Book Review by Dr. Albert Keshgegian
Echoes of Faith
Armenian Church Homilies and Selected Readings for the Liturgical Year
Translated and Edited by Rev. Fr. Arshen Aivazian
St. Nersess Seminary Press
New Rochelle, N.Y.
So often in the Armenian Church we emphasize the writings and achievements of our early church forefathers. These individuals, although crucial to the development of Armenian Christianity, lived hundreds of years ago, in very different circumstances from what our society is today. Even among the saints—church members whom we honor as exemplary followers of Christ—the official roster ends with St. Gregory of Datev, who lived in the 14th century. Sometimes it can seem that the church stopped being a living institution back then and that our function now is to venerate the ancient past.
Of course, the Armenian Church continues to be vibrant, and Fr. Arshen Aivazian’s remarkable achievement is to bring witness to that point. In Echoes of Faith, he presents a collection and translation of writings not from antiquity, but from Church leaders in the first half of the 20th century. This was a time of great stresses in the Armenian nation and in the church—early massacres, followed by the genocide and the oppression of the church by the Soviet Union, a Communist state. These are events that occurred in the lifetime of some still alive today. The authors include Archbishop Torkom Koushagian, considered the greatest homilist of the time, and Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan, who was instrumental in strengthening the Armenian Church in the United States, and to whom the book is dedicated. Sources include books published by these individuals, as well as periodicals, such as the scholarly publication of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Sion.
Fr. Aivazian presents these homilies, poems, editorials, and meditations on various topics approximately following the church year calendar. The selections start with the New Year, followed by the Nativity, and finish with the Advent, the eve of the Nativity, and an exploration of several Christian virtues. Prior to each selection, Fr. Aivazian provides a brief introduction and explanation of the topic or the event being celebrated; the explanations are themselves a useful summary of many of the beliefs of the Armenian Church. At the end of the book, there is also a helpful short biography of each of the authors.
These writings provide an interesting overview of the thoughts of our church leaders who held fast to and promulgated the basic Christian beliefs and virtues during a time period (which happened to be of great turbulence) that we can relate to. An editorial on the “Spirituality of Lent,” for example, compares fasting as a requirement for the health of our soul and the medical therapies and diets that we willingly accept for the health of our bodies. A homily for the Second Sunday of Advent (“The Suggestion of Events”) explores the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people.
To me, faith is as much a matter of the heart as of the mind. A religious writing should not only educate, but also inspire and emotionally involve the reader. A number of the writings do just that. The one that touched me the most is a poem entitled “I Thirst” by Nersess Vartabed Danielian. It describes this “last word” of Christ not just as physical thirst, but as thirst for “the love of the fallen man / Because it was out of his love for all men / That he drank the bitter cup of the cross.” The biography notes that Hayr Nersess was killed during the genocide; he knelt down and prayed as he was executed under a tree. Could Hayr Nersess be one of the saints of the 20th century, not as yet canonized by the church?
This book will appeal to anyone who wishes to learn more about Christianity and the Armenian Church, especially as seen through the writings of its greatest spiritual thinkers of the early 20th century.