The Armenian Church: A New People, a New Era, a New Struggle

Article excerpt

The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church traces her origins to the apostolic era. Primary sources regarding the history of Armenia relate that the Church of Christ was established in Armenia through the evangelical efforts of two of the twelve apostles of Jesus, St. Thaddeus (Jude) in 66 A.D. and St. Bartholomew in 68 A.D.(1)

This early apostolic evangelization of Armenia took root in a period when a native alphabet did not exist. As a result, much of the first Christian literature produced in Armenia, as well as the rituals and rites of worship, were written and celebrated in Aramaic (Syriac) or Greek--both languages foreign to the ordinary Armenian of that day.

Through the efforts of St. Gregory, a Parthian nobleman of the Pahlavooni family who is honored as the Enlightener or Illuminator of Armenia,(2) a national church was formed sometime between the late third and early fourth centuries. And during this time the need to communicate the Gospel message of Christ in the native tongue gave birth, in 406 A.D., to a native alphabet devised by a monk-priest, the sainted Mesrob.

Saint Gregory was consecrated as the first bishop for the newly established national church in Armenia by Leontius, the Metropolitan of Caesarea. Soon after the national conversion in 301 A.D., Gregory established the Holy Seat of the Armenian Church in the town of Vagharshapat, and with the support of the royal family built the first Christian cathedral in 303 A.D., dedicated to the Mother of God (also known as the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin).

Saint Mesrob (355-439 A.D.) was born and educated in Armenia. He studied also in Antioch, where he learned Greek, Syriac, and Persian. Following service in the royal court, he entered the monastic priesthood. Under the authority of the Catholicos Sahak and King Vramshabouh he was commissioned to devise an alphabet, and succeeded. He also assisted in, the formulation of the Georgian and Caspio-Albanian alphabets. Along with his pupils, known as The Holy Translators, he translated the Holy Scriptures, Canons of the ecumenical and local councils, and also the wellspring of the writings of the Holy Fathers of the Church.

From the fifth century onward, the Church of Armenia developed along a somewhat independent course because of her formal rejection, in 506 A.D., of the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.). This Council sparked a Christological controversy that in western thought and terminology defined the union of Christ's natures in Divinity and Humanity, thus instigating the first upheaval of the unity of the church--a rupture which to this time has yet to be healed.(3)

During the ensuing centuries a purely Armenian liturgical, patristic, theological and historical religious tradition developed. In the years following this division, the liturgy acquired its Armenian character and form, the canons, and the liturgical calendar. Other disciplines in the church were embellished and formalized as well.(4)

Attempts at reunion--first with the Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox) Church, then with the Roman Church--were initiated. The first such attempt was in the seventh century, but to no avail. Later a more concerted effort was carried out by the renowned and erudite twelfth century theologican and Catholicos, Nersess of Cla, affectionately remembered by the Armenian Church as Shorhali, meaning "The Graceful." This great churchman proposed a meeting of the Armenian bishops and archimandrites to consider reunion with the Byzantine Church, but when he died on April 17, 1173, at the age of seventy-one, his hopes for unity within the Eastern Church were still unrealized.

Meanwhile, the Cilician Kingdom of lesser Armenia was established, following the demise of the monarchial Bagratouni reign in the medieval capital of Ani in 1045 A.D. and the ensuing migrations of Armenians westward toward the Cilician gates and the Taurus mountains. There in the castle of Horom kale [Romkla], on the banks of the Euphrates River, the Catholicate established residency until 1293 A. …