Creating a picnic, diocese and life

by Fr. Vazken Movsesian (presented to the Western Diocese 95th Annual Assembly, 6v22)

Matthew 28…  Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it.  His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men…

Christos haryav ee Merelots

I often think, if we came face-to-face with the Risen Lord would it be enough to say Christ has risen! Wouldn’t we be in shock? In awe? Someone who we watched crucified, beaten, executed, placed in a tomb – and NOW coming back to life? Escaping unspeakable assaults on their body, basically overcoming the odds and surviving crucifixion, Jesus now standing in front of us alive? I’d say we’d be in shock, in fear, and definitely in awe!

Recently Mr. Derick Ghookasian, Diocesan Council Chairman, found a picture taken in 1927. At the bottom of the print, in Armenian handwritten script, the descriptor reads, Դաշտահանդէս Լոս Անճելոսի Հայ Առաքելական Սուրբ Խաչ Եկեղեցւոյ “Picnic of the Los Angeles Armenian Apostolic Holy Cross Church.”  He had the photograph reproduced on canvas, as an art piece and Mr. Ghoogasian presented it to our Primate, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, to be a permanent addition to the historical archives, celebrating the growth of the Western Diocese.

I first encountered this picture in Archbishop Hovnan’s office. The picture is overwhelming in its size and inviting in its historical significance and its silent message. As I looked closely at the faces and stance of the people in the photograph, emotions stirred in me. In the snap of a camera shutter, a message was sent through 95 years of time, to us, the children and the decedents of the founders of the Armenian Church’s Western Diocese. 1927 was the year that our Diocese was established and this small glimpse of the past reveals the faces of the generation that laid the foundation for what we enjoy today, as the largest and most active diocese outside of Yerevan. Of course, it didn’t escape me that the date of the picture is the 4th of July, 1927 and here is where the story of the picnic unfolds.

On that Monday afternoon in 1927, this group of immigrants assembled under the banner of their church, with their parish priest, Fr. Adom Melikian (seated in the center), celebrated Independence Day in their newly adopted country, the United States of America. Fr. Adom was ordained here in Los Angeles in 1917 – 10 years before this picture was taken and before there was a church in the area. He was ordained at a Methodist Episcopal Church by the venerable Bishop Papken Gulleserian, who later became a catholicos of our Church.

I looked at the faces in this picture, one-by-one, wondering if I’d spot an ancestor of someone I knew, but the bigger surprise for me is what I didn’t find.

Hope and resilience are the two messages that come to us through the corridors of time, because where there is hope there is no fear. That is what is missing from this picture. That fear, that helplessness, the tragic feeling of defeat is what is missing from this picture. Here, we find a group of people displaced from their historic homeland, having found refuge on the other side of planet – in the city of the Angels, Los Angeles – exactly 12 time zones from where they began. They had survived the evilest and most heinous crimes in modern history, the Armenian Genocide, which had officially ended in 1923. Not even a half-a-decade later they had gathered at a park with their parish priest, in what William Saroyan would later write, “Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again.”

1927 – this group assembled in a gesture of joy for life. They weren’t supposed to be here. They weren’t supposed to be alive. But there they are, sharing the joy of life.

We have been warned not to judge a book by its cover, but I can’t help doing exactly that.

Outward appearances speak volumes about this generation. Here is a glance through a time-machine of sorts. We’re looking at the generation of the Genocide – the survivors. These are the survivors – they watched their parents tortured, executed, and die, or their parents were sent off, marched through the deserts, and these people considered themselves “lucky” enough to have marched with their parents, through starvation, malaria, dysentery and somehow found a means of escaping unspeakable assaults on their body, basically overcoming the odds and surviving crucifixion.

And now look – look at what you don’t see. You don’t find long faces, nor gloomy expressions of hopelessness. Their wounds were certainly still open, not even scabbed, yet there is not a hint of discomfort in their expressions. Each face in the picture is a portrait of dignity, of strength and of faith! There are no tattered clothes nor any connection to the physical atrocities they endured only a few years back.

The picture begs the question, would these survivors of Genocide recognize, or at the very least understand, their grand children and great-grand children who now assemble on city streets, for their annual April 24th protest, with flags draped around their bodies and cars? Would they understand the elaborate luxury of the second homes, designer jewelry, or foreign cars with home-size mortgages? Would they understand their grandkids and great grandkids caught up in materialist pursuits while proclaiming inequality and injustice? We look at the picture today and recognize our ancestors; the big question is, would they recognize us?

This was the generation that survived the Genocide. This was the generation I refer to as “The God generation.” If we believe that God took nothing and created something, this was the generation that had their homes, families and lives destroyed. They had nothing and they created something, namely, the life that we live as Armenians in America. This was the generation that saw evil face-to-face and didn’t give up. They created where there was nothing, they hoped where there was none and they had faith, even when there was no reason to have faith.

In 1927, it was this generation that laid the cornerstone of the Western Diocese. Armenians were finding refuge in America. They were basking in the comforts and reality that they were, for the first time in nearly a millennium, far and protected from barbarism and massacres.  After all, they understood they had landed in Los Angeles, the city of the Angels, and they were thankful that angels were watching over them. Realizing that everything was gone, they wanted to set up their new home, and they constructed the Armenian Church as the centerpiece of that home. It was in this church that they connected with “khorhourt khorin” – the Mystery that was the great and had guided them to these shores. It was in this church that they began stitching the tattered pieces of their lives back together. They played together, discussed, strategized together, learned English language, cooked their food, worked, sewed, and traded responsibilities of child rearing with one another. The Church was not their second home, it was their primary, and therefore priority home because herein they would not despair. The Church had preached and lived the message of Jesus Christ, and in 1927 the Church was, in fact, the RESURRECTED LORD! These people, with their lives and their children were Christos Haryav ee Merelots! They weren’t supposed to be there, but they were and they were celebrating.

The beautiful quote attributed to William Saroyan, by now, is known not to be a verbatim expression of the author, but the sentiment expressed is never in question: resilience in the mystical faith of the Armenian people that ensures their continuity despite the hardships. I love the flow of those unbridled words coming from Saroyan, they capture the truth of our people. But, with all due respect to the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, I note an omission in his words that is discovered in this picnic photo. Saroyan challenges the world to try to destroy Armenia only to find them redefining themselves as a new Armenia. In his excitement to express this phenomenon, he has omitted the place where Armenians will meet to “laugh, sing and pray again.” After the 1915 Genocide, with the nation in ruins, the church was the only place where we could live the RESURRECTED REALITY, where the Vanetsi could meet up with the Kharbertsi, where the M’shetsi could find the Sassountsi, or the Tomarzatsi could sit with the Palutsi to rediscover and redesign themselves.

America was moving out West, and Armenians aimed at the horizon reached for the sunset. The Californian Diocese was established that year with five active parishes, four in the fertile California Central Valley and one in Southern California. In order of their consecration: Holy Trinity, Fresno (1900), St. Gregory the Illuminator, Fowler (1910), St. Mary, Yettem (1911), Holy Cross, Los Angeles (1923) and Sts. Sahag-Mesrob, Reedley (1924). It was fitting that the Los Angeles parish chose to consecrate their church in the name of Holy Cross – it was the symbol of their suffering and now their victory. It was located in downtown Los Angeles and served the needs of the community for a few decades until the ugly head of politics raised itself, causing two parishes, namely Holy Trinity and Holy Cross, to split from Diocesan, and therefore Holy Etchmiadzin’s, jurisdiction. St. James, Los Angeles became the successor of Holy Cross.

The generation from 1927, this “God generation” – the ones who built up life from nothingness, are calling us to find the place where we all come together. The Armenian Church is old and new, it is tough and resilient, it is strong yet tender to care for its children.

Today, as we assemble, at this beautiful edifice – the St. Leon Ghevontyants Cathedral, and the Diocesan Complex, coming from all the different parishes, representing the thousands that find expression of Christian faith, as we think of all of our accomplishment, let us truly be in shock and in awe – that we were not supposed to be here, but we are! Let us be thankful for the Leadership of the Primate and embrace his invitation to be “rooted in the past, grounded in the present and committed to the future.”

