The Armenian Church Celebrates Its 1,700-Year Anniversary

By Strickert, Fred | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 31, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Armenian Church Celebrates Its 1,700-Year Anniversary


Strickert, Fred, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


The Armenian Church Celebrates Its 1,700-Year Anniversary

Dr. Fred Strickert is professor of religion at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.

This year marks the 1,700th anniversary since the country of Armenia officially adopted Christianity.

More familiar to Western Christians is the story of the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The date 313 CE--when the Edict of Milan offered toleration for Christians in the Roman Empire--is often cited as the turning point in church-state relations. After three centuries of persecution and minority status, the transformation into European Christendom was underway. Constantine was not the first ruler to adopt Christianity, however. In 301 CE, King Tiridates III declared Christianity as Armenia's state religion.

In celebration of this watershed event in church history, Armenians have marked the year 2001 for special celebrations, commemorating a rich heritage and calling for renewal among Christians in Armenia and those in the Armenian diaspora, including over one million in the United States.

LEGENDS OF CHRISTIAN ORIGINS IN ARMENIA

The story of Christian origins in Armenia is filled with colorful legends. Two of the early Apostles of Jesus, Thaddeus and Bartholomew, are said to have preached the gospel in this mountainous country already in the first century. Converts, however, were faced with persecution for several centuries, as in other countries where the church was expanding.

In 301 CE, King Tiridates III was converted through the intervention of Gregory the Illuminator. At the time, the Roman Empire was facing a severe wave of persecution under the Emperor Diocletian, causing a migration of Christians seeking refuge in Armenia. Among them was a young woman named Hripsime, who attracted the attention of the king and was sought after as his wife. Rebuffed because of his pagan beliefs, Tiridates then tortured and executed Hripsime along with 37 other Christian virgins.

When the king was afflicted with leprosy and madness, he envisioned himself as growing a pig snout, and a connection was made with his actions against the women and other Christians. One Christian who had escaped punishment was his own sister, Chosroviducht, who suggested that he make amends by releasing Gregory, a former employee of the king who had been sentenced to 13 years' incarceration in a deep pit for refusing the king's demand that he sacrifice to a pagan goddess.

Through the prayers of Gregory, King Tiridates was healed and then baptized with his whole royal household. This was followed by his declaration in 301 CE that Christianity would be the state religion of Armenia. Gregory then was consecrated as the first Catholicos of the Armenian church and of the cathedral in Etchmidzian, built in 303 CE on the site of a pre-Christian temple.

The name Etchmidzian means "the place where the Only-begotten One descended"--a reference to a vision of Gregory. On the site of the cathedral, Gregory saw the heavens opened and a parade of angels enveloped in light descending to the earth, culminating with the descent of the glorious figure of the resurrected Jesus. According to the legend, the Lord struck the ground three times with a golden hammer, resulting in the sudden appearance of a magnificent church built around a large golden column. Although the vision soon faded away, Gregory was impressed with the form and lines of the church and thus directed the construction on this spot of the cathedral, which still stands today.

THE ARMENIAN CHURCH

The Armenian Church has long been isolated from the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Although it was actively involved and accepted the fundamental doctrines from the first three ecumenical councils (Nicea, 325 CE; Constantinople, 381 CE; and Ephesus, 431 CE), it was not part of the Council of Chalcedon in 431 CE which defined the two natures of Christ. The Armenian Church is thus known as a monophysite (one nature of Christ) church and has close affinities to the Syrian Church of Antioch, the Coptic Church, and the Ethiopian Church. …

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