Tovmassian (1912-1986) was born in Aleppo, Syria. This
sermon on "The Blessed Nation" was delivered by
Rev. Tovmassian, then
Associate Pastor of the United Armenian
Congregational Church of Hollywood, California, on Sunday, October 26,
1975 on the occasion of the Armenian Cultural Emphasis Sunday. On
request of many listeners it was printed with the wish and prayer that
all those who read, young or old, Armenian or non-Armenian may be aware
of the tremendous witness of our ancestors to the vitality of the
Christian faith in the life of a nation.
The Blessed Nation
"Blessed is the nation whose God is Jehovah..." (Psalm 33:12)
Rev. Edward S. Tovmassian
I do not think that there has been any nation in the world whose life, history and destiny has been more deeply affected by the Christian faith, than the Armenian nation.
I am not saying this because I am an Armenian. In fact I am less Armenian than most of you. My father was not an Armenian. He was an Assyrian who married my mother who was an Armenian and became an “adopted” Armenian. I am saying this because I am a student of Armenian History. All my life I have been enchanted in studying the checkered history of this small but great, often defeated and downtrodden and yet unbeaten nation. Armenian History reminds me of the burning bush that Moses saw on the mountain side, burning but not consuming.
The impact and influence of Christianity on this nation has been nearly total and decisive. Christianity changed the entire course of Armenian history and gave the Armenian nation a totally new and different life-style.
Perhaps some of us do not know that before our ancestors became Christians, they were a deeply religious people and had quite an elaborate system of religious worship. At times they worshipped nature and its many powerful manifestations, such as sun, moon the stars and the planets, fruit-bearing trees and moving inanimate objects. They worshipped their heroic ancestors. They also worshipped five male and three female gods and goddesses most of whom they share with Greek, Roman and Persian mythologies. They built beautiful temples for their goes and goddesses and they visited and worshipped them several times during the year—especially on Navassart, the Armenian New Year which came in August and lasted eight days. On such festivals, Armenians in large numbers came to the temples and laid wreathes on the statues of their goes and sacrificed animals, very similar to our summer state fairs with a lot of gaiety.
Armenians had to give up all these pagan gods, customs and traditions to be able to accept the Christian faith when the light of the Gospel came to Armenia in the first century by Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew. This was not an easy and smooth process. It took about three centuries between the time Christianity was first preached in Armenia and the time it was adopted as the state religion of Armenia in 301 A.D. For three long centuries paganism, the state religion and the Christian Faith struggled for survival. For three centuries the Roman Eagle and the Christian Cross fought each other head on. For three long centuries being a Christian in Armenia was forbidden, illegal and anything Christian was contraband and punishable by imprisonment, exile and death.
Finally, Christ and His teachings prevailed in Armenia. King Tiridates, under the fiery preaching of Gregory the Illuminator and the miraculous healing he received, officially declared Christianity as the official state religion of Armenia. He and his courtiers and military leaders were baptized by Gregory and the Armenian Church was established. This was ten years before Constantine declared Christianity officially legal and on equal footing with Emperor Worship in the Roman Empire. Thus Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity and stayed a Christian nation and people in spite of sword, fire and massive massacres. Neither the outright persecutions by the Mazdeist Persians, the fast moving armies of Islamic hordes, the ravaging attacks of Tartar, Mongol and Seljuk races that ran over Armenia as grasshoppers going over unprotected wheat fields, nor the wholesale massacres of the Ottoman Turks could destroy the will and the determination of this nation to stay a Christian nation and hold on to the Gospel light that came to Armenia through the Apostles.
By becoming a Christian nation we chose the way of the Cross and the Son of God who died on that cross. We relinquished and turned our backs to a pagan religious system which promised us worldly things and material blessings. In turn we accepted a Faith which was symbolized by a Cross demanding sacrifices and hardships only to be compensated by certain spiritual and moral values.
And yet, this new faith and fresh spiritual energy that came upon us gave us such a sense of national ethos and vitality, such a sense of national pride and solidarity that has been a source of inner strength for survival, and during the past seventeen centuries, when powerful kingdoms and cultures have fallen down around us as cardboard boxes, the Armenian nation, the Armenian Church, the Armenian Language and Culture, and Armenia’s will to live has stood like the Rock of Gibraltar.
Besides giving us the light of the Gospel and the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, Christianity as a bonus gave us a splendid and dynamic culture. So, we came to be a people of culture, literature, art and poetry.
Although our religious affiliation and identification with Christianity isolated us culturally from our Eastern neighbors and politically placed us in a vulnerable position, and yet, it oriented us towards the more fast-moving and progressive western and Greco-Roman civilization.
The first thing Christianity did was to unify our people. Until the coming of Christianity Armenia was a loose grouping of separated and divided tribes called “princely houses” scattered away from each other by high mountains and unbridgeable distances. Each princely house was semi-independent and often at war with the rest. It was the Christian Faith and the Christian Church which unified our nation and gave us national dignity and sense of unity.
Secondly, in order to propagate and popularize Christianity all over the country and to educate the common people in the teachings and principles of Christianity the early Armenian Christian leaders devised and discovered the Armenian alphabet—an event which revolutionized the Armenian nation. The chief motive behind the gigantic efforts of St. Sahag and St. Mesrop—the two enlighteners of the Armenian mind, was to translate the Bible into the native Armenian language and then teach it to the new converts. Let us not forget that paganism was still fighting out and there were many who still followed the good old ways. And historically it is a fact that as soon as St. Sahag and St. Mesrop completed the Armenian alphabet in 404 A.D., they and their young scholars and linguists set themselves to the translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts and which they completed in 433 A.D. The translation was done in such exquisite beauty and perfection that it was considered as the “Queen of all translations.”