The 4th of July Picnic of 1927 is an invitation for all of us to gaze into those faces that are looking back at us through time. There we will see no blank expressions, rather each and every one of them express hope and faith, while demonstrating dignity, strength, and victory against the odds. In other words, the faces are that of the Church – the one established by Jesus Christ – as the place where the miracle of God is an everyday reality, the only place where the reality of Resurrection can legitimately be proclaimed.

Reflecting on a Life of Humility: The Dekmejians

Reflecting on the Life of Humility: Deacon Hrair & Anoush Dekmejians

by Fr. Vazken Movsesian

Deacon Hrair Dekmejian has given 80+ years of service to the Armenian Church. Along with his wife Anoush (nee Hagopian), they have been an anchor for faith for deacons, priests, bishops and most importantly, for the hundreds of people they have infected with their love for Christ through the Armenian Apostolic Church.

I have had the good fortune of knowing the Dekmejian family for the past 25 years, since assuming the pastorate of the St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church in Pasadena in 1996, where they served at the altar and in the choir. We continued to serve together as we established the St. Peter Armenian Church Youth Ministries Center in Glendale in 2003.

As a professor of Political Science at the University of Southern California, Dr. Dekmejian possessed a keen understanding of geopolitics. He was always called on by the media to give his analysis of world events. But his love for the Church has always been first and foremost on his list of priorities. I will never forget when the second War in Iraq was announced. We were in the Lenten season and holding Lenten evening vigil. When I dismissed the congregation that night, we stepped outside the church building to a flood of lights and cameras! A large CNN truck with antennas hoisted was humming with reporters and technicians scrambling to find Dr. Dekmejian. Like a seasoned pro, Dr. Dekmejian approached the reporters and proceeded to offer his commentary with analysis about the Iraqi war. I turned to his wife Anoush looking for some answers as to why the church grounds had been converted to this ad hoc studio. She said, “When CNN called for an interview, Hrair told them he was going to church that evening. If they wanted an interview it would have to be after services.” And so it was. That evening the world received analysis from this humble deacon on the steps of the St. Peter Armenian Church in Glendale.

During this quarter-of-a-century that I have enjoyed working with Dn. Hrair and Anoush Dekmejian, I have been in the unique position of observing humility in service. Here is a man who deserves the highest accolades and honors in his field, yet his humility is always the hallmark of his service. While at USC, he opened the doors for me to serve as Chaplain for the Armenian Student Association (1997-2010). The chaplaincy program became the grounds on which we established the Youth Ministries Center in Glendale. Together we shared in a very special mission to the Armenian Youth, bringing together thousands of young people and families, in what Dr. Dekmejian himself identified as “ground zero… a place that Armenian organizations have ignored and forgotten, where education, identity and prayer have to come together.” With the blessing of His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan, we were able to articulate and chart a course for youth to become active in issues of social justice and human welfare. It was there, at and through the Youth Ministries Center that the In His Shoes organization was born and became a voice for the suffering.

In the 25 years we have worked together and through the countless opportunities that we have had to contemplate, talk, discuss and act on our actions, Dr. Dekmejian has placed his highest priority on the sense of service, one which he defined through the Armenian Church. His knowledge of the sharagans, sacred hymns and prayers of the Armenian Church are second to none. Only once – that’s right – only once did he miss church services, and that was because he was delayed that Sunday morning after breakfast with the King of Bahrain. He sat with kings, presidents, and ministers, yet for him his greatest service has always been his service through the diaconate of the Armenian Church.

The Armenian Church here in America has a unique life. Established in the late 19th century, the Church has been at the center for community life since the great exile of people following the first massacres in the 1890s and ultimately after the Genocide of 1915. Building the communities and helping to bring normalcy to lives devastated by barbarism and traumatized by the horrendous acts of Genocide became the life-long mission of church members, endowed by wisdom and dedication. While many will recognize the names of the “heavy-weights” of the Armenian Church during the 20th Century – from Archbishops Nersoyan, Manoogian, Khatchadourian, Ghazarian to Catholicoi – the Dekmejians knew them personally and were intricately involved in the mission of offering faith, hope and love through the divine institution of the Church along with these giants of the Armenian Church.

Hrair Dekmejian began his journey in the church as an altar boy in Allepo, Syria in what was identified as the “Aintabtzi” church. In 1950 he came to the United States and began serving at the St. James Armenian Church in Los Angeles, alongside Bishop Mampre Kalfayan and Father Asoghig Ghazarian (later the archbishop of Iraq). In 1951 he was ordained a deacon by Bishop Hrant Khatchadourian. He attended Yale Divinity School. In 1954, Hrair married Anoush and they were blessed with three boys: Gregory, Armen and Haig.

In 1955 Hrair volunteered in the US Army, in intelligence at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) in Fountainbleu, France. During those years, he continued to serve at the Armenian Church, this time in Parish France, never missing a Sunday service.

Returning to the United States in 1957, he became a full-time student at the University of Connecticut, conducting deacon services and training choirs at churches on the East Coast, wherever life called the young family. Archbishop Khoren (later Catholicos of Cilicia) granted Hrair the title of Arch-deacon (Avak-sargavac). His service marks are left at St. Gregory, Massachusetts, St. Stephen, Watertown, St. Vartanants, New Jersey, and St. Gregory, NYC, where he often led services, and taught English to the newly arrived clergy, becoming a living-translator for the new and budding Armenian communities. In 1960 he received an MA from Boston University and in 1964 he received his PhD. From Columbia.

While in New York, at the St. Gregory Armenian Church in Binghamton, he served with Fr. Mesrob Semerdjian, Fr. Yeghiseh Kizirian (later archbishop of London), Fr. Arshen Ashjian, Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan (longtime family friend with Aintabtsi roots), and life-long friend, Fr. Karekin Kasparian. He shared his love for music, in particular the Armenian sharagans with Fr. Oshagan Minassian and with Bishop Torkom Manoogian (later the Patriarch of Jerusalem). He became a mentor to two budding priests, Fr. Kevork Arakelian and Fr. Daniel Findikian, (now the bishop of the Eastern Diocese) and has kept a very strong relationship with both and their families to this day.

In 1986 he moved to the Los Angeles to assume the position of the Chairman of the Political Science Department at USC. As mentioned, in 1997 he invited me to be the Chaplain of the Armenian Student Association of USC. We charted new grounds together, as for the first time ever, Armenian Students had an official meeting spot and presence within the religious groups on campus. In 2001 we held a Conference at USC dedicated to the 1700th anniversary of Christianity. In 2005 he hosted His Holiness Karekin II on campus where he shared his analysis of the Armenian Church and charted a course for Armenian Church and youth in Western society.

At USC his Genocide and Terrorism classes were among the most popular on campus, with standing room only in the lecture hall. He’d invite me once a year to talk and lead discussions with students about identity. It was through his efforts that the Institute of Armenian Studies at USC was founded and established.

During their time at the St. Peter Armenian Church and Youth Ministries Center, both Dn. Hrair and Anoush were inviting to all. His form of leadership was very basic but effective. For instance, as choir leader he suggested not to order choir robes so that the choir is not separated from the congregation. With this simple suggestion, one of the most striking features of Sunday morning worship at the church was that everyone sang the Divine Liturgy from beginning to end, hence fortifying the sense of community by including everyone in the corporate worship of the Church.

In 2016, we both left St. Peter Armenian Church and even in his retirement he has not tired from attending our weekly Bible Studies and offering and sharing his knowledge and love for the Armenian Church.

On this occasion, as one more voice in the congregation, I salute Deacon Hrair and Anoush Dekmejian for their unwavering support and love for the Armenian Church. They have successfully taken Christ’s commission to spread the Gospel, understanding that as God humbled Himself for our salvation, it is in that humility that love flourishes. We pray for their health and strength so that they may continue to inspire us all.

