The Light of the Bethlehem Star From the Prism of Holy Etchmiadzin
His Holiness Karekin I Catholicos of All Armenians
As a spiritual servant of the Armenian Church, I have over each of the last 44 years, on the occasion of the feast of Nativity of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, expressed orally and in written form my reflections on the wondrous Epiphany of Christ and on the significance and impact of that divinely initiated act of condescendence on our human life.
In this year of 1996 different internal and external factors give a very specific color to my thoughts. Today my Christmas message comes to you from Holy Etchmiadzin, the "Bethlehem of the Armenian people", the birthplace of our faith, the initial manger of our Armenian Church, where Jesus Himself descended in the luminous vision of St. Gregory the Illuminator, and with a golden hammer in hand, struck "the hard and wide ground", beneath which were the depths of hell, thus transforming that ground to a green, heavenly pasture, a church fed and nurtured by the Gospel, that is, a holy and inspirational place where God and man meet.
On this holy day, in my first Christmas message of love and fatherly care as Catholicos of All Armenians, I appeal to all the children of the Armenian nation with the following words taken from the Gospel of Matthew,
"We saw his star in the east,
And we came to bow down before Him." (Matt. 2:2 ).
The Gospel story tells us that these were the words uttered by the three Wise Men from the East. All Christians throughout the world pronounce and hear these same words on this day of celebration of our Lord's Incarnation.
"To see the star...
It means that first one's eyes must be open and clear. It is not enough that an object emit light. It is essential that the eye meet the light in order for the light to become light for us. Christmas, therefore, is an excellent opportunity for us to wipe our eyes, cleanse our hearts, brighten our minds, purify our souls in order to become sensitive and receptive to the Light of the World-His Star which shines eternally and which casts light and sows happiness in our lives.
Today is the Day of Theophany. Yes, God once more manifests Himself, opens Himself to us, through the loving act of His Incarnation. But what is His opening to us worth, if we do not open up ourselves to Him? In order to receive Him, it is essential to have the internal, spiritual will, to strive for Him, to feel Him within us, to commune with His love through the revitalization of His image in ourselves. His self-revelation must become for us the true and authentic rediscovery of ourselves in the image of God, in our consciousness, our life and work.
"To bow down before Him..."
It means not to yield to the temptations of self glory and the feeling of over extended self sufficiency, to free ourselves from the chains of sin; in other words, as the Apostle Paul said, "to put away your former way of life, your old self.. and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with thenew self" (Ephes. 4:22). Without such precondition, we will not be able to welcome Him, to recognize Him as the Creator and Father, and to accommodate His word, His faith and His love in our lives.
To bow before Him is that symbolic act which elevates man to greatness even as he humbles himself. One must never forget that the first transgression came, and always comes, from succumbing to the temptation of arrogance and self-glorification. As human beings, we have within us the inclination towards evil, the ability to go astray, the temptation to use our free will not always for the good. It has been said that to stumble, to transgress is human. But it is not human to remain in that state of fallenness, to become a slave to sin. It is even more human to overcome sin and not to become its victim.
The celebration of God's self revelation is a unique opportunity that the Christian Church offers its faithful to become child-like again, to humble oneself before God who humbled Himself for our sake. That is the true meaning of what we call the celebration of our Lord's Epiphany.
My beloved people,
The Wise Men of the East opened their eyes of mind and soul and saw the celestial star, walked in the path of its light, found its source in Jesus' Manger in Bethlehem, and by casting away their royal garments, all external signs of secular greatness, had the courage and spiritual greatness to bow before Him.
As Christian Armenians, as children of the Armenian Apostolic Church, today we are called upon to proceed towards the Manger of Bethlehem. That manger was recreated in our souls since that day in 301 AD when our nation and the state accepted Christianity as our people's own religion. The place that was known as Vagharshabad became Etchmiadzin, the "Armenian Bethlehem". It was here that our father of faith, St. Gregory, had the luminous vision in which Christ descended to Armenia, and with that descent Armenia was transfigured into the Bethlehem of the Armenian faith. In and through St. Etchmiadzin, the soul of every and all Armenians became a manger of Jesus Christ in our motherland - and for the entirety of the Armenian nation.
