March 23: Gregory the Illuminator, Bishop and Missionary of Armenia, c. 332

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Armenia was the first nation-state to become officially Christian, and this set a precedent for the adoption of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine. As a buffer state between the more powerful empires of Rome and Persia, Armenia endured many shifts of policy, as first one and then the other empire took it “under protection.”

The accounts of Gregory, known as the Illuminator and as Apostle of the Armenians, are a mixture of legend and fact. He was born about 257. After his father assassinated the Persian King Chosroes I, the infant boy was rescued and taken to Caesarea in Cappadocia, where he was brought up as a Christian. He married a woman named Mary, who bore him two sons. About 280, he returned to Armenia, and succeeded, after experiencing various fortunes of honor and imprisonment, in converting King Tiridates to his faith. With the help of the King the country was Christianized, and paganism was rooted out. About 300, Gregory was ordained a bishop at Caesarea. He established his cathedral at Valarshapat, with his center of work nearby at Echmiadzin, now in Armenia, and still the spiritual center of Armenian Christianity.

There is no record that Gregory attended the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325, but a tradition records that he sent in his stead his younger son Aristages, whom he ordained as his successor. His last years were spent in solitude, and he died about 332.

Collects

I     Almighty God, who willest to be glorified in thy saints, and didst raise up thy servant Gregory the Illuminator to be a light in the world, and to preach the Gospel to the people of Armenia: Shine, we pray thee, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth thy praise, who hast called us out of darkness into thy marvelous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

II     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.

Lessons

Job 42: 10-12

Acts 17:22-31

Matthew 5:11-16

Psalm 119: 153-160

Preface of Apostles

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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16 Responses to March 23: Gregory the Illuminator, Bishop and Missionary of Armenia, c. 332

  1. Michael Hartney says:

    New Hebrew Scripture reading: It seems a bit of a stretch, notwithstanding the ’14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen and 1,000 donkeys.’ ! 🙂

    Who is selecting these new third readings for previously adopted commemorations?

  2. Michael Weylandt says:

    Regarding the Rite I Collect:

    Almighty God, who willest to be glorified in thy saints, and didst raise up thy servant Gregory the Illuminator to be a light in the world, and to preach the Gospel to the people of Armenia: Shine, we pray thee, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth thy praise, who hast called us out of darkness into thy marvelous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

    I think that the following changes would make it more Cranmerian in cadence:

    1) Shine, we pray thee, in our hearts also, that we, in this our own generation, may….
    (The adverb before the verb is a consistent means of emphasis for Cranmer in this construction; and with the also moved, the auxilary verb may follows the gentler cadence; the “this our” just helps with the scansion to my ears)
    2) Don’t we use “Ghost” in Rite I collects still?
    3) Would it be too Episcopalian to add a quote from the general thanksgiving:
    “show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives” ? I just love that prayer.

    –MW

  3. Michael Weylandt says:

    Sorry

    I submitted too early…

    4) pray -> beseech in Rite I vocabulary.

    The net result is to make the structure more like the Angelus collect:

    Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, thy grace into our hearts

    ~ Shine forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, in our hearts also, that we, in this our own generation, may show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, who hast called us…. Holy Ghost….

  4. Steve Lusk says:

    In the title, how about “Apostle to the Armenians” instead of “bishop and missionary”? It’s his traditional epithet, and it tells you at a glance who he is and why he matters.

  5. Philip Wainwright says:

    The collect implies, at least, that Gregory did a good thing in converting an entire nation to Christ, but then we only ask for help in praising God. Surely the point of these commemorations is to give us examples to imitate, as well as reasons to thank God for what He has done. Let’s ask for power to preach the gospel to the unconverted ourselves.

  6. John LaVoe says:

    Michael, Philip, or Steve, — Would one of you let me know why “the Illuminator” is used? Is it something besides the obvious? I can only think of three options:
    A) He illustrated manuscripts;
    B) He explained things really well (was very “illuminating”);
    C) He installed lighting fixtures on the side.

    • Michael Weylandt says:

      I think it’s more of a “the people that that walked in darkness have seen a great light” sort of thing…

      That and in Orthodox theology, particularly in that part of the world, there’s a particular focus on light. If you read their hymns for any of the big holy days (Transfiguration in particular) you’ll find that they are full of references to world being illuminated by the “Tabor Light,” an idea which is sadly under-investigated in Western thought

    • Lin Jenkins says:

      John–
      His epithet in Armenian is also translated as “Gregory the Enlightener.” His head is believed to be now in Italy, his left hand at Echmiadzin in Armenia, and his right at the Holy See of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon. Wikipedia has picture (at least, of the right hand, suitably gloved).

