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St. Gregory The Illuminator

Christianity in Armenia as in other parts of the ancient world was practiced in secrecy until the year 301 A. D. when St.Gregory the Illuminator or Enlightener who himself was of high birth and royal blood converted to Christianity and took upon himself the hard task of converting king Trdat (Tiridates) III the Great and his court. St. Gregory knew that it was necessary to convert the king and upper classes in order to successfully install Christianity as a state religion. At first king Trdat III opposed the religion as his predaceousour and even threw St. Gregory in a deep pit (Khor Virap in Armenian) near Holy Mount Ararat. But soon after king Trdat realized that Christianity can be a uniting force and a great shield against the pagan Persia and its assimilationistic policy and the Zoroasterism which the Persians were trying to instate in Armenia in order to gain influence amongst the people of Armenia. St. Gregory the Illuminator himself became the first patriarch Catholicos of Armenia's Holy Apostolic Church and began the construction of the Great Mother Church and Catholicos seat of St. Echmiatsin which in Armenian means the site of Jesus's appearance or landing. As tradition tells the spot where to begin the construction of mother church was pointed out by Jesus Christ were he himself came down upon from the heaven. Throughout the centuries Armenia's Holy Apostolic Church took upon itself the task of preaching the word of God to its nearby neighbors. Peoples of Caucasian Albania and Iberia (Georgia) were converted to Christianity and other tribes of Caucasus and beyond were also converted.

St. Gregory the Illuminator is one of the most significant and prominent individuals in all of the Armenian history. His strong devotion and dedication to the Christian faith, his unbreakable will and continuos, tenacious and religious persuasion in the ultimate goal of making all of the Armenian nation Christian, earned him not only canonization of the Armenian Holy Apostolic Church, but also made him a holy and divine being in the eyes of all of the Armenian people alike. The Armenian nation, not only remembered his remarkable deeds and accomplishments, but showed a deep gratitude and respect to St. Gregory, who was directly responsible in the forging and preservation of not only the Armenian Christendom, but as well as the preservation and conservation of the Armenian nation and culture as a whole. History showed us, that had it not been for the Christian faith and the Armenian Christian devoutness and affinity, particularly in that of the preservation of national identity with direct identification of Christianity, the Armenian fate might have been similar to that of the neighboring nations and peoples, who having accepted and adopted the religious ideals and faith of the conquering nations (be it Mazdeism, Graeco-Roman paganism or even Islam. A good example of this would be the numerous tribes and peoples that lived throughout Near East, in Anatolia, Iranian plateau and Mesopotamia.) very quickly assimilated and faded away from the pages of history as distinct nations.

St. Gregory was born in the year of 239 AD in the family of Anak of noble blood and Parthian descent. From the early childhood St. Gregory had to face a life of hardship and difficult path. His father Anak being charged for assassination of one of the kings of the Arshakouni line (with the help of Sasanid Persians who had a hostile and antagonistic stance toward the Arshakounis of Armenia) was put to death and St. Gregory narrowly escaped and was saved from the hands of the guards with the help of his caretakers Sophia (Sopia) and Yevtagh. The young St. Gregory was taken to Caesaria, in Cappadocia, where Sophia and Yevtagh hoped to raise and educate him in the proper fashion. They also hoped that as the time went on, the Arshakouni rulers would forget the treachery of the clan of St. Gregory. St. Gregory was given to the Christian Holy Father Phirmilianos, for the proper Christian upbringing and education. St. Gregory was brought up as a devout Christian. St. Gregory from a young age on decided to dedicate his life to the preaching of the word of God, the conversion of the Armenian nation and the establishment of the first Christian nation became his ultimate objective in life. He also in a way wanted to "cleanse" himself and the name of his noble family in the face of the Arshakounis, especially in that of the king of Armenia, Trdat (Tiridates) III.

Having reached adulthood St. Gregory married Mariam (Mary), the daughter of Davit, one the noblemen of Armenia Minor. Mariam was a devout and consigned Christian. St. Gregory and Mariam had two sons; the eldest being Vrtanes followed by Aristakes. Mariam with her youngest son Aristakes retreated to a convent monastery. Vrtanes was placed under a safe guardianship and upbringing of close friends of the family, by the directions of St. Gregory, who was finally free to begin his holy mission and task in Armenia. In 287 AD, St. Gregory departed from Cappadocia to Greater Armenia. St. Gregory on his way to the prominent capital of Greater Armenia, Vagharshapat (St. Echmiatsin) preached the word of God and many new converts joined the Christian faith (Christian communities in Armenia had already been established more then 200 years earlier by the holy preaching of two of Jesus' apostles St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew, until the year 301 AD they prayed and worshiped God in secrecy). The fact that there was a strong Christian presence in Armenia greatly contributed to the success of winning of Christian faith over paganism. St. Gregory hoped that the fact that nearly half a century had passed since the time of assassination of Trdat's father, would help him to convince and convert Trdat and the rest of the royal court to the Christian faith. Upon his arrival in Vagharshapat, St. Gregory was promptly arrested upon the charges of "heresy" by the royal guards of King Trdat Arshakouni. Trdat imprisoned St. Gregory and placed him into a dungeon Khor Virap (literary, deep pit). The reasons behind the imprisonment of St. Gregory were not necessarily because of Trdat's revengefulness and retaliation for St. Gregory's father, Anak's, assassination, but rather had a deeper motive and meaning behind it. The Christian faith in the late third century AD was being prosecuted and put down by the Roman Empire with utmost cruelty and oppression of the Christian followers. The prosecutions and martyrdom of early Christians in the boundaries of the Roman Empire, continued well into the Fourth Century. Trdat was a close friend and an ally of the Roman Emperor, Diocletanius, who convinced Trdat to have a hostile and suppressive policy toward the Christians of Armenia, with their spiritual leader being St. Gregory. St. Gregory remained imprisoned for twelve long years in the dark chambers of Khor Virap, yet he never lost his faith and conviction in God, nor did he revert from his holy task, indoctrinated and called upon by Lord Himself, as he believed and attained to the conclusion and very end of his holy mission.