Mesrop was sent to all the sections of Armenia and opened schools for the young and the old. Churches were established in every town and village. Books of prayer and worship were written. The rituals and the creeds of the church were perfected and finalized. Moreover, the great classics of Greek dramatists, philosophers and poets were translated into the Armenian language. Theologians, historians and poets developed such a great output of literary, philosophical and theological materials that within one half of a century, the second half of the fifth, Armenian Culture reached its highest peak known as Golden Age of the Armenian literature. This was about the time the Roman Empire was disintegrating and darkness known in history as Dark Ages was settling on Europe. Light and learning were shinning in Armenia when the rest of the world was engulfed in darkness.
Because of the dynamism and the spiritual and cultural awakening the Armenians became a creative people, and in subsequent centuries, in spite of political disasters and vicissitudes, they built beautiful church buildings and cathedrals, developed beautiful native music and arts, perfected the art of miniature manuscripts and paintings and wrote great poetry and literature. Directly or indirectly, all these were fruits of Christianity. The ideas, truths and teachings Christianity gave us, such as—the dignity of man, the sacredness of life, the values of love and service, devotion to the ideals of marriage and Christian family, patriotism and heroism were of such value that they wanted to immortalize them by some form of sacred art. Behind every church they build, every painting they placed on canvas, any sharagans and chants they sang—there was the ultimate Will of God and love of Jesus Christ.
Christianity gave us a Christian Culture, something we loved and tried to protect when hordes of infidels, one after the other invaded our country and nearly destroyed everything we built. It took centuries to build but a few months to level everything down. And yet, be built again. We never stopped praying, and singing, and laughing and creating.
To the Persians, to the Mohammedans, to the Turks and Tartars, to the Seljuks and Memelukes we defiantly said, “You can kill us with your weapons, you can uproot us, you can destroy our countryside and loot our property, you can defeat us on the battlegrounds, you can even bury millions of us and think that you have done away with the Armenians. But you will never be able to destroy our spirit. You will never be able to separate us from the love of Christ. Someday we will surprise you and beat you and bring about your destruction—not by military strength or political power—but, by ideas, by pen, by books and by doing and creating works of beauty and splendor. You may not like us to stay in your country. You may deport us. We will go anywhere in Almighty God’s wide country. We will go to the desert, we will go to the Middle east, to South America and North America, to Australia and Canada, wherever they accept us, and when we go the first thing we will do is to build a small Armenian Church, and by its side a small Armenian school, we will congregate together and will speak our beautiful Armenian language and will sing our age-old chants and sharagans, such as we sang this morning “Der Getzo tou Ezhays” “Lord Make Armenians Live.” and “Sourp, Sourp” Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” and when you stink in blood and rot in dirt and enjoy your periodic blood baths, and cringe around your oil wells and destroy the world with your bombs and missiles, we will come back to you, with the Bible in our hands and the scars of Christ’s wounds in our hands and will show you a better way—the Way of Life in Christ.”
Friends and fellow Armenian Christians. I have a little theory of my own. I believe that God is still in History and he is ever present and active not only in the lives of individuals but nations. I believe that someday God will bring order into what we have turned into a chaos. One day, He will vindicate His cause, and in spite of our foolishness, obstinacy and insanity, he will redeem the world.
God chose the Hebrew people to be the means and the leaven of his redeeming plan for the world. He prepared them and covenanted with them so that they become the light to the gentiles. But, they ran and shied away from Him time and again. They did not listen to the prophets God sent. Finally, at a cost of great personal risk God sent Jesus Christ, His Only Begotten Son. But, they refused God’s Messiah. “He came unto His own but His own accepted Him not.” They mocked him, they abused him and finally put him to death on the Cross. They lost their great opportunity of becoming God’s instrument for salvation and peace.
Then God looked around for a replacement. And, of all the people in the world he found Armenians most fit for this role. The Armenians accepted the challenge. The Christian Armenia located on the outskirts of the Eastern hemisphere became the light of the world for several centuries through martyrdom and faithful witness. Our geographical position on one of the crossroads of civilization, right in the junction of three continents gave us the facility of contact. If only we had known and stood by our calling and became a missionary church.
It is very hard for me to believe that today God has discarded us as His people as he did the Jews. Having shared incalculable and immeasurable sufferings and having had our own Calvary and crucifixion in this century, having lost a great party of our country to savage tribes who have destroyed our land, desecrated our holy shrines and trampled over our cultural achievements, we still have survived the ravages of history, whereas many other military empires have toppled down and become museum attractions and ancient history chapters.
Why? Could it not be that God Almighty has still a purpose and calling for this nation? Could it not be that that purpose is that we live and witness and serve as a people of God? Could it not be that the best and the most beautiful and identifiable thing that people may say about us will be, not “Armenians are a smart people, they are intelligent, they are strong and wealthy,” but be - “They are a God-fearing people, they are Christ reflecting, they are spiritually virile and they reflect the great spiritual heritage of their ancestors.”
Could it not be that this great and long-standing Armenian Christian Heritage of the past lays a responsibility upon us, living in the 20th century, thousands of miles away from our historic fatherland?
And, finally, could it not be that we as an ethnic Armenian Congregational Church stationed in Hollywood, the great entertainment mecca of the world can do something to remind men and women of Armenian race or all the races that “blessed is the nation whose God is Jehovah.” And God forbid that the A in our name UACC (United Armenian Congregational Church) be just an empty symbol, instead of becoming a challenge to us to become better Christians. Amen.