Celebrating Gabriel & Katie Jay Stauring

Gabriel & Katie Jay: A Celebration of Life

Gabriel & Katie Jay in Armenia (2021)


Gabriel and Katie Jay Stauring were activists for peace. They worked with refugees of mass atrocities such as the Genocide in Darfur. Together they established iAct to provide humanitarian action to aid, empower and extend hope to those affected by mass atrocities. Last Summer (August 2021) they went to Armenia to work with refugees of the War in Artsakh.  They were interviewed on Western Diocesan Television program “Center of Attention”  

On November 23, 2021 they tragically lost their lives in a traffic accident in Los Angeles. A Celebration of Life was held on December 11 with family and friends in attendance. Below are his opening remarks at the Celebration of Life gathering:


Good afternoon and welcome to this Celebration of Life: Gabriel and Katie Jay Scott Stauring, two lives and two souls that brought love to people, passion to life, and peace to a hurting world. There’s was a life that stood out in the world as a bright beacon of hope. It is in that spirit – in their spirit – that I light this candle, because they would be the first to tell you that “it is so much better to light this candle than to curse the darkness.”

Please join me in prayer:

Lord God, Author of Love and Passion, accept this offering today made by the family and friends of Gabriel and Katie Jay, as an offering of thanksgiving for two lives that touched us and the lives of so many. We stand here today to remember, to share, to cry, to laugh, and to celebrate two lives that were cut short but, the fullness and quality of their lives along with their capacity to heal a hurting world, have become inspiration for and to us all. May we find solace in their stories, in the way LOVE became the predominant motivator of their compassion for the hurting people of the World. Amen.

I am a priest of the Armenian Orthodox Church, yet the greater qualifier for officiating this service is that I was and am a friend of both Gabriel and Katie Jay. I am honored to be officiating this service with Trudy Goodman. Together we will share our stories, and the stories of those who were close to Gabriel and Katie Jay. Over the last few weeks so many of you have shared on social media, what these two meant to you. Today, is a continuation of that sharing, a sharing that will go on for years to come by the thousands who have been completely changed by their lives.

I’d like to tell you that meeting Gabriel was by chance, but by now I realize it wasn’t. There was something greater at work. This past summer, before Gabriel & Katie-Jay left for Armenia and we discussed exactly that. We sat around a table reminiscing about the road to our meeting. You see, I am the grandchild of Genocide survivors, the first Genocide of the 20th century. In 2003, we began the In His Shoes movement, with the simple premise that those who have suffered evil have a unique responsibility to take action against injustice to others. Our actions are based on Christ’s principles of love, compassion and repaying evil with good.

Well, you can understand what a lonely place that was, unless you were lucky or blessed enough to meet Gabriel Stauring. Right around that same time he had had his ‘enough’ moment and knew that he could not stand by as the FIRST Genocide of the 21st century, that is, in Darfur, was unfolding.

He was putting the foundation to iAct, through Stop Genocide Now and I was doing the same with In His Shoes. Through the years we bounced ideas off of each other, realizing there had to be better ways of combatting evil. In very simple terms: while the world was telling us you fight fire with fire, we dared to believe that maybe it is time we use some water to put out the flames.

We were at the first Camp Darfur, and he was at every one of our In His Shoes activities. In 2008 we named him the Man of the Year, because he embodied everything that was in the “script.” He was living out the goodness. With Katie Jay, there was a sense of fulfillment and completeness. They became a team. I know that feeling as I’ve enjoyed that fulfillment with Susan. We would attend each other’s events, up until the last one we attended just a few months ago, right here in this auditorium, after their successful work in Armenia working with the refugees of the War.

We both shared an excitement for technology – which included some time-travel too! I remember the primitive tents at Camp Darfur, with modern tech driving them in the background. We organized the first transcontinental virtual meeting of refugees – about 8 years – at our church. Refugees of the Darfur Genocide meeting with the children of the refugees of the Armenian Genocide. Picture the sacredness of the church, in front of our altar area, monitors, a panel of computers and couplers held together by wires and Katie-Jay acting as a human-antenna. We were in Glendale while Gabriel in Chad, was hooking up cameras with genocide survivors from Darfur. AND the MIRACLE HAPPENED… The refugees there heard for the first time, the voices of their grandchildren, the children sitting in Glendale who told them “It’s going to get better, look at us!” And our children in Glendale, for the first time, were talking with their grandparents, who were thrown out of their homes because of their skin color, their religion and ethnic makeup.

This was a magical bridge that brought about human understanding, across generations and across continents. But to achieve this kind of magic, or miracle, requires sacrifice, one which both Gabriel and Katie Jay made over and over again. On this particular day, Gabriel was away from his family for one of the longer sprints of his 31 visits to the refugee camps. Both Katie-Jay’s mom and Gabriel’s mom had come to the church that day, because it was their chance to see and talk with Gabriel. Katie-Jay held their daughter Leila up to the camera. You could hear the longing in Gabriel’s voice as he looked on at his child and Leila seeing daddy on the big screen. There was a very tender moment afterwards where they all went to the candle area of our church to light a candle, a symbol of light in the darkness.

I have placed a cross here. In the Armenian Orthodox Church, the cross is a symbol of resurrection and victory, yes, but it is also a symbol of victory through LOVE. In the West we have the symbol of the heart, yet in our Eastern Orthodox tradition the symbol of Love is the Cross because it means sacrifice. What Gabriel & KTJ did was sacrifice – their comfort, the family, their talents, their life for something greater, namely peace.

I wish to share with you the words of Jesus Christ, which are often understood as a prediction for some future time. As I read this passage now, I ask that we all think of these two lives that we celebrate today. Think of the words of this passage as being fulfilled in the lives of Gabriel and Katie-Jay. It is from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

These words are not forecast or prediction, rather think of them as axioms. In Gabriel and Katie Jay we see fulfillment. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Blessed are Gabriel and Katie Jay for they are children of God. They witnessed the power of light over darkness, the power of good over evil, the power love over hate.

When I was growing up, I thought the Armenian Genocide was so horrific that it was unique. Singular. Just as everyone else who comes of age, I started looking around and saw the horrors of the Holocaust, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Rwanda. In this century, the list only began with Darfur, which tragically was not the end. These atrocities continue in the world. There are only the indicators that flash before our lives all the time that point to these horrors. Yesterday, a truck carrying 53 Central American migrants turned over, killing them. Truly a horror, but we need to look beyond and see the real atrocities that are being committed that drive people out of their home and countries.

Blessed are you Gabriel and Katie Jay for you are children of God. You cannot die. And the challenge is now ours.

We can give them all the tributes, memorials and celebrations that we can muster, but the greatest tribute will be to carry on the mission and vision for which they lived. And now, this holiday season, we have the reminder, that the same mission and vision was shared at the Birth of the Christ Child: Peace on Earth and good will toward one-another. That is a mission for us all. IAct is what they set up. It’s mission is to provide humanitarian action to aid, empower and extend hope to those affected by mass atrocities. Our first step to remembering and celebrating Gabriel and Katie Jay’s life and legacy is to adopt Peace as our goal: Peace on Earth and goodwill toward one another.

I thank the Stauring family for the honor to share these thoughts with you. May God rest their soul and grant comfort to all of you.

-Fr. Vazken Movsesian

The celebration of life is archived at
Part 1
Part 2

Just before leaving for Armenia


A selfie at Gabriel’s request. So happy that he asked!










Loving “as your own” – St. Joseph’s Example

Kiudkhatch – Discovery of the Holy Cross and St. Joseph

English translation of a sermon delivered at St. Leon Ghevondyants Armenian Cathedral, Burbank
24 October 2021

by Fr. Vazken Movsesian

Considering that today is the feast of the Discovery of the Holy Cross, Kiudkhatch I wish to speak to you about adoption. Earlier during our service, we heard the reading from the Apostle Paul regarding the Cross being our salvation. In other words, this instrument of torture in the Roman Empire, was adopted by the Christians to be a means to salvation. We Christians adopted the Cross and made the symbol of destruction and suffering, into a symbol of victory! This is one type of adoption – taking an idea and making it your own.

