Nersess Shnorhali’s “Jesus, Son” – gifted to the Western Diocese
Presentation at Reclaim 2023 by Fr. Vazken Movsesian
We often speak about the Armenian Genocide and it’s lasting impact on the Armenian soul and psyche. We must never forget what followed, that is, the 70 years of communism that swallowed up Armenia in the Soviet Union. Those were very difficult years for Armenians caught up in the Soviet State as it spewed its narrative of atheism and anti-nationalism.
In 1977 – 1978, I had a unique chance of a lifetime to study in Armenia at the seminary of Holy Etchmiadzin. It was there and then that I met Archbishop Hovnan, who was a seminarian at the monastery. For most people who viewed from the outside, studying at a seminary in a country which professed atheism, sounded like an oxymoron. But that was the magic that we experienced at Holy Etchmiadzin, under the leadership of Catholicos Vazken I. From the Holy shrine of Etchmiadzin, the Light of Christ was shining.
On weekends, as a break from classes, we sometimes ventured off to Yerevan where local bookstore were always a special stop for us. One Saturday, while browsing through books I came across a tattered and old-looking book of prayers. The cover page was torn, but I made out that it was St. Nersess Shnorhali’s “Jesus, Son” (Յիսուս, Որդի). It was at the bottom of a pile of “throw-aways” and after paying only a few kopeks, I took possession.
When I got back to the Seminary, I looked up the book in the seminary’s library. The earliest edition of this book was listed as 1643, with a possibility of a later printing by 1785. I was so excited. I had a treasure. Later on I would realize the treasure was what was written on those page.
I mentioned my acquisition to a few of the seminarians who were quick to notify me that anything that pre-dated the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) was to remain in the country. It was interest that everyone knew this bit of the law. Nothing with a day before 1917 could be taken out of the USSR. Of course, I now had a challenge before me, a challenge which was accented by the fact that books of this genre in the Soviet Union could have the fate of “Fahrenheit 451” in Bradbury’s America.
In that same bookstore, I found a book written in Armenian, “Marx, Engels and Lenin on Religion” (Մարքս, Էնգելս, Լենին Կրոնի Մասին) which sold for a few kopeks as well. There were stacks of these books, priced to sell and move into the hands of the public! I purchased one, and I also purchased a flag, the one which flew over Armenia during that period. It was red with a blue stripe, and in the corner the hammer & sickle were prominently situated. I took these books from the opposing camps – Shnorhali’s “Jesus, Son” and the Marx, Engels and Lenin’s “Religion” – and wrapped them up in the communist flag and mailed them to myself, hoping that the postal or custom inspector would view this packet as communist propaganda and allow it through the system. And, I guess it worked. When I returned back to the States the box was waiting for me. It had been opened, but all of the content was there.
It was only later that I understood the magnitude of the blessing that Shnorhali’s “Jesus, Son” was bringing. I painfully read through the classical Armenian and later discovered translations. It has been a cornerstone of my Bible Study classes and only a few years ago I did an entire season of Bible Studies on this Holy Text.
Today, as we offer “Reclaim a Voice” I’d like to present this book to His Eminence Archbishop Hovan, as a custodian of sacred texts. This book is a voice that the Soviets tried to suppress. It is no different than the countless Christian voices that have been attacked through the centuries and the voices that are held back today. This book belongs within the safety of our Diocesan Library, as an inspiration to others. I thank Archbishop Hovnan for placing such a high value on the written word creating a safe sanctuary for these classics and a place where we know that generations to come will be blessed with the sacred words of Shnorhali and “Jesus, Son.”