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Commemoration of St Gregory the Illuminator’s Sons and Grandsons

July 20

The Armenian Church commemorates St Aristages (Aristakes), Vrtanes, Krikoris (Grigoris) and Housik (Husig); St Gregory’s sons and grandsons and Daniel the Syrian.

The day of commemoration (according to the present calendar in force since 1774-75) falls on the Saturday before the Third Sunday of Transfiguration.

The rest of the members of the Gregorid family, namely Sts. Nersés the Great, Sahag the Parthian, Vartan and his daughter Shushanig are commemorated on different days during the year.

St Arisdages (Aristakes)

While still a layman in Caesarea (Kayseri), St Gregory and his wife Mariam were blessed with two sons, Vrtanés and Arisdagés.  When Gregory and Mariam parted to devote their life to God, Arisdagés was still very young and in need of motherly care.  Mariam took him with her to the convent she joined.  Influenced by his early upbringing in the convent, Arisdagés entered the service of God at an early age and became a hermit in the mountains. He became renowned for his austere way of life, attracting young disciples who sought his company for pious instruction. He was particularly versed in Greek letters and philosophy.

Years passed, and when King Tiridates (Drtad), who was by now a Christian convert, learned that St Gregory had sired two sons in his younger days, he sent certain nobles to Caesarea to bring the sons to Armenia. St Gregory himself had withdrawn to the wilderness to lead a solitary life. At the time, Aris­dagés was living in a hermitage; he initially refused to leave his austere way of life to go to the court of the king. Ultimately, he yielded to the plea of Christians not to refuse the pastoral work that lay before him.

Upon the arrival of Arisdagés and Vrtanés, King Tiridates III took them with him to look for St Gregory. Finding the saint in the wilderness, he begged Gregory to ordain his son Arisdagés a bishop and take him as his assistant. After his ordination, Arisdagés diligently pursued his pastoral work, preaching and wiping out the vestiges of pagan customs and traditions.

Arisdagés represented the Armenian Church at the Holy Council of Nicaea, which met in 325 A.D, at the order of the Roman Emperor Constantine.  His name appears on the list alongside those of the 318 bishops who participated in that council. He returned to Armenia, bringing with him the canons of the renowned council. These canons are still venerated in the Armenian Church and form the foundation of discipline and order in our tradition.

After St Gregory’s complete withdrawal from pastoral life and then his demise, St Arisdagés succeeded him as the chief bishop of Greater Armenia. As a pastor he is said to have surpassed the accomplishments of his father.

Arisdagés died as a martyr, and that is one of the reasons why he is considered a saint of the Armenian Church. The circumstances of his assassination are not very clear. All we know is that, at some point in his career as chief bishop of Armenia, he had reprimanded a high dignitary named Archilaeus, who had been appointed governor of the province of Dzopk in western Armenia. We are not told what Archilaeus had done to deserve Arisdagés’ reprimand. When the bishop was on a pastoral visit to the province, Archilaeus met him on the road and slew him. In order to avoid arrest and prosecution for his crime, he fled to the Taurus Mountains in Cilicia. Arisdagés’ disciples took his body to the village of Til near Erzindjan and buried him there. His grave was later shown within the confines of the Chukhdag Hayrabedats Vank (“The Monastery of the Twin Patriarchs”), which was still extant until 1915.

St Arisdagés is said to have presided as the chief bishop of Armenia for seven years. The date of his martyrdom is calculated to have taken place at about 328 AD.

St. Vrtanés

The elder son of St Gregory the Illuminator chose to lead a secular life and got married while still in Caesarea.  At a later time he was ordained a priest, either in Caesarea or Armenia. He and his wife’s desire to have children, and their prayers to God towards this end, were answered only in an advanced age. They were blessed with twins, Krikoris and Husig, who were reared in the Armenian court and given a solid education. He presumably lost his wife during the pontificate of his brother Arisdagés, and after the latter’s death Vrtanés himself was raised to the episcopal throne of Greater Armenia. Vrtanés probably received episcopal ordination from his brother’s hand, since there is no historical reference to any ceremony of ordination, either in Caesarea or elsewhere.

St Vrtanés’ activities as chief bishop of Greater Armenia were closely linked with those of the Christian kings of Armenia: first Tiridates (Drtad), and later his son Khosrov Godag (330-337) and grandson Diran (337-344). Vrtanés stood by the side of the kings during various Persian invasions into Armenia as well as during internal rebellions. As an active pastor he continued the work of his father and brother.