Of course, there is another type of adoption, one which is more common. This week, in the shadow of the Holy Cross, the Armenian Church commemorated a saint whose name we all know, but at the same time, we know very little about him. He is St. Joseph, the husband of St. Mary the Asdvadzadzin. Our Armenian Apostolic Church remembered St. Joseph this year on October 18 and if you open the calendar of the Church you would be surprised to learn that the Church ascribes the same title to Joseph as it has to Mary, that is, he is referred to as Joseph Asdvadzahayr, that is, the Father-of-God. Now, in the case of St. Mary, we accept this title because she gave birth to Christ, but we have difficulty with the title given to Joseph because from our earliest days in church or in Sunday School, we have learned that there was no biological tie between Joseph and Jesus.

Very little is written about Joseph in Holy Scriptures, but from that little we know that he was a devout and God-fearing man. We know he his strength not only by his physical prowess as a carpenter, but by his moral character. He was unwilling to discredit his wife. Being obedient to the messenger of God, even when all the facts gave him reason to doubt, he took on the responsibility of being the adoptive father of Jesus. In that act of compassion, Joseph did not allow Jesus to be referred to as “illegitimate,” or as an “orphan.” Nor did he allow Jesus to be treated as anything less than his own son.

We know that Joseph was with Jesus for at least the first 30 years of our Lord’s life. In the Gospel of Luke we read that at the start of our Lord’s ministry, when he entered the Temple and read from scriptures, the people questioned his authority by saying, “Is this not the son of Joseph the carpenter?” From this statement, it’s obvious that Jesus was accepted and regarded Joseph’s true son.

The act of adoption is an act of love and sacrifice. As parents, we love our own children, but to love another person’s child as your own reflects a very deep love. Joseph adopted Mary’s child, loved and cared for him as his own.

When we talk about the saints, whether Joseph or any of the other saints, it is easy to get caught up in the details of their lives rather than understand that a saint is like us, with all their frailties, problems and even doubts. However, they are able to rise from their difficulties and aspire to the godly, hence, giving us the inspiration and motivation to move from our difficulties. It is important to see in them the characteristics from which we can learn and by which we can pattern our lives.

I know many of you have come to church today not to receive a history lesson, but to look for strength to go through your difficulties and your challenges – physical, spiritual or relationships. We have all come to church to understand how to live our lives fully.  In learning about Joseph we receive an example for living. We see true strength. We understand what it means to be obedient to God’s word. Joseph prayed, believing that “Thy Will be done” would take place when he, Joseph, agreed to take part in God’s will. In fact, his actions allowed God’s will to be done here on earth as it was in heaven.

As the adoptive father of Jesus, Joseph displayed courage and immense love for his wife and her child. Former president Barak Obama once said, “What makes you a man is not the ability to make a child, but the courage to raise one.” In fact, in this manner alone, we can understand why our Church Fathers referred to Joseph as the Father of God.  Joseph teaches us the true virtues of parenthood – it is the courage to give, sacrifice and to love another human being as your own. He raised Jesus Christ from infancy to adulthood and gave him the necessary support in preparation for the Divine ministry and to ultimately rise to the Cross and conquer it.

If you look at our story as an Armenian people you will find that our Church has taken on this role as the adoptive parent. We refer to the Church as our mother or as our parent because the Church never allowed us to be regarded as illegitimate or as an orphan. Despite our worst days, the loneliness we endured and the abandonment we felt, the Church was with us. Only, the Church, has been with us, not political parties, nor organizations, but the Body of Christ.

When we are baptized, the priest delivers us from the water with the words, “Purchased by the Blood of Christ, from servitude to sin, accepted as an adopted child of the Heavenly Father…”  That adoption is a statement of love.  It means we are true children, with never a worry of being abandoned or forgotten.

During the centuries under Ottoman rule, the Church stood by us. At the Genocide, with limited resources, the church aided us. At the Battle of Sardarabad, the bells of Etchmiadzin were heard as a victorious chant. During the 70 years of communist occupation (1920-70), when the atheist regime told us there was no God, the Church was the only voice shouting that we have an intrinsic value as people because we are the children – the true children – of God. In fact, for many of us in the diaspora during the years of communism in Armenia, we saw the leadership of the church, particularly His Holiness Vazken I, as our father, as our parent. He personified the parenting aspect of the Church.

However for the last 30 years with the independence in Armenia, we feel a maturity, where we don’t need our parents, we don’t need their lessons and we don’t need to learn. We have become ungrateful to the parent that delivered us. Those of you who have children know that the most painful thing in life is to have your children go against you. When you know you have raised your children with love and they turn on you with indifference, it is the most painful of all feelings. And so you can imagine how our Church, which exercised the spirit of St. Joseph as our adoptive parent, feels. Nevertheless, as a true parent, we never give up hope.

Today, I stand before you to tell you that our Church is engaged in a battle to win the soul of our people. Our programs, particularly here within the Western Diocese, are here to elevate and educate our people to an understanding of themselves and their lives in this world today. We are here to teach, young and old about the rich Faith that we call Christianity. We teach, as St. Joseph did, that you never have to feel alone or abandoned. We value, as St. Joseph did, the importance and sanctity of the spiritual life – life in communion with God. We stand at an important juncture in the life of our people, where materialism has consumed us to the point that we have forgotten the true treasures that are valuable in our lives. Today our spending pattern at Costco and the type of hood ornament on our cars are the symbols of wealth, rather than the knowledge that we are joint heirs of Christ. Today, Sunday morning, the children of the first Christian nation are buying and selling merchandise at an outdoor bazaar (one of which which takes place on a street called Artsakh, in Glendale) forgoing the source of true wealth.

Like a good parent, we note these faults, to bring our focus back to the path that saves us. Our criticism is laced with hope because we love our children. Our programs and our teachings are produced with the courage to raise our children in that same love. I hope and pray that you will take advantage of this opportunity that is being delivered to you by our Diocese. There is never any shame (amot) in not knowing, only in not being willing to learn. Our Lord Jesus Christ came 2000 years ago and ushered in the Kingdom of God. One solitary life has changed the course of history. One life continues to be discussed and followed on the four corners of the globe. And His life, the life of the Son of Mary, the life of Jesus Christ, began with a commitment from a true man, who loved his wife so much, that he said yes to God and adopted his wife’s son. He adopted and raised the One who adopted the Cross and gave us eternity. Today, this is what we celebrate.

Q&A: King of Glory

Deacon’s Q&A: Who is this King of glory, mighty in battle?

Matenadaran Ms.3833

by Fr. Vazken Movsesian

(Written for the WD Deacons’ Chant, Autumn 2021)

Sunday after Sunday in the Armenian Church, we hear a question-and-answer session taking place during the Divine Liturgy. It’s the same Q&A session we have heard for centuries. In fact, it was heard loud and clear in churches last year, specifically on September 27, as Azeri’s began attacking and shelling Armenians in Artsakh.

The deacon, with the chalice in hands, approaches the priest and asks that the doors be opened for the “King of glory.” The priest asks, “Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle?” (Ո՞վ է սա թագաւոր փառաց, Տէր հզօր զօրութեամբ իւրով, Տէր կարող ի պատերազմի). The questioning continues and upon his second inquiry, the deacon announces, “He is the King of glory!” (Սա ինքն է թագաւոր փառաց) and hands-off the chalice for the priest to prepare the Holy Eucharist.

It was the Psalmist who first framed the dialogue on behalf of a hurting world (Psalm 24:8-10). And it has been heard and overheard from altar areas ever since, during times of trouble and persecution just as it was last year in the midst of the 44-day war. In churches where Armenian souls congregate, the scene is repeated.

Priest: Who is the King of glory… mighty in battle?

Deacon: He is the King of glory!

With a war that cost us thousands of lives and the loss of land, another question surfaced: Who is this King, so mighty in battle, that we lost the war? Perhaps not as audible as the chants of the deacon in church, but definitely in the solitude of the mind, many were haunted by the reality of this question. We have heard it, and hear it often. More so, the Q&A of Psalm 24 is an issue of relevance: What is the relevance of our church service and our Faith to the events taking place in the world today? What is the connection between our actions Sunday morning and our response to the tragedies that take place during the rest of the week? Ultimately, what does it mean to proclaim God as almighty – mighty in battle – in the face of horrific tragedies that we endure?

