Above: Flag of the Armenian Apostolic Church
Image in the Public Domain
SAINT GREGORY THE ILLUMINATOR (CIRCA 257-CIRCA 332)
His feast day (The Episcopal Church) = March 23
His other feast day = September 30
and his descendant
SAINT ISAAC THE GREAT (CIRCA 345-SEPTEMBER 439)
Also known as Saint Sahak the Great
His feast transferred from February 10 and September 9
Patriarchs of Armenia
Although St. Bartholomew (a.k.a. St. Nathanael) introduced Christianity to Armenia, sources list both St. Gregory the Illuminator and St. Isaac the Great as founders of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Traditional accounts of the life of St. Gregory the Illuminator blend the objective reality of his life with legends. We can, however, be reasonably sure of certain details. He, a native of Armenia, grew up and studied in Cappadocia, in Asia Minor, in the Eastern Roman Empire. There he converted to Christianity. Eventually St. Gregory returned to Armenia. He became the “Apostle of Armenia,” converting even King Tiridates III “the Great” (reigned 287-330), once a persecutor of Christianity, circa 301. The following year the monarch, who made Christianity the official religion of the realm, appointed St. Gregory the Patriarch of Armenia and Catholicos of the See of St. Echmiadzin and All Armenians. St. Gregory retired to a monastery in 325. There he died seven years later. His successor as Patriarch and Catholicos was a son, St. Aristakes I (in office 325-333), who attended the Council of Nicaea (325).
Many of the earliest Patriarchs of Armenia and Catholicoses of the See of St. Echmiadzin and All Armenians belonged to a hereditary lineage, that of the Arsacid Dynasty. After St. Aristakes I came St. Vrtanes I (in office 333-314), succeeded by his son, St. Husik I (in office 341-347). His grandson was St. Nerses I “the Great” (in office 353-373). St. Nerses I was a martyr, for a monarch he had rebuked poisoned him. St. Nerses I’s son and eventual successor was St. Isaac (a.k.a. Sahak) the Great.
Armenia was in a geopolitically difficult position, for it bordered the Eastern Roman Empire on the west and the Sassanian (Persian) Empire on the east. In terms of religion the Eastern Roman Empire had been influential in the kingdom for most of the period following the time of St. Gregory the Illuminator. In 387 the Eastern Roman and Sassanian Empires partitioned Armenia. The Eastern Romans gained Western Armenia. Eastern Armenia became a Sassanian vassal state, which it remained until 428, when it became a province.
St. Isaac, of royal origin and born in 354, wed, but entered a monastery after his wife died. He became the Patriarch of Armenia in 390. As the Patriarch, St. Isaac established the independence of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Also, he stopped the practice of married bishops, enforced Byzantine canon law, resisted Persian religious influences, built churches and schools, and encouraged monasticism. Furthermore, Patriarch St. Isaac the Great supported the creation of an Armenian alphabet and translated part of the Bible into Armenian in cooperation with St. Mesrop (died 441). St. Isaac also initiated the development of an Armenian liturgy. Sassanian Persians forced St. Isaac to retire as Patriarch in 428, after 38 years in office. Yet he returned to his post two years later, holding it for the last decade of his life.
Sts. Gregory the Illuminator and Isaac the Great did much to glorify God in their times and left enduring legacies for the Armenian people.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
JANUARY 26, 2017 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINTS TIMOTHY, TITUS, AND SILAS, COWORKERS OF SAINT PAUL THE APOSTLE
Heavenly Father, Shepherd of your people, we thank you for your servants
Saint Gregory the Illuminator and Saint Isaac the Great,
who were faithful in the care and nurture of your flock;
and we pray that, following their examples and the teaching of their holy lives,
we may by your grace grow into the stature of the fullness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 5:1-4
–Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 718