Reflections on the 1700th Anniversary of the Establishment of Christianity as State Religion in Armenia.

Archbishop Hovnan Derderian

Communal commemoration and Christian fellowship are at the core of our faith and spiritual practice. The 1700th Anniversary of the proclamation of Christianity as Armenia's state religion is an opportunity for us all, Armenians and others alike, to recall and reflect upon the message and mission Christ gave the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian people when He descended upon Holy Etchmiadzin and designated this sacred spot as the See of our Church. It is especially a time to reflect upon the work of our church's patron saint, St. Gregory the Illuminator, who brought Armenia's King Trdat to the light of Christianity and inspired King Trdat to proclaim Christianity as Armenia's state religion in AD 301, an act that transformed the Armenian people and their history. The Armenian Apostolic Church has been doubly blessed and doubly commissioned: first through the missionary work of two of Christ's disciples, the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew, and again by the appearance of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to St. Gregory in AD 301 at the place that has since been known as Etchmiadzin, the place where the Only Begotten Descended (etch="descend", mi="one", dzin="born"), one of the most sacred shrines of Christendom. To be the heirs and keepers of the Christian tradition of Sts. Thaddeus and Bartholomew, St. Gregory the Illuminator, King Trdat, and St. Etchmiadzin is an awe-inspiring responsibility, and it is fitting that Armenians and all Christians take time to reflect and give thanks on this occasion through a special program of commemoration and celebration.

The Armenian Church is among the world's most ancient continuously operating institutions, dating back to the apostolic mission of Sts. Thaddeus and Bartholomew in the middle of the first century. It has seen many centennial celebrations. However, this celebration is particularly significant. It coincides with the second millenium of Christianity, when all the world has turned its thoughts to the significance of the Christian faith and Christian institutions in our lives. It also coincides with the emergence of a renewed Armenian Church and, after 600 years of statelessness, a renewed Armenian state, in the aftermath of the hardships of the 20th century that threatened the existence of the Armenian church, state and people. The events of the past century and especially the past decade have been momentous of the Armenian people. Not unlike the world 1700 years ago, when St. Gregory enlightened Armenia and guided King Trdat into making Christianity the basis of our national life, we live in a world that demands deep-rooted faith. We have much to celebrate and be thankful for on the occasion of this centennial celebration. The 1700th Celebration gives us yet another opportunity for renewal and reflection, for better understanding of our faith, our church and its place in our lives, in Christendom and in world civilization.

In our preparations and planning for the 1700th Celebration, we have stressed this communal aspect of our faith. The Catholicosate of All Armenians and the hierarchical Sees of the Armenian Church - the See of Cilicia, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople - have jointly formed the 1700th Commemoration Committee. The activities planned for the 1700th Celebration fall into five broad categories, each aimed at the spiritual reawakening of our people and dedicated to the celebration of the works our faithful have created for the greater glory of God over the past 1700 years.

1. Building on the Past for the Future: Restoration of our houses of worship. It is fitting that as another century passes, the Church should honor the faith of those who in centuries past built the church, physically and spiritually. One of the most tangible and enduring expressions of that faith are the churches and monasteries that grace the mountainsides of our homeland. The revitalization of these churches and sites of Christian communal life aims at to connect our people in Armenia and abroad with that centuries' old tradition of worship, while meeting the growing need for houses of worship in our monasteries and churches are being restored. In addition, a number of new churches are being built, including the Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator. Dedicated to the patron saint of the Armenian Church, the Cathedral's dome now rises over our ancient capital, Yerevan, symbolizing the renewal of our church's central role in the life of our state and people.

2. Education and Publication: Spreading the Word. As in architecture, so too in spiritual and theological writings, the Armenian Church has a rich legacy of inspired work. In connection with the 1700th Celebration, a program of publications has been undertaken to make these works widely available for the enlightenment of our people and use in Sunday schools and Christian education programs in Armenia and abroad. A Catechism has been prepared and a program aimed at reaching every man, woman and child in Armenia is underway. Over the past several years, the Holy See's Christian Education and Missionary Center, established by the late Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin I has led the way in this effort and continues to expand its programs under the auspices of the newly consecrated Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II.

3. Exhibitions: Sharing our Christian Legacy through Art and History. A number of international exhibitions are now making their way around the globe, sharing with the broader public the history and creations inspired by out Church and its faith. These exhibitions have already traveled through the Russian Federation, Greece, Finland, France, the United States, and other parts of the world.

