Feasts of St. Gregory the Illuminator

St. Gregory (258-325) is the patron saint of the Armenian Church. He is usually referred to as "Our Holy Father St. Gregory the Illuminator." After long years of persecution, he converted the king of Armenia to Christianity and inspired the king to proclaim Christianity Armenia's state religion. He was consecrated the first Catholicos of the Armenian Church and founded the Holy See of the Armenian Church Etchmiadzin in accordance with a vision he had of Christ descending on that spot in AD 303. He then brought Christianity to Georgia and Aghvank (Caucasian Albania, present-day Gharabagh and Azerbajian) sending his grandson Grigoris on missions throughout the Caucasus, where he was martyred at a young age. St. Gregory died in 325, the year of the Council of Nicaea, to which he sent his son Aristakes, the second Catholicos of the Armenian Church, since he was too old and infirm to attend himself.

St. Gregory is one of the great missionaries of the universal Christian church. He has been canonized a Saint by all the ancient churches of the East and West, including the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches. The Armenian Church has three feasts commemorating the key events in the life of St. Gregory.

Life of St. Gregory

We learn about the life St. Gregory and the account of the conversion of Armenia primarily from the historian Agathangelos, who is believed to have been secretary to King Trdat, the king of Armenia at that time. In the year 238, the Persian King Artashir of the Sasanian dynasty, sent a member of the Parthian royal family, Anak to assassinate the Armenian king Khosrov. Anak killed Khosrov, who was also of the Parthian royal family. The dying King gave orders to eliminate Anak's entire family. Only one infant escaped from this slaughter, and was rushed to the Ceaserea by his nurse, who happened to be a Christian. The boy was reared in the Christian faith and received a Greek name Gregory. He grew up to be St. Gregory the Illuminator. He married a Christian, had two sons, Aristakes, who succeeded him as Catholicos and attended the Council of Nicea, and Vertanes, who later succeeded his brother as Catholicos.

Captivity in Pit

When Khosrov's son King Trdat came of age, he was summoned to Rome by the Emperor Diocletian to reclaim his father's throne and become Rome's ally. Gregory was part of Trdat's entourage, serving as Trdat's secretary. In honor of his triumphal return to Armenia's capital, Vagharshapat, Trdat ordered sacrifices to the pagan goddess Anahit. Gregory refused to take part in the sacrifices. Instead, he confessed his Christian faith and began to preach the wisdom of worshipping the One God. At that time, one of the princes revealed that Gregory was the son of Anak, the assassin who had murdered Trdat's father. Trdat ordered Gregory to be tortured until he renounced Christianity. Gregory endured twelve terrible tortures, but did not recant his faith. Seeing that Gregory's faith was not broken, Trdat ordered Gregory to be put to death by casting him into a pit (Arm. Khor Virap), full of human bones and snakes. St. Gregory survived this horrible ordeal for thirteen years, being secretly feed by a pious woman, believed to be King Trdat's sister, St. Khosrovidukht, or someone sent by her.

The Church of Khor Virap in the shadow of Mount Ararat is one of the most sacred sites of the Armenian Church. Pilgrims may descend into the pit where St. Gregory was held captive. The Armenian Church remembers St. Gregory's Captivity in the Pit in March-April.

Pious Women of Faith - Sts. Hripsimė, Gayanė, Nunė and Manė

In 287, after condemning St. Gregory to the pit, Trdat started the persecution of Christians in Armenia. Around this time, a group of Christian nuns came into Armenia leaded by St. Gayané, a Roman subject. Although he was married to the faithful Queen St. Ashkhen of the Caucasian Albanian royal family, Trdat demanded one of these nuns, St. Hripsimé, to be his consort. When she refused, Trdat ordered all 37 nuns be killed. Two of the members of this group, Sts. Nuné and Mané, had gone north to Georgia, where they continued to spread the Gospel. Nuné had the gift of healing, and through her intercession, the son and wife of King Mihran of Georgia were healed. She wrote to Gregory in Armenia seeking more missionaries to help with her work there. Mané was an ascetic, living her life in solitary prayer and contemplation on Mt. Sebouh in Georgia. The Churches of St. Gayané and St. Hripsimé honor these pious women martyred for their unshakable faith. Inspired by the same vision of Christ descending from Heaven which inspired Holy Etchmiadzin, these churches were ordered built by St. Gregory. In time they became a landmark for travelers and pilgrims, like Marco Polo, who records them in his travel journal as tri eglesi - ‘the place of the three churches.’

The Armenian Church has separate saint's days for these stalwart women of faith who have served as the forerunners and exemplars of Christian piety in action for generations of mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of the Armenian Church. The Armenian Church remembers Sts. Hrimpsimé, Gayané and Nuné in June, and St. Ashkhen and St. Khosrovidukht in July.

Sts. Hripsimė and St. Gayanė

The followers of Sts. Hripimé and Gayané were Roman maidens, descendants of noble families. They escaped the Roman Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christian women. This group of nuns led by St. Gayané came to Armenia and established themselves in a wine cellar near the capital city Vagharshapat. They earned their livelihood by making and selling beads. When King Trdat of Armenia wanted to marry St. Hripsimé and ordered her to his palace, Hripsimé held to her Christian faith and refused to marry the King. In an effort to break Hripsimé's will, Trdat summoned her mother superior, St. Gayané to the palace. However, the King's plan failed. Instead of telling Hripsimé to submit to the King's desire, St. Gayané encouraged Hripsimé to remain firm in her vows, even to a martyr's end.

