As we prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity and Revelation of Jesus Christ on Jan. 6, I thought you might be interested in an important part of history that involves the Magi who followed the Star to Bethlehem, and then traveled to Armenia.
In Matthew 2:1–12, we read that when Jesus Christ was born during the days of Herod, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem. They told Herod that they had seen the Star, and had followed it with the hope of finding the one who was to be born as the new King. The Jewish scribes confirmed that the Prophet Micah foresaw that the new King would be born in Bethlehem, and so the Magi set out from Jerusalem, following the Star. The Star led them to the place where the newborn Child was, and the Magi entered into the place, and found the Child with His mother, Mary. The Magi bowed down to the earth in adoration, and then, opening their gifts, presented gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And then, having been warned in a dream not to travel back through Jerusalem and encountering Herod there, the Magi returned to their homeland using a different way.
The Gospel account contains many beautiful facts, but alas, does not provide certain crucial information. We do not know how many Magi there were. Supposition indicates that each Magus presented one of the three gifts, and therefore, there may have been three, but we do not know for certain. Nor do we know the exact location of their ancestral homeland “in the East.” Because the word “magus” may be interpreted as “astronomer” or “astrologer” (from the root “M-G” meaning “star”), many suppose that they originated in either Babylon or Persia, which were famous centers of astronomy and astrology. Again, we do not know for certain. Lastly, the Gospel does not supply the names of the Magi. Later traditions assigned to them the names of Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and further traditions claimed that Gaspar was the eldest in age and Balthasar the youngest.
In Western Armenian, the names are pronounced Kaspar, Melkon, and Baghdasar.
In the course of one of my arcane research ventures, I stumbled across a rare book that included a history of the Armenian Monastery of Saint John the Baptist (“Sourp Garabed Vank”), outside the ancient city of Moush. I discovered a fascinating document: It was the text of a “Gontag” (an official encyclical from a church functionary, from the Greek word Kontakion), asking for donations for repairs needed for a dilapidated sanctuary outside one of the villages of Moush.
The Gontag, sadly, does not include a date or the name of the official who issued it. Nevertheless, the text, written in Classical Armenian, provides a piece of information that is both beautiful for Armenians and critical for Christianity.
As Matthew 2:12 confirms, the Magi decided to return to their homeland via a different way. According to the Gontag, the Magi struck northward from Bethlehem and arrived on a plain outside the ancient city of Moush. There they set up camp to rest from their weary travels. In the middle of the night, Gaspar, who was apparently the eldest of the Magi, passed away peacefully. Melchior and Balthasar were naturally grieved by the passing of their older friend, and set upon the solemn task of arranging his proper burial.
Local people were commissioned, and Gaspar was buried at the brow of a hill overlooking the plain where they had encamped. The local people then constructed a sepulcher over the burial place. After a respectful period of mourning, Melchior and Balthasar resumed their journey home.
For 300 years, the local people continued to maintain the sepulcher, and passed on the oral tradition that a wise man had seen a great star, traveled to Bethlehem, witnessed the birth of a great king, and had passed away on his return journey.
The tradition of the Magi in Armenia may also have been known to King Abgar (Apkar) of Edessa (Urfa) who, according to church history, wanted to know more about Christianity, and wrote a letter to Jesus Christ, inviting Him to come to Edessa to heal the king and remain in that city (see Eusebius, History of the Church). After the Resurrection, the Apostle Thaddeus journeyed to Edessa, preached about Christianity, healed Abgar, and baptized him, making Abgar the first known Christian king of Armenia.
Before Gregory the Illuminator returned to Armenia after being consecrated a bishop in Caesarea in Cappadocia, he was entrusted by Bishop Leontius with several venerated relics. As Gregory traveled back to Armenia, he stopped outside of Moush. He ordered that a monastery be constructed there to house the great relic of Saint John the Baptist. Until May, 1915, the famous Sourp Garabed Vank stood as a sentinel of Armenian Christianity.
While Gregory was sojourning in the area, the local people told him about the burial place of the wise man. At that time, the vast majority of people living around Moush were still pagan. They understood that the sepulcher contained the relics of an important person, but they were unaware of the specific connection of Gaspar and the Magi to the theology of Christianity. Gregory immediately journeyed to the place, and recognized the sanctity of the sepulcher. He ordered that a monastery be built around the sepulcher in order to preserve and protect the relics of Gaspar. The monastery was henceforth known as “Sourp Kaspari Vank” or “Kasparavank.”
Every year, on Theophany, when the Christmas Star appeared in the night sky, the priests, monks, and pilgrims would gather at Sourp Kaspari Vank would offer the first Holy Eucharist of the feast-day on the altar-table that was constructed over the sepulcher of Gaspar the Wiseman.
In the West, many believe the relics of the Magi were discovered in the fourth century in Milan, Italy, and were later transferred to Cologne/Koln, Germany. To this day, visitors to Cologne may see the beautiful golden shrine inside the cathedral that, according to Western tradition, preserves the remains of the Magi. For centuries, pilgrims from all over the world have flocked to Cologne at both Christmas and Epiphany to venerate these relics.
But what about Armenia? If the Gontag account is accurate, then it would indicate that the more important relic–the entire body of Gaspar–has been preserved and venerated in Armenia since at least the time of Gregory the Illuminator. How a fragment of this relic arrived in Europe requires serious research, and why Armenia is not accorded a superior place in the Christmas narrative remains inexplicable.
Sourp Kaspari Vank appears to have functioned both as a monastery and a place of pilgrimage for Christians from the 3rd century until the early 19th century. The monastery was still visited up through 1915, although the building was apparently pillaged and ruined in the early 1800’s during a series of raids by Kurdish tribes. Nevertheless, the traditional resting place of Gaspar continued to be venerated by Armenians from all around Moush and the surrounding areas.
As we gather to celebrate Theophany and Armenian Christmas, I hope that you will take a moment to offer a prayer for the Magi. I also hope that you will remember the many pilgrims who traveled to Sourp Kaspari Vank year after year to celebrate Armenian Christmas Eve upon the altar-table that was constructed over the sepulcher of Gaspar. I also hope that when we discuss the issue of genocide, we take into account not only the people who perished, but the precious relics that have been lost or stolen, and the centuries of cherished traditions that have vanished.
To you and for us all come these glad tidings of great joy:
Christ is born and revealed to the Magi!
Blessed is the Revelation of Christ’s Nativity brought to the Armenians by the Magi!