When Abp. Hovnan Derderian first organized the Deacons Council last year, he did so to celebrate a ministry which often gets forgotten amidst ritual. During ordination, deacons are vested with rights and responsibilities which go beyond the Sunday worship service. Through the Deacons Council our intention was, and is, to exploit those gifts of the Holy Spirit entrusted to the deacon. It was only a couple of months after we began holding Council meetings that the War broke out in Artsakh. Immediately, the Deacons Council began collecting funds for the war effort and following their calling, the deacons began holding nightly prayer sessions, many of which were streamed and shared with sisters and brothers in Christ throughout the world. Each of those prayer services were invitations to the faithful to look within, to share with those in need the gifts and talents with which God has blessed us. In Holy Scripture, time and time again, we find our Lord Jesus teaching by example. When a tragedy befalls another, he touches them with his love (cf. Luke 7:11f) and asks us to do the same (Matthew 22:39). This is a calling for deacons, priests, and everyone.

The ministry of the Deacon is defined by service and assistance (Acts 6). During the Divine Liturgy, the deacon is heard inviting people to worship. He beckons the congregation to stand in peace, to pray fervently, to listen in awe, to prepare themselves and to approach the Blessed Sacrament. Simply put, he calls everyone to celebrate the victory of Christ. His pronouncement “He is the King of glory!” is a response to the priest’s question and at the same time it is an invitation for us to engage in the Kingdom which is in our midst. “The kingdom of God does not come with observation,” says Christ our Lord, “Nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the Kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

“The King of glory mighty in battle,” is the answer the Deacon proclaims to the priest and in-turn to all of us, every Sunday. Sure, Christian apologists, saints and fathers of the Church bring their message and connection to the Psalmist’s inquiry, but today deacons invite us to explore, engage and discover the King of glory for ourselves. Just as they invite us to stand, to listen and to participate, so too, today the invitation is to witness “the King of glory mighty in battle” who is here answering us, our sufferings, our dilemmas, and our wars. By accepting the invitation, we engage in the Kingdom of God. We accept a call to responsibility. Indeed, the Kingdom of God is within you!

Today, as we remember the beginning of the War in Artsakh and the horrific events that followed, let us listen even more fervently to the proclamation: He is the King of glory – a King who resides with us and within us. Herein, we understand ourselves as members of a Kingdom and therefore accept responsibility for our lives and the world around us. Our Divine Liturgy and hence, our Church is calling us to this higher understanding of our Christian Faith, as members of the Kingdom, to engage in the struggles and sufferings that are all around us, not with a question but with the solid answer: He is the King of glory, mighty in battle.

-27 September 2021


Not even one more: COVID & Ugly Death

Fr. Maghakia Aramian of Blessed Memory
Arms outstretched over Sevan. The world was his.

Ugliness defined: Don’t give even one more…

Death is showing us its ugly head lately. Death is a natural process all bodies undergo. When the natural process is hindered, it is referred to as ugly death, and subsequently, there are different grades of ugliness.

Google-search “Natural Death”  – When a death certificate says a person’s death was “natural,” it is really ruling out the involvement of external causes. The person did not take their own life and they were not killed by somebody else or in an accident such as a car crash or drug overdose.

Today, as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 911 terrorist attack on America, its most fitting, appropriate and truly descriptive to say that the September 11, 2001 deaths were of the ugliest type.

Since last year COVID-19 has been the ugly suspect, and now we have another round of deaths. During January, February and March of this year, I was officiating, on the average of, four to five funerals a week. Some of the most bizarre scenes I have tragically recorded in my memory. On two occasions I officiated for a husband and wife, that is, the scene before me was of two caskets laying on the gravesite waiting for a final blessing. After the second one of these double-funerals I happen to mention the stress of the scene to one of my clergy brothers. He trumped my story by sharing that he was asked by a family to wait for the passing of their sister before burying their parents. The coronavirus was making this one a triple-funeral.

My aunt passed away earlier this year, not of COVID-19 but of conditions caused by the pandemic. She was taken to the hospital for emergency care and was forced to spend two days in the hallways because there was no room in the emergency ward. She died alone. Her only daughter was finally allowed admittance to stand by her mom and I, by virtue of being a priest and knowing the chaplain of the hospital, was given an opportunity to share a prayer before she expired. That surreal day, I remember walking through the hospital thinking of being stuck in a theater, watching a horrible-horror movie, and unable to get out. The rooms were filled, the dying were in the hallways and the ambulances outside were waiting in bumper-to-bumper configuration to deliver new patients. Death was all around and it was all very ugly.

Ugliness is not only a descriptor of the death-moment itself, but of what brings upon an untimely death. For instance, when death is being accelerated by unnatural causes, that’s ugly. There is a wave of misinformation going on around the world regarding safeguards against the COVID-19 virus, be those safeguards mere masking or vaccination. Misinformation starts with doubts, is fed by fear, and leads to irrational choices with horrid consequences. I’m always intrigued by people who have fallen into the trap of authoritarian commenting on things of which they have no knowledge. Early on in my ministry I found it confusing when I ran into people who having read the Bible had the nerve and audacity to speak on behalf of God and look down on others who did not see things as they had interpreted. It’s a simple formula that’s very appealing to many: read a book and have complete understanding of the Divine. I often wonder, if I were to go to the local library, check out a book on brake-repair, and then advertise my services, who in their right mind would trust their brakes, and therefore their lives, with me? It’s not even imaginable after the preliminary question: what are your qualifications to repair my brakes, or at the very least to diagnose my brakes?

Switch gears now, from cars and eternal life to viruses and the prevention of infection. What is your qualification to comment on this? The other type of ugliness, then, is pretending expertise, diagnosing and dishing out remedies. It’s akin to crawling under your car to fix your brakes based on the pictures I saw in the book.

At my age I can remember a time when we were plagued by polio and smallpox. I remember getting measles and the mumps as a child. People younger than me don’t remember these diseases and that’s the point. We now vaccinate against them. I remember lining up at elementary school (LAUSD) to take the Salk-vaccine. As a parent, I remember we couldn’t enroll our children in school until they were vaccinated. But in the case of COVID-19 there’s a fear that has been fueled by misinformation. Of course, America offers us freedoms, but your freedom cannot impose on the freedom of others. The proverbial paradigm is yelling “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. It’s illegal, no matter how intensely you appeal to your constitutional right to free speech: you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater without facing legal consequences because you have jeopardized the welfare of everyone else.

We’re at a point where we’re seeing new deaths caused by new variants of the COVID-19 virus. Once again, we are being called in to officiate at funeral services. It’s an ugly reality and even uglier is that people would promote this ugliness. No one can force you to do what you don’t want to, but for God’s sake don’t impose your misinformation on others.

Closer to home, last month, we lost a high-spirited, energetic and dynamic young priest to the COVID-19 virus. Fr. Maghakia Amiryan was an exceptional priest. He was 40 years old. If you met him you know he would share his love for life, our church and our nation with you. Back in 2009, I met him when visiting Armenia with my son Varoujan. We spent several days together going to remote locations in the homeland. On one occasion, Fr. Maghakia took us right to the shore of the Arax River. It was forbidden for non-military people to be on the shore because the river divides Armenia from Turkey. It is a guarded by the military on both sides. Fr. Maghakia’s connection with one of the soldiers at the border got us to this choice spot. I was overcome with emotions, standing on the Arax which has been the focus of song and poem. I felt the frustration of looking at the fertile land across the river and knowing it was the home of the Armenian peoplle and it was inaccessible to us that day. Out of that frustration I picked up a stone

and hurled it across the river, as if to say, “Take that Turkey for imposing horrors on our people that have caused this separation in my homeland.” Fr. Maghakia, in a calm demeaner, asked me not to throw anything else in that direction. He said, “We have given them so much land, don’t add yet, even another stone.” He was loved where ever he went because he knew how to love and did love. He was currently the Dean of the Youth Centers of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. Children and young adults would flock to him, recognizing in him purity, goodness, and the mannerism that reflected the best of Christian character. Since the time we first met, whenever he’d visit the US, he’d come to our church for services. His loss was a great one for his family and friends, but mostly for the Armenian Church. This coming Monday, September 13, Fr. Maghakia would have turned 41 years old. He will forever remain 40. Yes, I can easily say, his was an ugly death.

