Every February, the Armenian Church, to which I belong, commemorates St. Vartan, a fifth century warrior saint who died in a battle against the Persian Empire, which sought to forcibly convert Armenians from Christianity to Zoroastrianism. Vartan and his companions lost the battle of Avarayr, but the rebellion he led continued and eventually succeeded a generation later under his nephew, Vahan. The Persian Empire abandoned the campaign to eradicate Christianity in Armenia and Armenians have remained Christians ever since.
Last week, St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York City invited me to give the keynote address at its annual commemoration of St. Vartan Day. My remarks addressed what the story of Vartan and his companions reveals about the links between Christianity and cultural identity. Like Joan of Arc, and unlike most warrior saints, Vartan represents a specifically national expression of Christianity, not Christianity-in-General. I also addressed the story’s resonance today, when Armenians once again face existential peril in Karabakh. In case my remarks may interest a wider audience, the church has posted my remarks at this link.
Here’s an excerpt:
The story of Vartan and his companions is a stirring one and, for us Armenian Christians, a miracle: the working out of a Providential design that included abandonment, failure, betrayal, and sacrifice—but also courage and perseverance and ultimate victory. It is also a story that resonates in our own time. Once again, today, Armenians face grave danger from an external enemy that seeks to eliminate a specifically Armenian Christian identity in our historic home, and once again the situation looks dire. As we gather this evening, the Azeri government is blockading 120,000 Armenian Christians in Artsakh in an attempt to force them to leave the region—an obvious ethnic cleansing campaign. In his roughly contemporaneous account of Vartan and his companions, written at the end of the Fifth Century, Ghazar Parpetsi tells his readers that he will describe “events, times and occurrences in the land of Armenia over the turbulent centuries, periods of occasional peace and times of intense and endless confusion.” Today Armenians are again living through a “time of intense confusion,” about what is happening in our homeland and how we can best respond, both in our homeland and in a diaspora that extends far beyond what Parpetsi could ever have imagined.
There are many ways to understand the story of Vartan and his companions: in terms of imperial politics, military strategy, or even economics. Parpetsi writes of how rich the land of Armenia was, how tempting a prize for the Persian king. But I would like to reflect this evening on two aspects of the story. The first is what the story reveals about the link between Christianity and Armenian identity. For us, and for the people around us, Christianity is the essential element in our culture—the thing that distinguishes us from our neighbors and that, periodically, makes them perceive our collective existence as a challenge. Second, I would like to reflect on what the story reveals about the need for perseverance and shrewdness in the face of oppression and about the ultimate victory of God’s plan.