The following remarks of Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan (1904-1989) were published in a commemorative booklet published in 1954 on the 25th Anniversary of his priestly Ordination. The booklet was recently donated to the Zohrab Center. It contains other essays and sermons of the Archbishop along with a biography written by his student, “Very Rev. Torkom Manoogian,” the late Primate and Patriarch of Jerusalem. In these excerpts, Tiran Srpazan challenges young Armenian Americans, particularly those in the newly-established ACYOA [Armenian Church Youth Organization] to elevate themselves to the highest ideals of their ancestral church. In so doing he articulates a vision of what it means to be Armenian and American.
It is true that there are great numbers of Americans who profess to be religious. Some of these, however, mistake religion for magic. They think that by going through certain ceremonies and thus doing the customary thing, they have done their duty to God. By merely going to church, or by merely having certain ceremonies performed on them, they think their souls will be saved. Others, going to the other extreme, think that by quoting the Bible and drawing all kinds of strange conclusions from those quotations, they will find the way of salvation.
We must beware of both these pitfalls. Of course, we can be saved from spiritual death only through the holy sacraments and through the Word of God, but we must subject ourselves to the holy sacraments and to the Word of God in deep discernment, in humility, and in an honest efforts to be changed by God’s grace.
It is the gradual change and renewal of our souls that will give us the fuller life, in which we can find happiness, real deep happiness, both in this world and in the life to come.
It is that kind of religious that we need. We must all strive towards that kind of religious life, both as individuals, and as groups or corporate bodies…
We have had great religious leaders and teachers. By following them, by being faithful to our religious and cultural past, and being faithful to our Church and its precepts, we can live in this country the fuller Christian life.
By holding the standard of our faith high and by following dutifully on the path of our forefathers, we can avoid the dangers and the pitfalls to which I made reference a moment ago. Because the Armenian Orthodox way of Christian living will give us a sound, and realistic spirituality, which is neither merely formal nor merely emotional, but which in a healthy way will make us adjust our lives to the circumstances of modern civilization and, at the same time, will lead us to eternal life and to the Kingdom of God.
The following sermon for the springtime Feast of the Apparition of the Holy Cross over Jerusalem was found among the archives of Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan (1904-1989) at the Zohrab Center. Tiran Srpazan was one of the great Armenian Churchmen and teachers of the twentieth century. He was elected Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem and served asPrimate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church. He also founded St. Nersess Armenian Seminary. The sermon is written in Nersoyan’s own neat handwriting on five small leaves of paper. Unfortunately neither date nor the place where the sermon was preached is mentioned.
We are in the period of Eastertide, the fifty days after Easter. Easter was the great event of the Incarnation. It is the great feast of the Church. But it is more than just a feast. It is the great recurring event in the life of the Church. it is the realization of the greatest principle in the life of the Church, of the human soul, of the world.
Resurrection is the triumph of life over death, of spirit over matter, of the higher over the lower, of good over evil, of sanctity over sin, of eternity over time, of infinity over limitation.
Resurrection thus understood is a constant fact, a continuous reality in history, in the life of the universe, in the the life of mankind, in the life especially of the Church, and in the life of the individual soul.
Christ’s resurrection was the realization of the universal fact. It was a demonstration by God of the universal fact of resurrection. God showed us in Christ that man’s destiny was in heaven. That man, God’s creature, was not to perish, but to rise and to inherit eternal life, to triumph over futility, desperation and death.
The actual fact of Christ’s resurrection was a supernatural event. It does not bear biological, physiological or chemical proof. It is above the realm of these sciences as we know them. But resurrection is not less real for that, real in a special sense. When speaking of resurrection, St. Paul says that the risen body is without corruption. It is in glory. It is in power and it is spiritual. These are the qualities of the risen person. These are the prizes of the triumph. Can we conceive such a thing? We do our best, and the rest we are content to leave in mystery.
But triumph supposes a battle, a fight. Victory is the outcome of a successful struggle. And struggle involves suffering, pain, agony, crisis. It means the Cross. Look at the long history of mankind in struggle. Look at the history of the human soul in battle. Look at the constant process of fallings and risings. Look at the ferocity of the war between good and evil, between knowledge and ignorance, between harmony and disorder.
But resurrection transfigures this Cross. Triumph transitions this suffering. The end, the result, glorified the means.
And this brings us to the meaning of today’s commemoration. Today is the Feast of the Apparition of the Cross. On May 7 in the year 351 the population of the city of Jerusalem beheld the sign of the Cross stretching from Golgotha to the Mount of Olives, just outside of Jerusalem, a distance of about two miles, across the sky, gleaming with intense light. The story is told in the letter of St. Cyril the Bishop of Jerusalem, addressed to the Emperor Constantius.
