On April 24th, 1998 the grace of God was made manifest in the Midwest in a wonderful way. By touching the hearts and minds of five Pastors, seven Parish Councils, and two Primates, the Lord brought about a Joint Martyrs Day Commemoration. The largest Armenian Church in the Area, Armenian All Saints Church in Glenview hosted the evening.
The following is a written rendering of the sermon given by Fr. Tavit Boyajian on April 24 during the service.
The Faith of the Martyrs
“Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!” This is the proclamation made by the Armenian Martyrs of the Turkish Genocide. The church commemorates Martyrs Day to pray for the souls of these faithful Christian people, and to encourage us to imitate the martyrs’ devotion to Christ.
In recalling some of the stories of the faithful martyrs, my mind is drawn back to a story of a particular survivor; an elderly Armenian woman who was one of the few in her village to live through the genocide. A woman who in recounting the story of her family’s deportation remembers how her faith was strengthened by the conviction her grandfather displayed in the risen Christ during the death march.
The woman recalls that as a young girl of five years old she was marched through the desert along with her fellow villagers. During the ‘deportation’ she saw many friends and family members die. Being a child, she did not understand what was happening and repeatedly asked her grandfather what their destination was. Her grandfather always gave her the same answer. When she asked him, “Grandfather, where are we going?” He would simply say, “We are going to Jerusalem”. She recalls, “I began to hate Jerusalem... only now do I understand.” As this young girl grew and learned the meaning of her grandfather’s words, she realized that his statement in the desert was a confession of faith; and touched by his conviction, she became a woman of faith herself.
“We are going to Jerusalem”. What is it about her Grandfather’s words that so touched this young girl? How is it that this simple statement of faith served as an impetus for her to ultimately devote her own heart to Christ? The answer partially lies in the girl’s learning of the meaning of the words of her grandfather. Her grandfather was referring to a teaching of the church preserved in the Holy Bible’s Book of Revelation wherein St. John recounts his vision of the establishment of God’s kingdom on the earth. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away." (Rev 21:1-4 ). What the grandfather had meant was that they were going to the heavenly Jerusalem. The grandfather was telling his granddaughter they were going to heaven.
The grandfather’s statement was an expression of a pervasive faith the Armenians killed in the genocide held. They believed that they had the promise of heaven because of their relationship with Jesus Christ. Armenians understood that their eternal home was not to be found in this life - not in this world - but in a world to come. Jesus said: ....If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:17-19 )
Throughout the Genocide, many Armenians faced death with the conviction that they had the promise of eternal life in heaven because of their faith in the Risen Christ. They believed that Jesus was crucified on behalf of humanity so that he might ultimately rise victorious over death on our behalf. During the genocide, many Armenians were given the opportunity to deny their Christian faith and to be spared death in the desert. The fact that so many Armenians chose death in this world over denouncing their faith in Jesus is a powerful witness to the conviction of our ancestors. For in their willing sacrifice they remained obedient to the will of their heavenly Father who directed that those who love him believe in His son. The Bible said, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." (John 6:29 ). In the martyrs dying in faith, we see the cross of Christ stretched out over the Armenian nation; for just as Jesus before them, our ancestors were committed to glorifying God even if it meant suffering and death in this world. They approached martyrdom with solemnity and confidence because they knew that as Christians the heavenly Jerusalem awaited them. Indeed we regularly proclaim our own belief in the establishment of a heavenly Jerusalem whenever we have the requiem mass, (hokeehankeesd), when we sing ee vereen yerousaghem. (In the heavenly Jerusalem). The grandfather faced death with confidence and peace because he believed he was going to heaven. The faith of the grandfather was none other than the faith of the nation.
While one can understand why the grandfather believed in the future establishment of God’s ‘heavenly Jerusalem’ on this earth as discussed in the Bible, one may well ask, “Why did the grandfather believe he was going to heaven? Did he think he was worthy? Indeed did the Armenians living at the time of the genocide believe they deserved to go to heaven? After all the entrance requirements to get into heaven are quite demanding. In fact the bible tells us one must be sinless to enter heaven. - In St. John’s vision of the establishment of the kingdom of heaven on earth we read... And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. ...... and its gates shall never be shut by day -- and there shall be no night there; they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood... (Rev 21:22-27 ). Indeed to enter heaven one must be without sin. Yet assuredly these devout Armenians believed they were sinful. For the Armenian martyrs were a humble people, who recognized that while Christian, they still turned from God at times. They believed what they had been taught about their own sin. In the Book of Romans we read, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Rom 3:23-24 ) And in 1 John we read, If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10 ) So how is it that these the martyrs who knew they were sinful, and knew they had to be cleansed of sin to get into heaven, were able to face death with confidence?