Last year saw too many people die an ugly death. For Armenians, it was even uglier. One of the smallest populations on Earth, attacked by Azerbaijan and Turkey, over three thousand Armenians were killed during a 44 day war. To borrow from Fr. Maghakia’s exhortation, we’ve given more than enough, let’s not give even one more life. Exercise caution. Mask, vaccinate, and most importantly don’t participate in spreading ugliness.

Fr. Maghakia in center with Varoujan and me,
at Khorvirab 2009


On the shore of the Arax River.
Backdrop: Turkey seen “across the pond.”

11 September 2021

The Next Step with Fr. Vazken on the 20th Anniversary (#692)

Shoghakat TV on Fr. Maghakia 




Is She in the Box?

Out of the mouths of babes….
“Is she still in the box?”
The question hit me unexpectedly, though I should have known it was coming. Four year-old Harper was sorting out some of the pieces from the life-to-death puzzle in front of her. We were at her great-grandmother’s funeral, and this piece of the puzzle wasn’t an easy fit. After all, just an hour earlier she had seen her great-grandmother’s body lying in the coffin at the church and now we had arrived at the gravesite and there was the same coffin, closed shut and waiting to be lowered into the ground. It called for an answer: “Is she still in the box?” 
Of course, when you answer a question like this you want to be honest, but at the same time you realize that there’s a good chance that honesty can and may horrify a small child with thoughts of people being trapped in boxes and ultimately covered with earth.  It’s a horrifying thought for anyone, child or not.
Earlier, at the church, I heard a very simple and eloquent conversation between Harper and her mother. The young voice proclaimed that great-grandma was “In Heaven, with Jesus.” I didn’t need to look any further for an answer, especially for an answer that was truthful and honest.
“Is she still in the box?” 
“No. You tell me, where is she?”
“In Heaven with Jesus,” pronounced this child.
“That’s right. And if she’s in heaven with Jesus, then she is not in the box.”
It doesn’t get any simpler than this!

Several years ago, when my father passed away, my mother asked that the casket remain open in the church. My sisters and I were against the procedure for the simple reason that our dad had died unexpectedly at the age of 58. We wanted to remember him the way he was – the way we remembered him in life. But mom was in charge, and we respected her wish. The casket remained open in the sanctuary for a last look. When I entered the church that evening and saw my dad’s breathless body, I was hit with a revelation. I had officiated at so many funerals through the years and had stood before open caskets several times, but the reality of what I witnessed didn’t hit me until that evening. My dad wasn’t there! There was a body, but it wasn’t him. Dad was filled with life, this body had no life. Dad’s fingers danced on the fingerboard of his violin, these fingers were still. His smile, revealing a chipped tooth, was infectious and begged for us to join in the celebration of life. That spirit of celebration wasn’t here. No, this wasn’t him. This was the body which once held my dad. Dad was life and that life cannot end. He lives on, but not here.

And so, at the gravesite, with the casket waiting to be lowered, I answered Harper truthfully: No, she’s not in the box. In fact, it would have been a lie to tell her otherwise, that her lovely great-grandmother – the one she cared for, the one she laughed and played with – was in the box. No, not in the box. She lives on, but not here.
“Out of the mouths of babes,” Jesus tells us, comes praise. In this case, praise was found in such a profound statement, that it fit and filled the requirements of logic. A little child, the memory of her great-grandmother and the truth of eternity all came together. She’s not in the box, she’s in Heaven.

Memories of Purity: Thoughts at a funeral

Memories of Purity

Some thoughts and ties following a funeral…

by Fr. Vazken Movsesian

No matter how many or how often I have officiated at funerals, I cannot get used to the funerals of the young – those who leave us before their time. It’s been over 40 years that I’ve been officiating or serving at funerals. 

The first time that I stood in front of a casket offering prayers, was for my friend Brad’s father. He died of cancer. Not yet ordained as a priest, I served as a deacon at that service. For many of us who were just coming of age, this funeral was a rude awakening to the limits on our existence and the finality that death brought to that existence. The funeral service was perhaps the most tamed portion of the entire death ordeal. In our collective memory is the death scene, the illness, the hospital machines and the crying and sadness that surrounded his passing.

Sadly, through the years, I’ve had to officiate at several of these young-death funerals which are in stark contrast to those who die of natural causes. Such are the funerals of those that have lived their lives to a ripe (by our standards) old age and have led a full (by our standards) life. Thanksgiving is as natural as the death which brought the end to their life. In thanksgiving we come to terms with death and are thankful for the quantity and quality of life the person spent with us. Sure, there is sadness in the passing of a loved one, but we reconcile with the loss by cherishing the full life they led.

The funerals at which thanksgiving is not the first word we utter, are of those who have died a tragic unnatural death. Children who overdose on drugs, accidents, suicides and sudden death to disease are in this category. I’ve stood with families as children were ripped from their embrace. I’ve even tried to console (if possible) the families of murder victims. 

As tragic and devastating as unnatural death is, the deaths brought about by cancer, I place in a separate category. When someone dies of cancer, we, family and friends — and I consider myself as both family and friend to them — become witnesses, and therefore participants, in the dying process. We are involuntarily given a chance to watch the destruction of life, almost as if we are witnessing a gunshot video which has been slowed down so much so, that we watch the bullet enter, devastate, and finally kill the body over the course of months, sometimes years. Time has slowed down on that bullet so much that we have an opportunity to pray, to try to deflect and  change the outcome of the shooting. Just like a sudden accident, a murder, or death by drugs, we know cancer can happen to anyone, no matter how much Vitamin D we ingest and regardless of whether or not we quit smoking 30 or 40 years ago, or never smoked at all. These types of death can happen to anyone. But unlike the rest, in the case of cancer we want to believe that we can divert the bullet because we have time to do so. And because we’re watching that bullet enter the body in slow-motion, we live with hope that the trajectory of the bullet will be off course. We pray for an alternate ending and when in the end cancer does physically take its victim, we are left with a multitude of thoughts and feelings to sift through. 

The first time I had to deal with these cancer-generated thoughts was in my first parish in San Jose. I was a priest of only a few years and though I had stood with and eventually buried cancer victims on a few occasions, dealing with Aida was different. She was 25 years old when she succumbed to the disease. I visited her at her home, while stretched out on her living-room couch and enduring horrid pain. To this day, over 35 years later, I remember the expression on her face and the acceptance in her eyes as we prayed together. Her short life shared a lesson in hope and her death revealed the truth of the unfairness of life. At her funeral I remember talking about terms such as faith, hope and love, while feeling slighted by the terms of her life. I dealt with an anger that continues to this day as a part of my bag of emotions. I keep Aida in my heart every time that I have had to minister to someone fighting cancer and every time I have had to stand before the grave of one who has been victimized by this horrid disease. Aida was only eight years younger than me, and like a younger sister she has journeyed with me through my ministry. I personally keep her alive to help me, and therefore help others, as they come to terms with their mortality.

Aida’s family asked me if I’d help write the message on her gravestone. This is the message that outlasts your life. On Aida’s gravestone that dash between the year of her birth and year of her death was too small, so small that it angered me, and angers me when I hear people complain of being shortchanged in years after eight or nine decades of life. It is not ours to decide on how many years are enough. Even after 85 or 95 years, one more day is welcomed by most, lest they be suffering in intolerable pain. It is not ours to decide, but still, I am human and I was frustrated when I watched this young child lose her battle. There was nothing I could do to change the ending of this reality.

Several years back when I was dealing with cancer in my own life, one of my physicians, Dr. Mihran, expressed his participation in my healing process this way: Ours (doctors) is not to add days to life, but life to days. It was a profound statement, one which has its parallels in my profession in the healing of the spirit. 

For Aida’s gravestone I chose one of the beatitudes given to us by Jesus Christ: 

– Jesus (Matthew 5:8)

I could not think of anyone or anything that was more pure than Aida and the purity of her faith, as she dealt with this wretched disease. Yes, she was the pure one who would see God. I sent the scriptural passage to the gravestone engraver and a few months later the stone was placed on the earth where she lay. 

