amongst that latter category. I am sure if the letter of the Hebrews was written in the fifth century, their names would have been included in that chapter. They confessed their faith and decided to remain faithful to their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, believing in the Biblical promises and offering what was most precious to them, their lives.
Not all the Armenian leaders of the time joined the ranks of Vartan and Ghevont Yerets (priest Leontius). Some had personal or political motives. If we consider all the developments of the time, we may better understand and appreciate Vartan’s and his comrades’ heroism. The fifth century is known in Armenian history as the “golden century” - a time of enlightenment. The invention of the alphabet, the translation of the Bible, the compilation and translation of many other church books and the sending of teachers and educators to all parts of the land produced a generation of faithful who knew what they believed, knew and loved their Lord and savior, took Christian faith not as a garment to remove easily because of some pressure or threat, but as a part of their being for which they were willing to resist any pressure and offer their most precious possessions to remain faithful. They decided to follow the path of the holy apostles and the holy martyrs of the Church and stand firm on the Truth.
Another fact from history is that those who survived the Persian sword did not surrender to the will of the enemy. The military resistance was broken but “not the spirit of the Armenian people. They continued the unequal fight from their castles and mountain fortresses.” The people moved to the mountains and areas no one could reach them. “They preferred to live in caves like wild beasts, in godliness, rather than softly, each in his own mansion in apostacy. Uncomplainingly they submitted to a diet of herbs choosing to forget their wonted viands.” Each person or family became a worshiping church, reading the scripture and singing the psalms. Instead of mourning the death of those fallen by sword, “gladly they took the spoiling of their ample goods, and never so much as recalled that they had any earthly possessions” (Arpee, Leon, A History of Armenian Christianity, Paramus, NJ 2016, p. 51).
The message of Vartan’s and his comrades’ heroism for us today is to hold to our Christian faith; knowledge of the Word of God and the living Word, Jesus Christ; and remain in fellowship with Him so He may transform us into living heroes of Christian faith.
Having in mind the post 44-day war of Artsakh situation, with all the challenges in the homelands and diaspora, I see the necessity for a post-Avarair war approach, mentioned above, amongst all of us living in Armenia, in Artsakh and throughout the diaspora. This would not be a retreat to the mountains and caves, but instead living selfless lives, willing to sacrifice our personal gain and comfort for the sake of our values, the strength of our homelands and the flourishing of our people. If each and every one of us, both in the homelands and in the diaspora, political or public servants together with every Armenian, put the strength, unity, development and wellbeing of our people and homelands ahead of our personal success and gain, only then will there be hope for our nation and our homelands.
May the celebration of Vartanantz remind us of the faith, heroism and sacrifices of our forefathers, and may the same spirit that worked in them guide and empower us for the glory of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and for the strength and growth of our people and homelands.
- Rev. Hendrik Shanazarian
Interim Minister to the Union