Despite the declaration of Christianity as the national religion of Armenia and the royal support that the church thereby received, certain people of high position were not pleased with the new religion. Their displeasure led to serious repercussions. King Tiridates, who had been responsible for the kingdom’s conversion, was given a poisoned cup to drink to hasten his demise. Another version of the story about King Tiridates’ death says that anti Christian princes collaborated with the King of Kings of Iran, and were instigated by the latter to put him to death.While on a hunt, they shot Tiridates with an arrow, and as the wounded king was recuperating from his wound, they gave him a poisoned cup to drink.

Vrtanés himself almost fell victim to a scheme of a different nature. At the annual commemoration in Ashdishad of St John the Baptist and Bishop Athenogenes, as instituted by St Gregory, the chief bishop was celebrating the Divine Liturgy, when two thousand mountaineers from Sasun converged on the place, with the intent of assassinating Vrtanés. The assassins were unconverted idol worshippers, instigated by certain magnates and particularly by the queen of Armenia, whom Vrtanés had formerly rebuked for committing adultery. We are told that the hand of God made the conspirators motionless until Vrtanés released them.  Overwhelmed by what had happened, the mountaineers heeded the admonitions of the bishop, and after completing the period of penance set by him they were baptised. Subsequently the bishop withdrew to his paternal estate in Til, near Erzindjan.

St. Vrtanés is said to have ordained a special day of commemoration for the Armenian forces under General Vaché Mamigonian, who perished in a battle against the Persians in 338AD. He consoled the king, his magnates and soldiers for the devastating effect of the war. According to this ordinance, the commemoration was to be repeated annually. He also instituted a special canon for all those who would die for Christian Armenia, that they be commemorated “before God’s holy altar at that point in the liturgy when the names of the saints are enumerated, and after them.”  This commemoration was later replaced with that of St Vartan Mamigonian and his 1,036 companions, which has been celebrated every year up to the present day.

St. Vrtanés’ name is closely connected with a contemporary non Armenian churchman of renown, namely St Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem (313-334). Macarius was one of the fathers of the Council of Nicaea (325AD), responsible (with a few others) for drafting the Nicene Creed, which we recite in church during the Divine Liturgy. It was during his tenure of office that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built in Jerusalem. St Vrtanés had the distinction of receiving a letter from Macarius. The letter, originally written in Greek, is preserved only in Armenian and bears the title: “To the Christ loving and pious Chief Bishop Vrtanés and all the bishops and priests of Armenia.” According to this docu­ment, Vrtanés had sent certain priests to Jerusalem with specific ques­tions about church traditions. In his answer, Macarius dwells on various traditions and practices that must be observed in the rite of baptism.

St. Vrtanés died in the third year of King Diran in 340 AD. He was buried near his father in Tortan and his grave was shown inside the village church.

St Krikoris (Grigoris)

The missionary work initiated by St Gregory in the regions of northern Armenia, Georgia and Caucasian Albania was not neglected by his successors. To this end, St Vrtanés’ son Krikoris was raised to the episcopal rank and appointed bishop of Georgia and Albania at a relatively young age. The young bishop extended his missionary activities over a vast expanse of territory reaching the shores of the Caspian Sea. He established churches and evangelised among the peoples and tribes under his care. Among the different northern semi-barbaric nomadic tribes to whom he preached the gospel were the Mazkuts, who were ruled by a line of Arshaguni kings related to the royal dynasty of Armenia. At first, the Mazkuts accepted Krikoris’ instructions favourably and were inclined to convert to Christianity.

However, when they learned that Christian teachings forbade some practices of their nomadic way of life e.g looting, pillaging, killing and coveting others possession, they became disgusted and greatly angered. They saw in Krikoris’ teachings a plot on the part of the Armenian king to stop their plundering raids into Armenia. Krikoris was tied to the tail of a wild horse and driven over a plain. The bishop died as a result. His body was claimed by his followers and taken to Amaras, which is located in present day Artsakh. He was buried in the church built by St Gregory. At the end of the fifth century, a crypt was built to house his grave. That structure is now located under the main altar of the church of the Monastery of Amaras and is a place of pilgrimage.