I call upon each Armenian: Look within your soul, under whatever sky you may live, whatever the social and cultural conditions of your earthly life be.
Look within your soul...
There, you will find Holy Etchmiadzin, which you recognize as the baptismal font of your people and which you proclaim as the Mother See.
Look within your soul...
There you will find the Star of Bethlehem, which the poet who carrying in his spirit the tradition of the centuries, described it as "a lantern hung from the heaven without rope on the peak of Mount Ararat", directly beneath the gaze of God from the unattainable peak of Mount Ararat where heaven and earth sing in unison...
Look within your soul...
There your eyes will catch the truths of the Gospel as made manifest by Jesus' birth in Bethlehem; truths that have been tolling voiceless and wordless from the ethos of the entire body of our people throughout the 17 centuries of our Christian history, even from the wounded stones the ruins of the thousands of Armenian churches across the centuries.
Today, this same Armenia, impregnated by the Christian faith, has rediscovered and recovered the imprint of Christ. However, the dust of oblivion and totalitarian rule of the last seven decades must be shaken off and the reborn image must acquire new light and clarity through you and your faith, whether you live and breathe on Armenian soil, or conduct your life abroad, in the Diaspora.
Look and you shall see a country that today is not what it was yesterday. It is through the power of the own free will of your people and under the leadership of the new Republic that the rhythm of life moves on in your homeland. The spirit of freedom is spreading again throughout Armenia and is being integrated in the very texture of its people's life. National religious traditions are reacquiring their authentic, true and dignified character in the day to day life of the people. It is true that today's economic and social conditions are far from being satisfactory, particularly when compared with the relatively peaceful and normal conditions of life in other countries. The need to reconstruct the Earthquake Zone in Armenia's North-Western region (Leninakan, Spitak, Stepanavan Vanatzor and villages around) weighs heavily, in our worries and responsibilities.
The security, the stability and the development of our people's life in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh) continue to occupy a focal place within the range of our priorities an immediate and urgent imperative. Further, as a result of the blockade imposed upon our country, there are countless other difficulties in all parts of our Motherland, which present each and every one of us, wherever we may be, with serious, unavoidable responsibilities.
In light of all this, the Day of Christ's Nativity, bears special significance for Armenians everywhere. I feel that it is turned into a kind of appeal for spiritual and national regeneration - it calls us all to resign from the temptations of meaningless consumption, lavish expenditures and senseless pleasures of extreme secularistic and ephemeral nature. We are called, to a greater degree of self-awareness and sensitivity. This is a time in our modern history when we should courageously assume our religious, spiritual, national, educational, cultural and philanthropic responsibilities, on pan-Armenian level, whether they be in our homeland of Armenia or within our Diaspora communities.
The message of Christmas is simple: Jesus, the Savior Incarnate, emptied Himself of His divine glory, humbled His person, and acquired "the form of a servant and became like man." (Phil 2 , 6-9). As the Wise Men saw the light in the infant Jesus, bowed before Him, and offered Him their finest and noblest gifts: gold, myrrh and frankincense, we too must cease to succumb to personal, individual glorification and extravagances, and offer our finest gifts to God, our Church, our homeland and our people.
Christ, by the act of His assuming our human nature, elevated and unified all of humanity. The celebration of His Birth is also an invitation to us to join together and to find our Christian unity in His Bethlehem Manger, and rediscover, in our "Armenian Bethlehem", our national unity through the Christian faith, hope and love and through the heritage of St. Gregory the Illuminator.
It is with these thoughts, concerns and vision that I greet you,. our beloved faithful of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Here in the Holy Manger of Etchmiadzin, in this moment of reflection and contemplation, I pray that the Son of God who humbled Himself before us and became part of us, may raise and energize you with the consciousness of responsibility, and the readiness for personal commitment, thus strengthening the Armenian Apostolic Church, with all its Hierarchical Sees, dioceses and all national and religious organizations and institutions and all their creative achievements.
May the Savior keep our Armenian manger, our homeland and state, secure, integral and undisturbed according to His will and by the grace of His inscrutable mystery of Incarnation. Amen.
Feast of Nativity and Epiphany. 1996
Holy- Etchmiadzin, Armenia.
Catholicos of All Armenians