      Somewhat confusingly, James Kiefer provides a section of the text from “Armenia Online” that states “Armenians were the first people to adopt Christianity as the state religion. Tertullian and Eusebius of Caesaria suggest that Christianity was practiced in Armenia as early as the 2nd century. Eusebius also mentions an exchange of letters between Jesus Christ and the Armenian king of Edessa Abkar V (the Black) (9-46 A.D). Legend claims for Armenia the graves of four apostles: Bartholomew, Simon, Thaddaeus, and Jude.” If this were the case, “converting” Armenia shouldn’t have been much of a challenge, should it?

    • Michael Hartney says:

      It’s the Orthodox. Illuminator/Enlightener, it doesn’t matter. He brought the ‘light of Christ’ to his people. It is quite doubtful that he even knew about lighting fixtures other than the oil lamps that fill Armenian Churches.🙂

    • John LaVoe says:

      Michael and Lin — Thank you for explaining. It makes sense. — John

  7. Steve Lusk says:

    We can safely put the Jesus-Akbar correspondence in the same file with the letters exchanged by Paul and Seneca. India also claims the grave of an apostle (Thomas), but that didn’t do too much to facilitate later evangelization.
    The missing fact in the write-up is that when Gregory returned to Armenia, King Tiridates III was busily persecuting whatever Christians there may have been what was left of the kingdom (a large chuck of it was under direct Roman control, and Tiridates himself was a Roman client-king). It tooks some doing, but by 300 Gregory had converted Tiridates to the True Faith, and the king had imposed the same on his people.

  8. Suzanne Sauter says:

    I realize the title “Illuninator” is traditional but it confused me until I realized that the reference was to enlightenment. By the way, is Armenia the earliest example of Cuius regio, eius religio after Constantine’s recognition of Christianity?

  9. John LaVoe says:

    Gregory the Illuminator
    .
    “We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?”
    .
    Gregory the Illuminator has long been part of our official calendar, so there seems to be no question there, and my knowledge of him is nil, save what I know from LFF and HWHM – which is not much. It always seemed odd to begin with an entire paragraph in which Gregory is not so much as mentioned – the whole lead paragraph is about Armenia, not Gregory. The opening sentence of paragraph two, and the murder of King Chosroes I, about whom I know even less than nothing, further delays my learning about Gregory. On top of that, I never understood how “Illuminator” was being used here; in future editions could it be explained?
    .
    I won’t continue to comment on the write-up, except to say I feel it is poorly composed; the reference to “fortunes of honor and imprisonment” tease the readers, since it gives no hint of what those fortunes might have been; and a line (in the last paragraph) devoted to telling what he DIDN’T do (attend Nicaea) strikes me as totally inane. The collect is awkward (witness the many suggestions for improving it), and whatever their relative merits, there being so little here besides succeeding in Armenia’s becoming Christian, the scripture selections don’t stand much chance of illuminating Gregory’s story. (As an aside, I have more than a little trouble not thinking of the Job verses as illustrating, more than anything, the unedifying thought that anyone (in this case Job) can be bought off, and everyone (like Job) has his price.)
    .
    The question, “How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel?” is answered entirely in the single fact that Gregory evangelized Armenia (the Acts reading seems well chosen). We aren’t told anything else that bears on his particular witness to the Gospel. Maybe it just isn’t known, but certainly it’s not known here. This, of course, severely restricts the possibilities for much of a positive outcome regarding the other question asked by the blog’s overarching purpose, “How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?” He can be remembered only for the bare fact of evangelizing Armenia. I don’t see much else; whether that qualifies as “inspiring” depends on more than I bring to it.
    .
    I do hope if pronunciation aids are introduced in future editions this commemoration receives help for words like Chosroes, Tiridates, Valarshapat, Echmiadzin and Aristages.

  10. Nigel Renton says:

    I would prefer a simple subtitle, such as “Missionary in Armenia.” That he was a member of the Episcopate isn’t relevant to his choice for our calendar; it is because Armenia became the first Christian nation-state.

    So much of the information we have is legend that i question the appropriateness of this name to be in our Calendar.

    It is not clear why 3/23 was chosen to honor him. He could be joined with Columba on June 9 (the date he is honored by the Armenian Christian Church), or with Jerome on September 30 ( the date chosen by the Eastern Orthodox and RC churches).

    His sobriquet is not explained. An alternative is “The Enlightener”: parenthetical use of this might clarify that he is not honored as an iconographer…

    Line 3, third paragraph: other sources spell the name as “Aristakes”. (The “k” may be from the Greek “ch”,}

    • John LaVoe says:

      Nigel’s comment, “So much of the information we have is legend that i question the appropriateness of this name to be in our Calendar” nudges me to realize that my repeated return to the fact that all we can say is “the bare fact of evangelizing Armenia” is, at bottom, a protest against having someone on ourr calendar about whom we know next to nothing. This is so DESPITE my opening statement that he “has long been part of our official calendar so there seems to be no question there.” I do question it.

  11. Pingback: March 23 – St. Gregory the Illuminator : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

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