The significance of the apparition is obvious. The Cross that is born for the sake of God’s triumph against the Devil, for the triumph of life against death, is no more a sign of misery and defeat, but an instrument of glory. The Cross rises from earth to heaven. It is, as it were, the resurrection of the Cross, the glorification of suffering endured for God’s sake.
When we decorate ourselves with crosses of gold and precious stones, when we elevate the Cross and carry it in procession or place it on the altar we show the victory of the Cross. We show suffering and triumph, Cross and Resurrection combined. And a Cross shown like that is entirely different from a crucifix.
But then we may ask, What has all this got to do with us now? What has it got to do with the business of making a living, in which we are engaged? It has everything to do with it. Are we not suffering while making a living? Are we not constantly falling and rising? Are we not engaged in a constant fight in this world? Are we not continually troubled in our souls? Don’t we encounter evil at every turn? Don’t we keep on falling day in and day out against all kinds of temptation? What can have more relevance to our daily lives than the same promise of triumph? What can have more to do with us than the assurance of life for us against death? Life of this soul against the death of the body?
But victory, triumph, glory, life can be achieved only through power. No one ever fell and then rose again without having the power for it. No one ever fought and won a victory without having the strength for it. So Christ rose from death through his divine power. And that life and power come from God, from above. From God, who dwells in us, who dwells in his Church; who dwells in heaven, who dwells everywhere.
And the point in being a Christian is nothing, absolutely nothing but to put ourselves in the condition in which we can receive that power, which is called grace. The Church, as Christ’s body, communicates that power to us through God’s Word, pronounced and proclaimed by the Church, and especially through the sacrament of Holy Communion.
The world around us is constantly in danger of falling. But let it rise. We are always in danger of falling, but let us rise. Because Christ is always rising. Christ is always risen. His Cross is always shining in glory. Let us rise with Christ in the Church. Let our prayer constantly be: “Raise us, O Lord with you, from death to eternal life.”
The Armenian community in the United States of America has existed for more than a century. The Torch Was Passed: The Centennial History of the Armenian Church of America, a work edited by Christopher Hagop Zakian in celebration of the centennial history of the Armenian Church of America in 1998, tells the history of the Armenians in the land of freedom and opportunity, from humble and often distressing beginnings in 1898 to a hopeful and bright one hundred years later.
Zakian embarks on a detailed journey that has its roots in the little community of Armenians in Worcester, Massachusetts, who banded together to form the first Armenian Church of America, the Church of Our Savior. From this small and improbable starting point, Mr. Zakian tells of the spread of the faith of the Armenians across the country. For the Armenian community at this time, no one imagined a permanent diocese taking shape in the United States; as far as they were concerned, America was a pit stop for refugees before returning to the motherland again one day.
Trials and Tribulations
The developments of the coming century would change all of that. As Mr. Zakian writes, changing circumstances at home and abroad would forever change the destiny of the Armenians in America and shape their future. With Bishop Hovsep Sarajian chosen by the Armenian flock to serve as the first primate in the United States, the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America was established in 1898. For the next 50 years, the young and fledgling diocese underwent numerous periods of trial, tribulation, and transformation on the path of coming to resemble, more or less, the Diocese that we have today. Notable events included coping with the emotional trauma of the Armenian Genocide, caring for countless refugees from Soviet Armenia, and fracturing from within, culminating in the assassination of Archbishop Ghevont Tourian.
Consolidation and Growth
Following years of relative peace and stability under Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan, the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America began to expand and prosper, forming organizations recognizable today, such as the ACYOA, the St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, and the construction of the St. Vartan Cathedral and diocesan headquarters in New York City. Indeed, with the ardent confidence and support exhibited by the newly-elected pontiff of the Armenian Apostolic Church in His Holiness Vasken I, the Armenian Church in America continued to increase in number of parishes, laypeople, and clergymen. Especially under the long primacy of Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America reached its peak of influence for the Armenian-American community. Mr. Zakian concludes his chronicle with a review of the diocese and its various activities and organizations under the tenure of the current primate, His Eminence Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, and he looks to the future of the Armenian Church in America.
Mr. Zakian’s work contains helpful appendices provided by contributing authors that supplement his narrative of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America. The first two deal with the formation and history of the Western and Canadian Dioceses, respectively. The third appendix discusses the unique schism within the Armenian Church in America and its slow, painful progress towards reconciliation and hoped-for unity. The book is rounded out by a general chronology of the Armenian Church of America and a list of parishes of the Eastern Diocese. While it is clear that Mr. Zakian went to painstaking lengths to obtain and compile informative lists and histories of the various Armenian churches in America, he also narrates the story of the Armenians in the United States compellingly. Surely, this book not only serves as a history of our people, but reminds us of just how strong and tenacious the Armenian community is.
ALEXANDER CALIKYAN is a senior at the Catholic University of America (Washington, DC) majoring in philosophy. He has been an intern at the Zohrab Center last summer and this summer.