Armenians Celebrate the Annunciation – From Ararat to Istanbul

by Mark Leeds

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Far from Mount Ararat, the imposing symbol of their ancestral home, a few dozen Armenian Christians gather in the austere stone Church of the Holy Virgin in the former Christian quarter of Istanbul. The daily life of this depleted community reflects the Apostle’s expression of faith: “I live, now not I: but Christ liveth in me.” (Gal. 2:20)

On the feast of the Annunciation, they especially direct their hopeful thoughts to that comfort to sufferers, the Blessed Virgin. They take heart in Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin: “Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.” (Lk. 1:30)

At this feast day’s liturgy, the clergy and the congregation carry themselves with the dignity befitting the descendants of the first nation to adopt Christianity. At the same time, their great humility marks their hallowed Christian tradition, which knows the same persecution which challenged the early Church.

In the third century, St. Gregory the Illuminator overcame vicious pagan persecution to spread the Gospel and convert King Tiridates III. Carrying the Light to those in darkness, Gregory brought comfort and hope to the afflicted and fearful. In remembrance of his role, the Armenian Orthodox Church is sometimes called the Gregorian Church.

The Armenians in this city maintain the rituals of their forebears from the isolated steppe of eastern Asia Minor. These tribal people have a strong sense of their distinct spiritual identity and independence. The monk Mesrop introduced the Armenian alphabet in the fifth century and translated the Bible into the native tongue. The Armenian church established its autonomy then, and classical Armenian has been the language of the liturgy ever since. Though the communicants may have an imperfect comprehension of this venerable language, they preserve and honor their heritage in it.

The history of Armenian Christians, while always troubled, testifies to a tenacious spirituality. The pagan challenge of Persia in 451 kept them from full representation at the Council of Chalcedon. Though a defeated Armenia rejected its doctrines 55 years later in order to guarantee protection by the Byzantine emperor. the simple faith of the Christian population was true.

This estrangement from the Church substantially changed after the fall of the Bagratid dynasty (865-1071). With the formation of the truncated Armenian state of Cilicia came ties with the West through an alliance with the Crusaders. More importantly, it joined in Church councils, such as the one at Antioch in 1141. As further evidence of reconciliation, Leo II (1185-1219) received his crown from Pope Celestine III.

Fifteen Armenian catholicoi (patriarchs) during the golden age of Cilicia maintained communion with the Apostolic See. In 1438 a triumphant Council of Florence concluded a bull of union with the Armenian Church. The reconciliation was short-lived. The Turkish conquest of Armenia in 1453 led to a new schism. Still, Armenians in the West and parts of Persia kept ties with Rome.

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Tags: Turkey Armenia Orthodox Church Church history