The reason why the martyrs were able to live in acknowledgment of their own sin, while remaining confident that they would go to heaven is because the Martyrs believed in the cleansing salvation offered to us by Christ in and through his holy church. The martyrs by and large understood the basic message of salvation and embraced the gospel of our Lord. They understood the importance of having faith in Jesus, and of following his commandments regarding baptism and the reception of the Holy Eucharist.
The church teaches that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17 ). So too the Bible reminds us that, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." (John 6:28-29 ) ..... Indeed Jesus taught his followers the importance of faith and of belief; and so our devout martyrs had faith in Him.
Yet the Armenian Christian martyr did not understand his or her faith to be simply an intellectual or emotional action which would result in insuring their place in heaven. They understood their belief to be more than something that existed in their heads alone. For they knew that Jesus taught, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15 ). And they knew too the teachings of our Lord on the importance of the reception of the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist (Badarak).
Jesus taught his followers that they needed to be baptized. In fact Jesus taught them that their salvation was conditional upon their receiving the sacrament of baptism. Jesus said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5 ) And so in response to the teaching of our Lord, the Armenian martyrs, as children of the Armenian Apostolic Church, were a people who had received baptism. Indeed there was an understanding that through the sacrament of baptism something miraculous happened. Something mysterious and glorious that allowed them to face death with confidence. Incredibly, those who knew the teachings of the church believed they already were dead to this world and raised to life in Christ. For the bible says, Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. ...... But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. (Rom 6:3-8 ) The martyrs had an understanding that they had died and been risen with Christ in baptism.
Yet did their baptism insure their salvation? Did it guarantee them a place in heaven? Assuredly not. For while the bible speaks of people being raised, it does not always mean that they will go to heaven. Jesus taught...For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment. (John 5:26-29 ) Knowing that there was a resurrection to life and another to judgment why did the martyrs believe they would be raised to life? After all, only the sinless enter heaven. How did they reconcile their belief in ‘only the sinless can enter heaven’ with the awareness of their own sin? For they all surely recognized within themselves that they had, to some degree, continued in sin after their baptism.
The Armenian Christian martyrs understood that the sin they were guilty of; the sin that would prevent their entrance into heaven, was somehow wiped away by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. While they were sinful, they believed that the price of their sin had been paid by Jesus on the cross, and that they had received the payment.
What does it mean to believe that Jesus had paid for their sin? The church teaches that man owes a debt to God because he has sinned. When we sin we infect God’s beautiful creation, and like a boulder thrown into a calm ocean, the ripples of sin are tremendously cancerous. The ripples of even a tiny sin are too great for man to calm. The destruction caused by even one sin is too great for man to pay for. He can never fully restore the world he has injured, not can he repair the immense damage he has done to his soul. And just as a child who breaks a window lacks the ability to pay for the damage he has caused, man cannot pay for the damage his sin has done to both himself and to all creation. Yet a payment for the sin of man must be made. For if it is not, if there is no payment for sin, then there is ultimately no justice in God’s universe. The closest thing to justice that could occur for man to pay for his sin is nothing less than man dying to rid the world of his sin. It is with this in mind that St. Paul writes, the wages of sin is death... (Rom 6:23 ). Yet God does not desire the death of the sinner. Rather he desires him to repent and be saved. This is why St. Paul writes, For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:23 )
In order for there to be justice in the universe the church teaches that each person must have his or her sin paid for. The martyrs were confident in their salvation because they believed restitution had been made for their sin. They were taught that Jesus had paid the price for their sins - and this teaching they embraced. The Bible says Jesus is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2 ) We echo this belief during the beautiful Trnpatsek (Opening of the doors) service in our churches celebrated at the end of Lent on Palm Sunday when during the service the priest is symbolically having a conversation with someone in heaven imploring the person in heaven to open the gates of heaven (the curtain) so that the children of God (the faithful congregation) can enter. When asked by the voice from heaven who it is that requests entrance into heaven, the priest identifies himself and the community of believers by saying, “We are the price of God’s Son’s blood.” A similar confession also occurs in the Epistle of Peter. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (Pet 1:18-19) Surely, our devout church going martyred ancestors understood that the blood of Christ had been the price that ransomed them from death.
