In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!
The flames rise and touch the sky. A power force that could melt gold and silver to liquid. A refreshing splash, a cleansing and soaking from head to toe. Bells and smells, blessing of fields, sights and sounds from nature to the man made. Often times the Armenian Church and generally the Orthodox Church is criticized because of how many practices found within it come either from pagan or Judaic celebrations. Whether it is the splashing of the water during Vartavar or jumping over the flames on Diaruntarach. The icons and symbols in the Church, the smell of incense and even the rituals of blessing fields and grapes.
The argument that we often hear is that, Christ never asked us or even instructed us to do so. And whatever was in the Old Testament is no longer necessary because through Christ it changed. And as the Church we would absolutely agree, that in the New Testament nowhere does it say to jump over fires, to splash each other with water, to bless the fields and etc. However, all throughout scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament, we read about how God used nature and symbols to bless and instruct us. Look at the tree in the story of Jonah. As Jonah prayed for shade, which was provided by God and later taken away, Jonah understood of how he had to forgive and love the Ninevites. Moses spoke to God, who appeared to Him as a burning bush. A tree, engulfed in fire – which showed Gods power and his love. St. Paul when teaching the Romans did not rebuke them and say immediately destroy all these pagan temples and statues but rather spoke to them about the “unknown God.” And Christ Jesus in today’s Gospel, when speaking about the final days instructs us to look to the Fig tree and observe.
The reason for all of this, the reason for the Holy Church using water, flame, incense, grapes, and other symbols is because the Orthodox Church is adoptive and adaptive, to its surroundings and we believe that everything in this created and observable world has been given to us as a tool to fully experience the One True God. All matter matters. St. Justin Martyr, a 2nd century saint who was well trained in Greek Pagan Philosophy, when he became a Christian understood and taught that before Christ, all knowledge, all wisdom and all faith practices ultimately were about Christ Jesus but because of our limited understanding, because Jesus had not yet been revealed to us, we fell into misunderstandings. But now that we have been given Christ – all knowledge, wisdom and faith must be directed towards the One Logos – the Word – Christ Jesus.
Each one of us is on a different point on the same path towards God. And the Church recognizing that does not turn us away, but rather is there to direct us, using the tools we have been given through scripture, through Holy Tradition, to continually remind us and help us along our path towards God. And the greatest symbol out of all is the Holy Cross of Christ. For this reason St. Paul teaches us to boast or take pride in nothing but the Cross through which we have been saved.
The cross, which was originally a tool of death, made of wood. Yet, just like all the other symbols found in Christianity, through the sacrifice of Christ Jesus, it has become a symbol of triumph over death, a tool to lift us up towards God. And for us Armenian’s today is the feast of the Holy Cross of Varak. Of how a piece of the Cross of Christ was rediscovered in the 7th century in Armenia on Mount Varak.
My dear brothers and sister, I will not go into the history right now but what we understand from this feast, what we must learn and what we are all ultimately being invited to is to witness of how out of a mountain, out of nature, out of dirty and rock, out of what would be seemingly nothing and worthless – comes out the very cross of our Salvation. Out of stone, wood, dirt, and mud was lifted up the Cross of “Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Gal. v. 14) And on that place, using the same dirt, wood and stone a Church was built. A temple to worship and connect with God. The same dirt that we all have been created from.
My dears, I ask us here today, what will come out of us? Are we not each temples? Just like the wood, dirt and stone, are we each not also merely a physical material? If the fires and waters of paganism, if the trees and leaves in nature, if the wood, dirt, stones and mud which all seem to have no value unless lifted up and used as tools to connect to God – how much more are we invited to be tools and a source for lifting each other up, we who are created in the Divine Image?
Everyone, whether they are a member of this Church or not, whether they are Armenian or not, whether they are tall, short, black or white, big or small, whether they have good voices or not – each one of us, every human, is called, is invited to become a tool, a sword, a shield, a source of life and light, a symbol of God to each other. Even if we are down and hurt. If we are isolated and feel that we have no value or worth – through Christ – just like all those other symbols, just like all matter, all wisdom, all knowledge – through Christ Jesus – we are valuable, we are loved.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, yes, the Church has adapted and adopted many practices and expressions, many symbols and tools all which through guidance and care can lead us to a more full experience of our relationship with God. And out of nature, out of stone, we have built Churches and homes in which we gather to strengthen that relationship. Yet, I leave us with this question, what about us? What purpose will we serve? Will we be light in darkness, hope in hopelessness, love in the face of hate? Will we become temples? Will we serve as tools to bring Christ into this world? Each one of us, who are baptized children of God, bear that sign of the Holy Cross upon us. And I pray that we will continually pray to discover our own cross, so that as we carry our crosses, as we move forward on our own journey’s towards God, we will bring love and light into this world – and doing so we continually glorify the Holy Trinity forever and ever Amen!