Victors, Not Victims: Johnson Presents Case for Armenian Martyrs
By Florence Avakian
“The victims of the Armenian Genocide will become victors in Christ,” said Dr. Maxwell E. Johnson, professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, in a fascinating lecture delivered on Thurs., Oct. 9. The presentation was sponsored by the Zohrab Information Center of the Armenian Diocese (Eastern).
In his introduction, the Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, director of the Zohrab Information Center, called the speaker an “expert in the history and theology of early Christian worship” who has written extensively on the topic of martyrdom. In April 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian Genocide, Findikyan said, the Armenian Church will canonize the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide. “Many died for the Christian faith. This is unique and momentous, since the church has not had canonization for hundreds of years.”
Martyrs will become saints
The canonization will take place under the auspices of the Catholicos of All Armenians His Holiness Karekin II, and His Holiness Catholicos Aram I of the Great House of Cilicia. “They will officially recognize as saints of the church the countless souls who perished during the genocide for the sake of the name of Jesus Christ,” Findikyan said.
Johnson began his thought-provoking discourse entitled, “The Blood of the Martyrs ‘Seed of the Church’ Yesterday and Today,” by noting that throughout the Armenian Badarak, saints appear in several places, especially in the Intercessions where they are emphasized.
“Who is a saint,” he asked. “They are citizens of the kingdom of God, certain faithful members of the church who stand out. Most are unknown, and in certain communities, they are venerated locally. Canonization implies that the saints are included into the canon.”
In the Armenian Church, canonization is not a formal, legal process, but rather recognition by the church of a person’s sanctity, he said. And the qualifications include being a martyr, performing miracles, living a holy life, or being an exemplary icon. The basic examples of saints in the Armenian Church have been martyrs, monks, or bishops, and their deaths, miracles, relics, icons have been commemorated.
Armenian martyrs of past
First and foremost among the martyrs is Jesus Christ, the scholar said; others have included St. Stephen Proto Martyr, the 40 Martyrs of Sepastia (frozen to death), St. Shushanik, St. Hripsime (virgin and martyr), St. Ignatius of Antioch (bishop and martyr), and St. Blaise (bishop and martyr). The anniversaries of their martyrdom became birthday celebrations, he noted, since on that day they entered a new and eternal life with Christ.
“There is a very strong connection between the martyrs and the Eucharist. They are not only commemorated on their anniversaries, but also sought by prayers and devotion,” he stated. “Saints’ days were the heart and form of Christian piety.”
The 20th century has been called the Age of Martyrs, he continued, because “more Christians died for their faith than in previous times, such as during the Roman Empire. Today martyrdom is of an ecumenical nature. Only one who has died of his or her own will is a martyr,” Johnson declared. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was killed in 1980 at the altar, is such an example. “The first thing he saw upon arising in the morning, and the last thing he saw before retiring at night, was a picture at his bedside of Christ’s passion in his last gasp before He died.”
Seed of unity
In May 2014, Pope Francis received Catholicos Karekin II, and said, “In truth, the number of disciples who shed their blood for Christ in the tragic events of the last century is certainly superior to that of the martyrs of the first centuries, and in this martyrology, the children of the Armenian nation have a place of honor.”
The Pope continued, “The mystery of the Cross, so dear to the memory of your people, represented in the splendid stone crosses that adorn every corner of your land, has been lived by countless of your children as a direct participation in the chalice of the Passion of Christ. The recent suffering of Christians is the seed of unity. It is a powerful call to journey along the road of reconciliation among the Churches.”
Sociologist and Deacon Hratch Tchilingirian, in a 1990 article titled “Canonization of the Genocide Victims: Are We Ready?” wrote, “Theologically, once the victims of the genocide are canonized, the Armenian Church will be put under a dogmatic imperative. They are no longer victims, but victors in Christ. Once the victims of the genocide are canonized, we can no longer hold Hokehankists (requiem services) to mourn their death. Instead, we will celebrate the Divine Liturgy invoking their names, asking for their intercession, and we will celebrate their victory over death, in and through Christ.”
Tchilingirian continued, “Once the victims of the genocide are canonized, we can no longer hold candlelight vigils. The mournful, dark atmosphere of commemorations of the genocide will have to be changed into a festive glorious atmosphere. The victims are no longer victims, but saints who live in the glory of God. Hence, the question is whether Armenians are willing to see themselves as witness to the Death and Resurrection of Christ—for whom hundreds of thousands of Armenians gave their lives, rather than perpetually identifying themselves as the victim.”
Tchilingirian concluded that “75 years have passed, and the world seems to ‘ignore’ (as it continues to do so now for 100 years) the victims of the genocide, and thus, in our frustration, the ultimate honor that we can render our victims is to declare them as saints.”