Monday, March 23, 2009

Feast of St. Gregory the Illuminator, Apostle to Armenia

Our series March, the Month of Saints Named Gregory continues with the life of Gregory the Illuminator, Apostle to Armenia

Almighty God, whose will it is to be glorified in your saints, and who raised up your servant Gregory the Illuminator to be a light in the world, and to preach the Gospel to the people of Armenia: Shine, we pray, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth your praise, who called us out of darkness into your marvelous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

According to the fifth century History of St. Gregory and the Conversion of Armenia attributed to Agathangelos, Gregory was the son of Anak, who assassinated King Khosrov of Armenia. Khosrov's son, Drtad, was taken to the Greek Territory and raised by Count Licinius. Anak was killed by the princes of Armenia in revenge for the death of Khosrov. The infant Gregory was smuggled to Cappadocia and raised by a Christian family in Caesarea. As a young adult, Gregory hired himself to Drtad as a servant but didn't let Drtad know his parentage. Drtad hated Christians, and when he heard that Gregory was a Christian, he threatened Gregory with all many of tortures and even imprisonment. When Drtad became King of Armenia, he kept Gregory on as his servant. Drtad was a Pagan, and he venerated the goddess Anahid, and he wanted Gregory to do so, too. Agathangelos writes: "He ordered Gregory to venerate her statue, and when Gregory refused Drtad asked him: 'You have served me well these many years. Why in this one matter do you refuse to do my will?' Gregory answered: 'You speak truly. I have served you as God commands us to serve our earthly lords. But He alone is the creator of angels and men, of heaven and earth. We can worship only Him.'

Drtad frowned and said: 'By saying this you render all your service to me completely worthless. I shall punish rather than reward you as I had planned. It will be prison and bondage for you unless you honor the goddess Anahid.' Gregory replied: 'My service to you is not worthless; God values it as He promised always to value our efforts for Him. It is He I seek to please. And if you punish me, I rejoice, for my lord Christ suffered affliction and death, and I will gladly follow Him into death so that I can be with Him in everlasting life. You speak of Anahit, and perhaps demons did once bedazzle men into building temples for them and worshipping them. But I will not worship lifeless objects of stone. We must worship the One who lives and gives life.'"

Drtad asked Gregory to tell him more about the living God, and Gregory "explained that Christ is the Lord of creation and the true light for those in the darkness of idolatry. He exhorted the king to use his intelligence and put away the mulishly stupid devotion to mere images." Drtad didn't like being called "mulish" and responded: "You have insulted the gods and insulted me by calling me stupid for worshipping them. You had the audacity to speak to me as if you were my equal. You said I was stupid as a mule; now you shall feel the burden of such words."

Then the torture begins! Agathangelos writes: he ordered Gregory to be bound and strung up, with a muzzle over his mouth and a heavy block of salt hung on his back. After a week of this torture Gregory was brought before the kin, who said: "Now like a mule you have carried a load. But worse things can happen to you if you further insult our deities." Gregory, however, had not been subdued by his suffering. He told the king that he did not mind tortures, and that only those who worship idols need fear the Lord's wrath. So Drtad tortured him further, hanging him by one foot for seven days. But Gregory passed the time in prayer.

Drtad kept torturing Gregory, and Gregory wouldn't recant. Finally, someone told Drtad that Gregory was the son of Anak, his father's assassin. That was the final straw for Drtad and he had Gregory thrown into a pit for the rest of his life. Gregory lived in this pit for some thirteen years! Drtad continued to persecute the Christians of Armenia. He fell in love with a young nun, Hripsime, and wanted to marry her, but she, being married to Christ, refused. So, after pleading and trying to seduce her, fell back on his usual practice and had her tortured and beaten until death. According to Agathangelos: "King Drtad was not an introspective man, and after a week of grieving over Hripsime's death, he had to have some strenuous activity. He arranged to go hunting, and when the hounds and nets and traps and beaters were all ready, he climbed into his chariot to leave the city for the plain where he loved to hunt. Suddenly, Drtad fell from the chariot, as if struck down by a demon. He began to rave and grunt, like an animal. As their king was crazed, so all the people suddenly seemed to be, and there was chaos and ruin throughout the city and from the highest to the lowest of the king's household."
The Pit

Only one person could solve this problem and he was in a pit. Actually, most people figured Gregory was dead, but they checked anyway. They called, "Gregory, if you're down there, let us know!" They felt a tug on the rope and pulled him up out of the pit. They cleaned him up and brought him to the king. The king knelt before Gregory and asked for forgiveness. Gregory pulled Drtad to his feet and said, "I am a just a man like you. The One who has had mercy on you is your creator, the Lord and Creator of all things." Drtad and his entire family and court were converted but since Gregory was not a priest he could not baptize them. Gregory went throughout Armenia destroying temples and setting up crosses and educating the people about the True God. He then returned to Caesarea to be ordained so that he could serve as pastor to the Armenians. Upon Gregory's return, the entire royal court went down to the Euphrates river and were baptized, 150,000 new Christians! Gregory went throughout the country and baptized multitudes. And that is how Armenia became the first Christian nation.

Gregory eventually went to live the life of a hermit in the wilderness, living in a cave. He died around the year 332.

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