Trdat was enraged. The two nuns escaped from the royal palace and hid in a wine cellar. By order of King Trdat, executioners pursued the women to their hiding place. They tortured Hripsimé by cutting out her tongue and dismembering her body. St. Gayané and the other nuns, 37 in all, were executed. Sts. Gayané, Hripsimé and their followers hold a special place in the Armenian Church. The conversion of King Trdat and the whole Armenian nation to Christianity can be directly traced to their unshakable faith. When St. Gregory the Illuminator was released from the pit, he gathered their relics, buried them and built memorials to honor them.

St. Manė

St. Manė was a follower of Sts. Hripsimė and Gayanė. St. Manė went to the Mt. Sebouh, living a life of solitary prayer and contemplation. Toward the end of her life, St. Gregory came to visit her in her cell. She asked him not to enter for three days, prophesying that she would die by then. When the three days had passed, St. Gregory entered, found her dead body, and buried her.

St. Nunė

St. Nunė was also a follower of Sts. Hripsimė and Gayanė. She was an active missionary and healer in Georgia. She cured the son of Georgian King Mihran and then the Queen. One day when Mihran was hunting, he found himself in a terrible fog. He was terrified by the idea of going insane like King Trdat, so he started to pray and promised to worship the God of Nunė. Then the fog disappeared. St. Nunė preached and converted the Georgians to Christianity. She sent a message to St. Gregory seeking guidance and support. By the order of St. Gregory, St. Nunė destroyed all idols and raised crosses on these sites. The Armenian Church remembers Sts. Nunė and Manė on the second Tuesday after the Pentecost.

Deliverance from the Pit

After ordering the execution of these pious women, Trdat went insane, thinking he was a boar. His sister St. Khosrovidukht had a dream that only Gregory could heal her brother. She told the people at Court that Gregory was alive and was the only man who could cure the King. They sent men to the pit and to their amazement, found that Gregory was indeed alive. When Gregory was taken to Trdat, the ailing King knelt down before Gregory and confessed, saying, "Your God is my God, your religion is my religion." Gregory then resumed his ministry, preaching and converting the Armenian nation to Christianity. He baptized the king and royal family into Christianity and conducted mass baptisms throughout Armenia. After being anointed bishop by the metropolitan of Caesarea. Leontius, he assume the leadership of the Armenian national church as its first Catholicos, a post he graced for 25 years. The Armenian Church remembers St. Gregory's Deliverance from the Pit in June.

The Vision of Etchmiadzin - Christ's Appearance to St. Gregory

In 303 AD, Gregory had a vision of Christ descending from heaven with a hammer and a gold spike. On the place where Christ planted the spike the outline of a church appeared. The vision of Etchmiadzin (etch=descent, mi=only, dzin=born) inspired the construction of the Cathedral of St. Etchmiadzin, the Holy See of the Armenian Church. In the same vision, Gregory saw three arches over three of the martyred nuns. This vision inspired him to build the churches commemorating Sts. Gayanė and Hripsimė, near Etchmiadzin. The Armenian Church celebrates St. Gregory's Vision of Etchmiadzin in June and the heavenly radiance of that vision, at the Feast of Shoghagat in August, in honor of which a separate church was raised near Etchmiadzin Cathedral.

Traditions of St. Gregory - The Lamp of the Illuminator

There are many national traditions about St. Gregory. One relates to the Lamp of the Illuminator, which the faithful may see hanging above Mt. Aragats. According to one tradition, when Trdat put down his sword, St. Gregory picked it up and threw it in the direction of the Sebouh mountains. While the sword was flying through the air, it turned into a glowing cross. The light of this cross is the Lamp of the Illuminator which hangs without a cord (in Armenian – anparan – an= ‘without’, paran = ‘rope’, which is the name of the region around Aragats called Aparan), above the four peaks of Mt. Aragats, the second highest mountain in the Armenian Highlands.

St. Gregory's Relics

The right hand of St. Gregory is a venerated relic of the Armenian Church, kept in the Catholicos's repository in Etchmiadzin. It is brought out once every seven years for the Blessing of the Holy Chrism (Muronorhnek), the anointing oil that Armenian Churches around the world use for the rites of baptism and other consecrations. The Armenian Church remembers the discovery of the relics of St. Gregory on June-July.

St. Trdat

The Armenian Church commemorates the feast of St. Trdat with his wife St. Ashkhen on the fourth Saturday after Pentecost.

St. Ashkhen

St. Ashkhen was the wife of King Trdat. She was the daughter of King of Caucausian Albanians (Aghvank, present-day Karabagh and Azerbaijan), the country neighboring Armenia. Askhen was converted to Christianity with her husband by St. Gregory, the Illuminator. Along with Trdat she personally took part in the construction of the Churches of St. Gayane and St. Hripsime and the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin. Queen Ashkhen spent the last years of her life in the castle of Garni.

St. Khosrovidukht

Khosrovidukht was King Khosrov's daughter and King Trdat's sister. Trdat and Khosrovidukht were the only ancestors of the royal family who escaped when Anak assassinated King Kosrov. She took refuge in the castle of Ani. Khosrovidukht played a role in two key episodes of Armenia's conversion. It is believed that she, or a woman she secretly sent, fed St. Gregory while he was in the pit. She also arranged for St. Gregory to be released from the pit, since she had a vision that St. Gregory could cure her brother's terrible illness. Toward the end of her life, Khosrovidukht retired to the Castle of Garni.