No Greater Love

It was the third day of the Artsakh War, a sunny Tuesday morning about 6:30 AM.

A scream sliced the still, autumn air. A mother’s voice – my neighbor’s voice – protested the world’s indifference to her tragedy. My roommate woke up, but I didn’t. Neither did the world.

A few days later, I watched as cars clogged the pothole-pocked street outside my bedroom window. People clustered in somber groups like an eerie flock of blackbirds.

The funeral of Vardges Minasyan, October 2020, Gyumri (Photo: Sarah Stites)

I didn’t know the family. I wanted to take photos to help people in America understand the gravity of the then week-old war. Attending the funeral seemed inappropriate; not attending seemed callous. Our neighborhood grocer, sensing my discomfort, escorted me through the sea of black-clad bystanders and memorial wreaths. The home we entered was warm with closely packed bodies and oppressive, like incense, with grief.

I was wracked with emotion and guilt. I had celebrated my 26th year of life just a few days before. Vkul’s life had ended at the same age. This hero had lived just across the street from me, but I was only now meeting him, draped in the too-bright tricolor flag. The coffin separated me from his mother. She was silent and hollow-eyed. Next to me, an old woman began to weep horrible racking sobs. I clutched her to my breast instinctively — either to seek relief or to give it.

The priest began to speak, sharing profound words about the nature of sacrifice. I didn’t know it then, but as I would soon find out, Vkul had voluntarily traveled to Jabrayil, one of the most dangerous military fronts. On September 28, when a young soldier forgot his bulletproof vest in the midst of a military maneuver, Vkul acted instinctively; he quickly removed his own and gave it to the young man. Moments later, Vkul was struck.

I could not help but think of the day thousands of years ago, when an innocent man freely gave His life to save the world. A man, who, as He anticipated his gruesome death, declared: “Not my will, but Yours be done.”

Vkul’s mother Varduhi later told me that she and her daughter had spent the evening of September 28 at church, praying for their soldier. But as Varduhi pleaded for her son’s safety over the light of a flickering candle, Vkul’s life had already been snuffed out.

It would be easy for Varduhi to shake her fist at God. Vkul was beloved by the community and by his soldiers. He was full of life. He loved children and was a defender of the needy. In the midst of her grief, Varduhi sought God to protect this uniquely kind and gifted man, a man who, living to a ripe old age, would have brought so much good to the world. Instead, God took Vkul. As I watched Varduhi bow in grief, surrounded by friends and relatives, I thought of Mary. On Good Friday, she very likely thought: Why did God entrust His Son to my care, only to allow this crucifixion, this injustice, this travesty?

And yet, as I sat in that miasma of despair, I realized that more than anyone in the world, God knew the pain of Mary and Varduhi. His Son was perfect, a man without blemish or defect. He knows the pain of every mother that has sent her son to war. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

In other words, God gave His Son up to a miserable death so that we ourselves would not have to die.

Back in September, we declared #ՀաղթելուԵնք with fervor. I saw it in stores, on shirts, in social media posts, on signs… and it gave me strength.

But we didn’t win.

On this Easter weekend, let me encourage you to remember with me that the tense is not future. It is past. We have already won thanks to the death of Christ on the cross.

It is true: much of our land has been given away. Vkul’s smile will never grace our neighborhood again. Thousands of our young men are gone. It’s incomprehensible, horrible, unnerving. But, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied… The last enemy to be destroyed is death… Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The #ՀաղթելուԵնք signs here in Gyumri have been removed, but there is one that remains on Garegin Nzhdeh Street, one that will never grow old. It reads: «Ոչ ոք ավելի մեծ սեր չունի, քան եթե մեկն իր կյանքը դնում է իր բարեկամների համար»:

Through love, #ՀաղթելԵնք.

May you be filled with eternal hope this Easter.

Sarah Stites

Sarah Stites

Currently based in Gyumri, Sarah Stites is a wordsmith and traveler exploring her Armenian roots. With a background in marketing and journalism, she especially enjoys promoting and writing about the work of organizations connected to faith and human rights. She is passionate about literature, puns and couchsurfing, and immensely appreciates Armenian fruit and nature.
Sarah Stites

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