GREGORY THE ILLUMINATOR
Tomorrow marks the centennial commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. It has now been 100 years since our Armenian brothers and sisters experienced the horrific fate of forced death marches and brutal executions at the hands of Ottoman Turks. Like a lens, scratched at its center, this atrocity has marred our vision as a people; we have seen the world blurred and distorted ever since.
So, today as a form of resistance – challenging the attempted eradication of our people and our culture – I dedicate our Theologian Thursday to the unchallenged doctor of the Armenian church; the theologian of Armenia – the man himself, the legend, the illuminator. Yes indeed, St. Gregory.
If you’re not Armenian, you probably haven’t heard of this Gregory. Sure, maybe you’ve heard of Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Great or perhaps Gregory of Nazianzus (apparently, Gregory was a hot-ticket name in the fourth century) but Gregory the Illuminator is probably not high on the list.
Gregory was a theologian of the late 3rd/early 4th century. Some theologians express their theology in carefully crafted sentences and profound statements of truth. They write massive theological tomes dedicated to the life and thought of the church. But not Gregory the Illuminator. That’s not his style. We have no record of Gregory’s systematic thought – no heavy theological theories. No, instead Gregory teaches the church God’s truth through the servant witness he lived in communion with the resurrected Christ. He wrote no books that we know of – only sermons that he delivered coupled with biographical accounts; his life was the book a whole nation read. We might say, his life was a theology of practical witness. What can we do, but tell his story and let it speak fresh.
The record of Gregory’s life is presented in the work of a writer named Agathangelos (Gr. Messenger of Good News) titled The History of St. Gregory and the Conversion of Armenia. The story goes a little something like this …
Gregory was the son of an assassin named Anak. Anak was sent by the Persian Empire to kill the then king of Armenia – Khosrov. After years of planning, Anak and his brothers finally made the move and murdered King Khosrov. His family attempted to flee Armenia after the assassination, but Armenian princes caught Anak and his family and had them brutally executed.
A young Gregory, however, lucked out! He was saved by his childhood nurse and wisped away to Caesarea, the Capital of Cappadocia. Since Caesarea was a major center for Christian thought, Gregory was nourished there in the Christian faith and brought up in the life of the church.
Back in Armenia, however, Khosrov’s son Drtad became the new king. He was powerful, ruthless and kind of a jerk. He also took a special liking to pagan worship and dark pagan practices.
After his education, Gregory decided to return to Armenia. He knew what his father (Anak) had done to Drtad’s father (Khosrov) and so he passionately sought reconciliation. He worked as Drtad’s servant undercover for years; not revealing his damning lineage.
Apparently, one day Drtad tried to force Gregory to worship the pagan goddess Anahit. Gregory however, refused to do so and used the opportunity to bear witness to God’s life-giving grace in Jesus Christ. Drtad didn’t take too well to this and tortured Gregory for his disrespect until finally, the ‘jig’ was up; Drtad found out that Gregory was the son of Anak, his father’s assassin. So, Drtad had him thrown into a deep, dark pit where he hoped Gregory would die a terrible death.
Gregory did not die as anticipated. No, instead he lived on by the brave hospitality of a widow who fed him daily – throwing bread down to the bottom of the pit, as legend has it. Gregory remained alive and well (well, as well as a man in a deep dark pit can be … you know … ).
According to Agathangelos, years later Drtad and his princes became very ill. Their sickness was a result of their slavery to the dark practices of pagan ritual. No one could heal them, until the king’s sister pleaded with him to remember Gregory. Drtad had Gregory called up out of the ‘grave’ so to speak. Now, you would expect Gregory to laugh off the king’s request and leave them all to die in their illness. Remember, for years and years Drtad had left Gregory to die in a dank, dark pit! But, Gregory displayed the most divine of attributes – forgiveness. He not only healed the people – he healed them in the name of Christ. He had the king and all his princes gather together to hear the grand story of God’s grace in Jesus. Like a good old revival tent meeting, Gregory preached the Good News of Jesus Christ on and on. Drtad and his companions couldn’t get enough of it! Finally, he resolved to forsake the pagan worship of his family-line. He transformed Armenia into the first Christian nation – years before Constantine.
So, Gregory became the first theologian and pastor of the Armenian people. Not only did he lead them, he also trained up other leaders to take on pastoral roles in the Armenian churches. He transformed the old pagan temples into Christian worship spaces and turned Armenia into a bright beacon of light. Hence the title, The Illuminator.
Gregory’s story is a powerful narrative of struggle, redemption and reconciliation. It is the gospel of Christ in practice – at work in the darkness of the world. It evokes the memory of Joseph and Job; we think of Daniel and his interactions with Nebuchadnezzar. His life points us to the One who suffered in our place – Christ our eternal King. Yes, Gregory’s story is a moving theology of practical witness. His life beckons us to follow the example of Christ our Lord, who made Himself nothing and became obedient even unto death.
Gregory was a worthy steward of God’s servant light – illuminating a dark, desperate world.
Gregory, meet the world!
World, meet Gregory!
Gregory replied: “My service to you is not worthless; God values it as He promised always to value our efforts for Him. It is He I seek to please. And if you punish me, I rejoice, for my Lord Christ suffered affliction and death, and I will gladly follow Him into death so that I can be with Him in everlasting life. You speak of Anahit, and perhaps demons did once bedazzle men into building temples for them and worshiping them. But I will not worship lifeless objects of stone. We must worship the One who lives and gives life.”
History of St. Gregory and the Conversion of Armenia, Agathangelos