One day, as I was visiting Aida’s grave, I found her mother sitting there, flowers in hand, to decorate the area around the stone. We greeted each other, but this day she was troubled about something different, I could tell. She was bothered by me and my actions, but I didn’t understand why. I asked what was troubling her and she confessed that she was disappointed with my choice of a Bible passage to serve as a statement about her sweet daughter. (And here I must clarify, that all of the conversations between us, including this one, were always in the Armenian language.) She asked, why does it say she is “poor”? Indeed, if you were to read the statement with the slightest accent and with a limited understanding of the English language you might well be insulted by a comment aimed at you or your loved one as being “poor in heart.” I quickly interpreted the passage and assured her that purity of heart was what I saw in this young child. She was relieved and we continued a conversation, sharing about the purity of this life that was lost too early, but still touching us in many ways.

Through the years I’ve had to stand in front of the caskets and graves of other cancer victims. 

Yesterday, I officiated at the funeral of another cancer victim. The year is 2021, almost 40 years since that day I said goodbye to Aida. This past year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been filled with too many goodbyes and too many funerals. But this time, the life that was lost, was that of a mother, a wife, a sister, and a friend named Vilma. I read her biography and found it all too familiar. She grew up in my childhood neighborhood in Hollywood, attended and graduated the same schools that I journeyed through about three years before she did, Thomas Starr King Jr. High and Marshall High School. Here was yet another younger sister of mine, plagued and now having succumbed to cancer.  

There I was at the funeral, expressing myself about this miracle-of-miracles, one who would be remembered not because of her death but because of the goodness that she did and the love she shared in this world. And though my thoughts and the articulation of those thoughts have matured since the time of Aida’s funeral, my anger has not been tamed. I’m still incensed by the way cancer can take over and seem to have the final word in the lives of beautiful and young people. Sure, we can find millions and trillions of dollars to invest in weapons to destroy life and to blow up the world several times over, and yet cancer research is limited by the money it receives. But this discussion was not the one for today.  

By the very nature of the ministry that I profess – a ministry which celebrates resurrection over crucifixion – I must explain that the final words never belong to cancer. The expressions of Vilma’s children communicated with words and actions, their mother’s life story. Her husband’s expressions told of a life that made his complete. And quickly, we understood the magnitude of the life that was leaving us. Vilma was born in Romania. She came to the United States as a young teenager. She made a huge mark in life, which was attested to by the number of people in attendance at the funeral. The presence of friends from all walks of life, coming together, missing her and shedding tears, is the expression of victory over death. Because in the end, it is not about the length of that line that connects your birth and death year that matters, it’s about the quality of that line. Was it full? Was it filled with love? Of course, when you see so many people reacting the way they did at this funeral, you know that quality is measured by being loved. She was loved because she loved others, first. 

Following the service in the church, we went over to the gravesite where we committed this mother to Mother Earth. I reached into my bag of emotions and found the anger of witnessing the slow-motion bullet which did her in, but I knew at this time, we were to reconcile with a reality that was painful and there was no sense making it even more painful for those who stood by. Her casket was lowered into the grave; we filled the grave with earth and with the final benediction dismissed the assembled crowd. People headed to their cars and began to leave the cemetery. A guest at the funeral approached me and inquired about our service, the faith of the Armenian Church and the words I spoke. Not to disturb the remaining family and friends, we went a bit away from Vilma’s new grave to an area under a canopy set-up to block the hot sun, positioning ourselves on the grass so as not to step on any gravestones. We spoke of faith and Vilma. As we finished talking on that field of graves, it became our turn to return to our cars and head home. Just after shaking hands with this inquisitive seeker, the grave marker which stood between us caught my attention. On the stone, was the name, birth and death dates of someone who had passed years ago. Under his name was written:  



(Matthew 5:8)


A pleasant reminder that cancer will never win. I’ll see to that because God has already seen to it.

vkm – 3 vii 2021




VC1: Not just a Greeting

Voice of the Church Series – #1

By order of His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church, the “Voice of the Church” was established to bring a central message to the corporate worship life of the diocese. Fr. Vazken Movsesian was appointed to deliver these messages via a monthly sermon at the Srbots Ghevondyants, St. Leon Armenian Cathedral. Here is the English language translation of the sermon delivered on April 18, 2021.

Not just a greeting: 

A Way of Life, a Mission for All

By Fr. Vazken Movsesian
Քրիստոս Յարեաւ ի Մեռելոց
Christ is Risen from the Dead!
A few weeks ago, we heard the message that has shaken humanity for the last two millennia. This was the first gospel, the Good News, which the disciples exclaimed to one another: Christ has risen! 
Scripture tells us that following the Resurrection, one of the disciples, Thomas, was absent from a gathering where Jesus had appeared to his brothers. Thomas refused to believe the unbelievable. He doubted fiercely that Jesus could be alive. After all, Thomas was a witness to the betrayal, torture, crucifixion and burial of the Lord. Impossible! Anyone who was crucified and buried could not possibly be alive! He insisted that unless he could see and touch the Lord himself, he would not accept Jesus resurrected from the grave. Of course, when Thomas came face to face with the Risen Lord, no touching was necessary for him to make the complete confession: “My Lord and My God.” Christ replied to him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29) 
The disciples greeted one another with this good news, “Christ has risen.” Faithful to their apostolic commission, they ventured off into the world. Thaddeus, we know, came to Armenia and a few years later his brother in Christ, Bartholomew followed. From this group, Thomas took the Gospel all the way to India (about 52 CE), sharing the blessings of the Resurrection along the way and in India establishing the Church.
The Indian Orthodox Church is one of a handful of churches that are in communion with the Armenian Church. Along with the Ethiopian, the Coptic and Syriac Churches, we profess the faith of the universal Church as expressed the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople and Ephesus. 
In the early 1990s, while serving as the Parish Priest at the St. Andrew Armenian Church in Cupertino, California, I was approached by a group of Indian Orthodox asking if they could use our church sanctuary while their church was being built. With the permission of our Primate, they, the priest and congregation, would come to our church every Sunday for worship. When the building process on their church sanctuary was completed, their Catholicos (the chief bishop) traveled from India to dedicate and consecrate the building. I was invited to the ceremony. 
At the new church building, I took a seat in the back, making sure not to interfere with the dedication proceedings. Suddenly, I was approached by one of the priests who asked me to come forward and meet the Catholicos. I was not expecting this honor and felt the anxiety of the moment. I greeted His Holiness and in respect I kissed his hand which donned his pontifical ring. They directed me to sit on a chair next to the Catholicos.
What happened next is something which I cannot and will never forget. It became a turning point for the direction of my ministry, and I hope, today, it will serve as a message and a direction for all of us within the Armenian Church. 
In front of hundreds of parishioners gathered inside the new church, His Holiness took off his ring – the ring of authority – and handed it to me. Puzzled, I looked at him for an explanation. He then asked me to read the inscription inside the ring. To my surprise, it was written in Armenian! Engraved in Armenian letters, it said that it was a gift given to him by the then-Catholicos of All Armenians, His Holiness Vazken I (of blessed memory). Even more puzzled, I looked at him for an explanation. 


The Indian Catholicos said he wore this ring given to him by his “brother-in-Christ” because it is a constant reminder of the plight of the Armenian people. He went on to explain that the Indian Orthodox had always enjoyed the respect of the maharajas, the royals and the elite in India. The Indian Orthodox church and its people had a place of honor in their country. “We have never known Christianity through suffering,” he confessed to all of us assembled in that church, “We have always celebrated our faith with joy.”