4. Conferences: Thinking Together about our Church. An essential part of any commemoration is remembering and thinking together. For this reason, a series of conferences bringing together scholars and laymen, have been organized to shed light on the significance of the mission that has been placed upon the Church whose See was designated by the descent of Christ and the proclamation of Christianity as Armenia's state religion. These conferences aim not only to help the Armenian faithful better understand their church, but to promote a clearer understanding of the Armenian church, its history, and teachings. International conferences targeting issues of current concern have also been held on the Preservation of Armenian Religious and Cultural Monuments within and outside of Armenia and on the Relationship between Church and State. Studying the proclamation of Christianity as Armenia's state religion and the work of St. Gregory and King Trdat provides insight into the relationship between church and state, between the spiritual and secular, that is relevant in all ages.

5. Pilgrimages: Traveling together to worship at Armenian sacred sites. Pilgrimage is one of the quintessential experiences of religious life, when physical travel is joined with a communal, spiritual journey into oneself and one's past to wholeness and reunion with God. During the past several years, numerous pilgrimages have been organized to Armenian religious shrines not only in Armenia, but also in Europe, the Middle East, including Armenian historical sites outside of Armenia. One of the high points of the pilgrimage program will be the Pilgrimage to Etchmiadzin in July 2001. The July 2001 Pilgrimage is dedicated especially to our youth. Over 10,000 young people are expected to participate in this Youth Pilgrimage. The Armenian Church aims to guide its youth in the footsteps of their ancestors, to share in the enlightenment that St. Gregory brought to our people, and in the vision of a Church whose leadership will one day rest on their shoulders. Pilgrimage is a very special moment in the life of every Christian. As pilgrims renew their faith, "the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Is. 40:31)." By participating in the Youth Pilgrimage, every youth will become the yeast for the lifting up and renewal of the Armenian Church.

Pilgrimage metaphorically captures the transformative experience that is at the core of the 1700th Celebration. The conversion of King Trdat and the proclamation of Christianity as Armenia's state religion are a model of that spiritual journey which all people are called to take. I have witnessed on many occasions how those who have visited Armenia as pilgrims return to their respective countries as new persons. Pilgrimage is a spiritual journey, which leads us to God. God becomes the mirror of our identity. We see ourselves through the pilgrimages and gain insight into our existence as pilgrims in this life. We renew our identity. We renew our Christian life. We renew our appreciation of the gifts God has bestowed upon us. For those who cannot make the physical journey, the spiritual journey of reflection and commemoration are to be commended.

The official 1700th Celebration will start on January 1, 2001 at the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin, where the Catholicos of All Armenians, the head of the Armenian Church, will address the nation in Armenia and throughout the world, with a special televised message. The 1700th Celebration will take place at many levels, nationally and internationally, within and outside the Armenian church and community. At Etchmiadzin itself, in the various dioceses of the Armenian Church worldwide, and in parishes around the world, special events have been planned, reaching their climax in September and October 2001. Specific dates for the main events will be announced in mid-July 2000. The key events will be an Ecumenical Service in Etchmiadzin, the consecration of the newly built Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator in Yerevan, the Feast of Holy Etchmiadzin (July 17, 2001), the Blessing of the Holy Muron (chrism) in the fall of 2001. UNESCO has designated July 17, 2001, the Feast of Holy Etchmiadzin as an International Day honoring the Armenian Church. On that day, the belfries of all Christendom will ring out to join the Armenian Church in its celebration of these 17 centuries since Christ descended at our Holy See of Etchmiadzin.

When we reflect upon these 100 years of Armenian history, we see the imprint of Christianity on virtually every aspect of life. We Armenians have been tried and tested for our faith. We have been martyred for our faith. We continue to live as Christians, and throughout the centuries Christ has lived with us. God is ever present in our lives and we continue to live with God. Our Christian faith defines us and our lives. The 1700th Celebration is an opportunity for us all to take our implicit sense of Christianity and make it explicit. Like King Trdat, who saw the light through St. Gregory's mission, we are called to see the light again by following in their path. It is a time to recognize and express thanks for what we take for granted. When we are bombarded by so many competing claims on our time, energy and allegiance, the 1700th Celebration reminds us to take time to recall and reflect upon the traditions and truths of our ancestors, who for seventeen centuries have remained faithful to the Church built on the place where Christ descended.
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