Even as the church states that Jesus died to pay for the sins of each person individually and for all humanity, the issue of ‘salvation’ still has a sticking point. For if Jesus bled on the cross to pay for all people’s sins, then why shouldn’t everyone go to heaven? After all, if Jesus offered himself for the forgiveness of the sins of all, then what is to determine who receives the benefits of his sacrifice?
According to Jesus, in order to receive the gift of eternal life, we need to receive Holy Communion. Receiving Holy Communion is the act of faith whereby we personally receive Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins. Jesus said ..."Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. (John 6:53-57 ) This same sentiment is shared in 1 John where we read, ...... the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:7 )
According to the teachings of the church, we all need our sins paid for. Jesus paid for our sins by offering His body and his blood on the cross as payment for our sins. If we acknowledge we are unworthy of entering heaven due to our sin, and that we are incapable of making the payment for our sin that needs to be made, then we must rejoice that Jesus of Nazareth willingly laid down his life as a payment for our sin. The act by which we demonstrate our belief that it is Jesus’ sacrifice alone that ‘pays for’ our sin, is none other than the ancient traditional act of receiving Holy Communion. This is why the Armenian Apostolic Church has, from its inception, always held the Sunday Badarak as the defining act of the church. Just as the Jews enslaved in Egypt at the time of the Exodus had their homes saved from death by marking the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a sacrificed lamb (Exodus 12:7 ), so too we are saved from death by agreeing to mark the doorposts of ourselves with the blood of the perfect lamb; the lamb of God who came to die as a redeeming sacrifice for our sins.
The Armenian Christian martyrs understood that they received payment for their sins and spiritual cleansing by receiving holy communion. The decision to approach the holy altar on Sundays was nothing less than the decision to acknowledge and confess Jesus Christ as their savior. It was because the martyrs had a deep and abiding faith in Jesus, and because they had followed his commandment of receiving baptism and holy communion that they were able to approach death in this world with poise and confidence. They were confident that they would go to heaven because they were confident that their Lord Jesus, who had risen eternally victorious over death, now lived, through the reception of the sacrament of holy communion, within them. Jesus was alive in them.
Each year, each Armenian individual and group rightfully asks themselves the question, “how can we best honor the martyrs?” Certainly there are a variety of wonderful ways to do so; and these methods have been applied throughout the years. We call the local newspapers, we try to get media coverage, both on television and radio, and we make a point of protesting before the Turkish Consulate for continuing to deny that the Ottoman Turkish government had a policy to exterminate the Armenians. All these things we can do, should do, and will continue to do. Yet as important as the aforementioned items are, none of these ways constitutes the best way in which we can honor the souls of the martyrs of the Armenian genocide.
The best way to honor the martyrs is by following their example of faith. The best way to honor them is to commit ourlives to Jesus as they did. For by doing so we proclaim our understanding that in their martyrdom so many of them made a statement to their firm belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Do you want to really honor the martyrs? Make a conscious decision to accept Jesus as your lord and savior. Receive his salvation through baptism, through faith, and through the holy Badarak. This is the best way to honor the martyrs.
By dying in faith, the Armenian Christian martyrs sent us a message of their conviction.
They sent us a message that they believed that Christ is risen from the dead, and has destroyed death by his death, and by his resurrection he has granted us eternal life.
By confessing Jesus in our hearts and lives and by committing ourselves to living according to his teachings, we will, in the best possible way, honor the Armenian Christian Martyrs. This is what the Lord calls us to today and every day; to participate in spreading the good news of salvation by becoming ourselves living witnesses to the salvation given to us in Christ Jesus. The same salvation embraced by the martyrs of the Armenian genocide is available to us today. Let us each resolve today to honor the martyrs by committing ourselves to glorifying God in and through the person of his son (so) that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:10-11 ).