And then he continued by pointing to me and thereby to the Armenian Church, saying, “The Armenians, on the other hand, have never known Christianity without suffering!”  And then, in a strong tone that only a father might invoke to stress the importance of what he was about to say, he leaned down from the altar area and exhorted his parishioners, “Learn from the Armenians. Theirs is a story of suffering, of sacrifice on the road to victory. They have struggled to maintain and live their faith. Theirs is the story of the Cross of Christ. And for this reason, I wear this ring, to never forget that the Cross of Christ is at the Center of our Faith.”
Those words struck me hard. He was saying something we only casually acknowledged, that it was an honor and a privilege to belong to the Armenian Church. This was no ordinary moment. It was the Apostolic Church exclaiming: Christ has risen! Imagine, 2000 years ago, two brothers leave Jerusalem, one went to Armenia and other to India. Imagine 2000 years later these two brothers find each other and they share the story of their travels and experiences over those 20 centuries. One of the brothers gifts a ring to the other brother, who wears that ring as a constant reminder that the Cross of Christ is at the center of our Christian faith and should not and cannot be avoided!
And today, the simple and humble gesture by His Holiness Vazken I is still talking to us. His voice is very clear. We, as an Armenian Church have a unique mission, yes, to our children, but also to the world. We are the witnesses of Christ-resurrected because we are the witnesses of Christ-crucified. Imagine that! Our suffering is not a reason to attract the pity by others, rather it is our compliance with the Divine Teaching, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)  
Because we have known suffering, we look at life in a very different manner. We do not reject suffering but embrace it on the path to resurrection, for in fact, there is no resurrection without a crucifixion. And we are the living example of that resurrected people. 
When we – the Christian Church – speaks to the world about resurrection, who can understand that? Like Thomas who could not believe his Lord was alive, who among us, can comprehend a person dying and coming back to life? But when we, members of the Armenian Church, talk about crucifixion, then the entire world can understand. Because the cross has been a reality in our lives, and we have overcome it as a resurrected people. 
On a personal scale, your health, your family relationships – with parents, with children, with spouses – financial difficulties, anger, disease, depression, loneliness are all crosses we bear. Our Lord Jesus, on the cross felt anguish, felt the loss of friends, loneliness, the loss of loved ones, betrayal and hatred. He gave us the power to overcome the cross, “In this world you face persecution, but courage, the victory is mine. I have conquered this world.” (John 16:33)
Our world today is in disarray. Death to the innocent and disorder all around are realities. We see shootings, we hear of disease, wars and the loss of children. Here in this country, we struggle with intolerance, racism, and hatred. Who, if not we Armenians, know the dangers of that intolerance which led to the ultimate example of racism, namely Genocide, in 1915 and continuing last year (and today) in Artsakh and Armenia? The US border is filled with young children, estranged from their parents, crying out for a safe haven, for a chance at freedom. Who, if not we Armenians, know the power of those cries for safety and freedom, after being terrorized for centuries under Ottoman rule? We understand the Cross and we also know the Resurrection. We have been homeless and hungry, but we know the streets were not where humans belong, we did not let hopelessness rule us. We know and have the language of pain. Today the pandemic has led to despair. Anxiety and depression are taking their toll. In that despair, a feeling of hopelessness leads to escape. Our faith points to the greater victory that we experience by looking at life, at family, at art, music and dance as expressions of the human spirit. Yes, we Armenians have known difficulties, but our Christ-centeredness makes us know that beyond crucifixion there is resurrection.  
When we look up at the Cross of Christ, we see the ultimate terms of innocence and therefore injustice when we witness the Son of God, giving his life. The Cross looked like an end, but he conquered! He overcame the Cross with the ultimate power of goodness, namely Love – giving, sacrificing and caring for others. It is to that Cross that we are called to witness!
And so, when we greet one another: Christ is Risen, this is not merely a page from our past, it is the expression of the life we live. More than a greeting, it is our calling. It is our ministry. And we accomplish our ministry using the tools given to us by Jesus Christ himself: faith, hope and love. By living in love, we express faith and offer hope to a hurting world. Pronounce the message “Christ has risen” with your mouth, understand it through the witness of our Holy Church, and live it all the days of your life.  
-18 April 2021

Sermon/Wish for the New Year: Courage

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Last sermon for 2020 and a Wish for the New Year: Courage
By Fr. Vazken Movsesian
Based on a sermon delivered on 27 December 2020 at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church in Pasadena, California on the Feast of St. Stephen. The video of the sermon in Armenian and English is shared below.


Courage is the topic of today’s sermon. It is timely on this last Sunday of the year as we look forward to the New Year. We have all heard the complaints about 2020 and the wish that it would hurry and go away. We want to banish the year into memory with the expectation that somehow and someway 2021 will be better than the past year plagued with pandemic, racial unrest, political chaos and for us as Armenians, war, which has crippled us physically, morally and spiritually. And while the start of the year 2021 might seem like a convenient place from which to measure time, we should know that viruses and feelings of intolerance don’t follow calendars. Change comes about when we work and actualize change. It takes courage, to accept the current conditions and opt to bring about change.
We are in the season of Advent – preparing for the Christmas message that Christ is born and revealed. Courage is required to fully accept and act upon that message, because that message was one which has and can change our world toward something better.
In talking about courage, we remember that yesterday our Church celebrated the feast of St. Stephen the first deacon and the first martyr of the Christian Church. Unfortunately, our people have turned into a people consumed by topic of martyrs and martyrdom (and tragically we are back at it in the aftermath of the War). It is unfortunate because we forget the reasons for the sacrifice in martyrdom, namely, we have lived life and lived it in a productive manner.
Rather than look at St. Stephen’s ministry, I’d like to focus on the descriptor “first” in his title. To be the first at anything requires courage. It requires going against the rules. It means you’re charting a new course. In our church we ascribe the title “Nakha” to those who were the first, for instance, St. Andrew is called the “Nakhagoch” or the “First-called” disciple of Christ (John 1:40). He was the brother of Peter the fisherman. You can only imagine the courage it took for him to tell his brother, “We have found the Lord…. Come let’s follow him…” Courage is found when you are committed to your beliefs, without wavering. Andrew put it out on the line – risking being mocked and even being on the receiving end of anger.
To be the first requires courage because you will be up against the strong current to maintain the status quo. Generally, people want change, but without a cost, that is, without discomfort. Courage is necessary to bring about change because you have to be strong in your commitment and you must be devoted to it completely, and full-heartedly. This is where your faith has to be strong, as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Certainly, St. Stephen was committed to his Faith, because he paid the ultimate price for his faith. You don’t give up your life for things that you don’t believe. Courage comes when you are committed to your faith, when you’re willing to take the first step in the dark knowing and trusting that the staircase is there. And it is with this commitment to our faith in God that we embark on the New Year and accept the message that Christ is born and revealed!
Today’s Gospel message came to us from the Gospel according to St. Luke, chapter 19. It’s a story that many of us have heard but perhaps not in the context of courage. It’s about a wealthy man who gives three of his servants a considerable amount of money for them to use while he tends to business in another land. (This is pre-pandemic time, when travel was allowed and Zoom meetings were not necessary to conduct business.) And when the man returned, he asked for an accounting from those three servants. The first had taken the money and multiplied it by 10 and was awarded rights over ten townships. The second had multiplied it fivefold and was awarded rights over five townships. But the third servant was so scared to use his money that he wrapped his money in a handkerchief and returned it to his employer. Now mind you, he had not squandered it, nor lost it, but he did not use it! He is referred to in the parable as a “wicked” servant. In the Armenian grabar (ancient and original translation) he is called “anhavad,” that is, “without faith.” Yes, we note the connection between wickedness and being without faith.
Now think of this parable in terms of where you are in life. You’re looking for change toward the good. God has given you so much more than money. He has vested you with life, with love, with compassion. How are you using gifts? Courageously? To be courageous means you have faith and invest toward the change that brightens your life and the lives of others. Jesus concludes the parable by saying that the little that the wicked servant had was taken from him and given to the other, to which the parable ends with this disturbing verbal exchange: “‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’ He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’” (Luke 19:25-27)
It is disturbing on the face of it because we think in terms of material wealth and gain. No, this is not Jesus advocating for the capitalist dream of wealth accumulation. It’s a simple proclamation, that if you’re courageous enough to exercise your faith, you will find more faith.
My prayer for all of us is that we find the courage to live out our Faith, by sharing the goodness of life with others. During this period of Advent we prepare for the message of Christ is born and revealed. In fact, His Birth and Revelation is not about an event 2000 years ago, but about the possibilities as he’s born and revealed in our lives today, in a hurting world where courage to live, love and share is called for. May the New Year be filled with the expressions of our Faith and courage. May the blessings of the Christ Child push us to these expressions which make Christmas an event every day of our lives.

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