Things quickly began to change in the year 297 AD. Trdat, having seen the true nature of Diocletanius, who in 297 AD invaded Armenia and conducted and signed a treacherous treaty (behind Trdat's back) with Sassanid Persia, by which a vast amount of territory from Western provinces of Greater Armenia, became "protectorates" of Rome. The traditional history (Pavstos Buzand IV th century Armenian Christian chronicler) tells that Trdat, sickened by "madness" that turned him into a "wild beast" in desperation sought the help and protection of St. Gregory and the Christian God. After his release St. Gregory prays for Trdat's sole to God and begs for God's mercy and forgiveness. God answers the prayers of the Holy Father and grants sanity back to the king. The traditional story chronicled by Armenian historian Pavstos Buzand tells us of the swift change of Trdat from persecutor to protector of Christians and Christendom. In 301 AD St. Gregory the Illuminator officially baptized king Trdat the Great along with the members of royal court and upper class. Trdat issued a decree by which he granted full rights to St. Gregory for the beginning of carrying out his holy mission of conversion of the entire nation to the Christian faith. In 302 AD St. Gregory, accompanied by an escort of 16 aristocratic nobles, returned to the city of Caesaria, where he was raised in the true spirit of Christianity and where he contemplated his sacred devoir.

St. Gregory had to face the resistance of the pagan priestly class, who resisted the spread of Christianity. Although many priests converted and joined the Christian faith (in the IV th century AD in the monarchal order of Armenia the word of the king was the law and his orders were unquestionably carried out, although this would change in the V th century with the rise of the forcible nobility). St. Gregory establishment new churches in Western Armenia, the ancient Sun worshiping center of Ashtishat was turned into a new center of Christian faith, the Grande temple of Ashtishat being turned into a church. In 303 AD St. Gregory began the construction of the Cathedral of the Mother Church of Armenia's Holy Apostolic Church, on the spot of another pagan atrushan (eternal fire) temple in the capital city of Vagharshapat (St. Echmiatsin). The place was chosen after the Holy Vision of St. Gregory the Illuminator, who saw Jesus' descent from the Heaven to the Holy Spot, hence the name Echmiatsin: Site of Lord's descent, or the Descent of the Only Begotten Son of Lord. The newly built Cathedral, the Mother Church, became the new spiritual and as well as cultural center of Christian Armenia and remained so to this day for nearly one thousand seven hundred years. Most of the Armenian common folk were baptized in the sacred rivers of Armenia Aratsani (upper Euphrates) and Yeraskh (Arax). Many of the pre-Christian, traditional Indo-European, festivals and celebrations such as Tyarndarach (Trndez- associated with fire worship) and Vardevar (Vadarvar, associated with water worship), that dated back to thousands of years were preserved and continued in the form of Christian celebrations and chants. St. Gregory also foresaw and realized a need for a competent successor who could stabilize and continue the strengthening of Christendom not only in Armenia, but in Caucasus and all of Anatolia, for Armenia (Trdat) had become a refuge and a defender of the persecuted Christians from all of the Roman Empire. Aristakes, the youngest son of St. Gregory was named by St. Gregory as a successor to St. Gregory's newly established holy seat in St. Echmiatsin.

St. Gregory in the last decades of his lifetime undertook the burdensome efforts in establishment of new Christian orders and institutions in order to solidify Christianity in Armenia and the entire region as a whole. New schools and churches were being establishment throughout Armenia, in the East and the West. St. Gregory also placed and instructed his grandson Grigoris (son of Aristakes) in charge of the holy missions to the peoples and tribes of all of the Caucasus, in Iberia (Georgia) and Caucasian Albania. Grigoris fell as a Christian martyr, killed by a fanatical mob, while preaching amongst the pagan tribes of Albania. St. Gregory, after seeing the fulfillment and accomplishment of his divine purpose and holy mission in life, as chronicler Pavstos Buzand writes, given to him by God Almighty Himself, of seeing Armenia Christian, named his youngest son, Aristakes the next spiritual leader of Armenia, the next Catholicos in line of Armenia's Holy Apostolic Church. St. Gregory, at an old age (in his late eighties) withdrew to a small sanctuary, near Mt. Sepuh, in the Manyats Ayr province. Here he spent the remainder of his earthly life (until the year 325 AD) with a small convent of monks he entered the Kingdom of Lord Jesus Savior in Heaven, praying and glorifying God Almighty. It is also believed that it is in this convent that St. Gregory wrote his "Holy Scriptures", which are among the best and rarest in their type of early Christian religious-philosophical thought and belief. St. Gregory is regarded as not only the establisher of Christianity and Christendom in Armenia, but as well as an important and essential part of the establishment of Christendom worldwide. By establishing Christianity in Armenia, which served as a model Christian nation to the rest of the world (particularly to the Romans, who closely watched the developments in Armenia), and after seeing the success of Christianity and the positive changes and growth that it brought about in Armenia, the Romans too followed the example and decades later, they too proclaimed Christianity as the official state religion, modeled after that of Armenia. After the acceptance of Christianity by the vast Roman Empire (which comprised a large part of the ancient world) Christianity was to stay and to become the dominant religion of the world. In 2001 Armenia will celebrate the 1700 th anniversary of Armenian State Christendom and the establishing of the first pioneer Christian nation, Armenia.

By Gevork Nazaryan

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