The martyrdom of Krikoris took place shortly before the Mazkut invasion of Armenia and the seizure of its capital city, Vagharshabad. That event took place in 335 AD. Krikoris’ relics were discovered in the latter part of the fifth century and were buried in a newly built crypt, which is still extant, as stated above.

St Husig (Housik)

St Husig, the second son of St Vrtanés, followed his father’s example by embracing secular life. As he was supported by King Diran, he was forced into marrying the king’s daughter, much against his will. He and his wife had twin sons, Bab and Athenogenes. His inclination towards a celibate life, however, alienated his wife created hostility from the royal court. After his wife’s death, Husig devoted himself to raising his children which appeased the royal court. In a dream, the Lord appeared to Husig and told him that from his children there “will be born other children, and they will be illuminators of knowledge and fonts of spiritual wisdom for the realm of Armenia.”

After his father’s demise, Husig was in line for the succession of the episcopal throne of Greater Armenia.  King Diran immediately dispatched a delegation of thirteen high ranking princes and dignitaries to accompany Husig to Caesarea. There, Husig was elevated to the episcopal rank. On his return to Armenia he was met by the king and taken to the city of Ardashad, where he was officially enthroned. Like his father and grandfather, he became a wonderful pastor of his flock.

Husig’s woes began when he, as the upholder of the moral precepts of the church, began to castigate the king and his magnates for their unchristian behaviour: they had engaged in immoral acts and had shed innocent blood for political ends. Husig excommunicated them, forbidding their entry into the church. Predictably, this created animosity form the royal court. On one occasion a day of annual celebration when Husig, on a pastoral visit to the western province of Great Dzopk, was present at the palatine church in the royal fortress of Pnapegh, King Diran arrived with his retinue and tried to enter the church. Learning about their arrival, Husig stepped out and cried aloud: “You are unworthy! Why have you come?  Do not go inside!” Angered by this, the king’s attendants dragged him inside the sanctuary and beat him with rods, shattering his bones. The servants of the church of Pnapegh carried the battered bishop, who was still alive, to his ancestral estate in Tortan. Unable to recover from his injuries, Husig died there and was buried near the graves of his father and grandfather. His tomb was shown inside the church of Tortan. The martyrdom of St Husig is dated to 344 AD.

St Daniel the Syrian

The Feast of the Sons and Grandsons of St Gregory the Illuminator includes the name of St Daniel the Syrian, though he is not an actual member of the Gregorid house.

Daniel had been one of St Gregory’s pupils and associates. St Gregory himself had put him in charge of the province of Daron (the modern Mush area), where he held the office of “supreme justice” and looked after the church in Ashdishad, where the relics of St John the Baptist and Bishop Athenogenes rested. His titles, “overseer, law-giver, supervisor and guardian of all the churches of Greater Armenia” and his ecclesiastical rank as chorepiscopus (a bishop tending to the flock in the countryside, as opposed to a bishop of a city or a district), indicate that he was a missionary who travelled from place to place. He is said to have preached in Persia and other foreign parts and to have converted many people to the Christian faith. He was also in charge of the graves and the possessions of the Gregorid family, and was attentive to keeping the memories of the saints of that family as well as that of King Tiridates III alive among the faithful.

Since St Husig’s two sons led secular lives and had no inclination to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, King Diran sent his magnates to summon Bishop Daniel, now an elderly ascetic tending to church affairs in the village of Til, to assume the spiritual leadership of the Armenian people. He met the king in southwestern Armenia and rebuked him and his magnates for their crimes. Enraged at Daniel’s outspokenness, the king ordered his servants to strangle him, against the advice of his nobles. His body was taken to the valley of Hatsyats Trakhd and buried in the cell where he had lived in solitary. St Daniel was martyred in 344 AD. The Monastery of Gopa Sourp Taniel stood at that site until 1915.

These five saints have been venerated as a group since the end of the twelfth century. It was at that time that Archbishop Nersess of Lampron wrote a hymn dedicated to them (“The Canon of the Sons and Grandsons of St Gregory the Illuminator”). In the hymn he mentions the saints by name and devotes five stanzas to briefly describing the merits of each one. This hymn is still chanted on the day of commemoration of these saints.

By the Very Rev. Fr. Krikor Maksoudian, adapted from his volume, “The Holy Feasts of St. Gregory the Illuminator” (St. Vartan Press, 2002).


July 20
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