FEAST – ST. LEONTIUS THE PRIEST AND HIS COMPANIONS (GHEVONTIAN SAINTS)
In the Armenian Church the Feast of the Ghevontian Saints has an appealing and unique meaning. The feast is celebrated each year on the Tuesday preceding the Feast of the Vartanians (Vartanants).
This collective name for the feast of the Ghevontian Saints (Ghevontiants), reflects the idea of the sacrifice made by a multitude of worthy heroes in giving their lives in the name of their faith and nation.
These braves were self-denying churchmen who were not only preachers against tyranny, but also fighters on the front lines in the War of the Vartanians, both before the battle itself (St. Leondius, an episode from Vartanian and in the continuing popular War by Krikor Khanjian) resistance during the subsequent period.
Virtually all of them were contemporaries who lived in the first half of the fifth century, and who obtained their religious and patriotic teachings under the greatest teachers of the first and greatest era of Armenian literary scholarship, St. Sahag and St. Mesrob Mashdots, or through inspiration from them.
The firm religious faith of the Ghevontian Saints, their genuine cooperation with the people, the living example they became in fighting on the front lines of the Vartanian War with a cross in one hand and wielding a sword in the other, and their total commitment to the consecrated cause were the facts and the evidence of their character as ideal clergymen.
These are the qualities of life and virtue that lead Armenian clergy in cities where there are large Armenian populations to come together each year, celebrate Divine Liturgy, and make these ideas the subject matter for reflection and renewed vows.
These qualities are regarded in the Armenian Church as the epitome of indestructible faith and total dedication.
In the same manner as with the use of the name Vartanian, the term Ghevontians is taken to mean the many, but it is based on the name of one of them, Ghevont Yerets (Leondius the Cleric).
He became the eponym because of his dauntless faith and courage and his brilliant mind, of which writers and historians have written at length with awe and esteem.
THE LIFE OF LEONDIUS THE CLERIC (GHEVONT YERETS)
Ghevont Yerets had been a commonplace priest in the village of lchevan, of Vanand. Having studied under St. Mesrob Mashdots and St. Sahag, he had become a member of a phalanx of the first translators, imbued with the principles of patriotism, nationalism, and religious devotion.
He is regarded as an illustrious and radiant figure of the first half of the fifth century, the Golden Age of Armenian Literature.
He was also entirely fluent in the Persian tongue.
His date of birth and many details of his life are unknown. He is identified only as belonging to the harsh and onerous period of the Vartanian Wars in which he appears as a dedicated and eloquent figure.
Ghevont Yerets took part in the Council of Shahapivan in 444, where select representatives of political and religious elements of the nation studied and developed a body of rules for their society. They compiled twenty rules that covered marriages and other relationships, laws, regulations regarding clergy and celibacy, discipline, etc. In truth, participation in a meeting of that caliber would call for the delegates having the appropriate level of participation, education, experience, and eligibility, all of which Leondius the Cleric had.
And with such qualifications he was again a participant, this time at the historical meeting in Astishat in 449, which was also attended by all the important figures in religious-political life.
Ghevont Yerets’ life as a revolutionary began in 450. During the summer of that year, the Armenian nakhararas (Princes and prefects) who had feigned apostacy under Persian pressure, were returning to Armenia with 700 magi and Persian troops.
The distressing word of the Armenian apostacy having reached Armenia before them, one of the most vocal in preaching against it was Ghevont Yerets, who was arousing the people to resist and raise the flag of rebellion.
And as it turned out, when the magi undertook their first actions and tried to erect a fire-worshiping temple in the village of Angh, there was tremendous popular opposition.
“On a Sunday morning twenty-five days later, the mokbed (head of magi) himself arrived with the magi and a strong force and tried to break down the doors of the church. That was an attempt to see how his plan would fare.
But the holy priest Ghevont was ready on the spot, together with his principal associates and many from the holy league, and would not allow them to proceed.
Though he was not aware of the intentions of the nakharars, nor of the striking power of the mokbed, he did not wait for the arrival of the bishops nor would he tolerate the iniquitous prince even slightly or excuse him. On the contrary, he raised a great cry and created panic among the troops and the magi.
Armed with clubs, the people crushed the heads of the magi and the mokbed and forced them back to their camp. Thereafter they resumed their divine services in the church and continued to pray throughout the whole Sunday.” (Elisaeus, “Yeghishe,” Chapter 3).
This unexpected resistance was so stunning that the whole under taking of religious conversion was devastated. The chief magus (mokbed) begged and pleaded for his life so that he might write to the Persian king to abandon the plan of converting the Armenians to fire worshiping.
Notwithstanding, Ghevont Yerets, being far-sighted, did not consider the matter closed. He continued to work ceaselessly with defenders of the faith, knowing full well that an apocalyptic confrontation was inevitable. And in fact, about a year later, in May of 451, the Persian monarch Yazdigerd’s 300,000-man army descended upon Armenia, and a very much lopsided battle took place on the field of Avarayr.
It remained for the eloquent Ghevont Yerets, part of the small 66,000-man Armenian army, to fire the zeal and courage of the Armenian soldiers to battle against the forces of tyranny.
Ghevont Yerets fought on the front line of that frightful battle. After coming out of the battle alive, and being relentlessly stalked by the enemy, he withdrew into an unassailable redoubt.
The Persians besieged the fortress and through treachery they were able to capture him, as well as Catholicos Hovsep and numerous other hallowed braves. Hundreds were sentenced to die on the spot. Catholicos Hovsep and Ghevont Yerets protested, arguing that the responsible person was Vasag. As a result, the Persian commander, though he had them beaten, revoked the order of execution because they were lodging a protest to the royal court.
THE MARTYRDOM OF THE SAINTS
After the battle of Avarayr the important leaders of the resistance movement were being hounded, as a result of which many nakharars were obliged to seek refuge away from their fiefdoms. Many princes and clergy were arrested. The land was in turmoil and chaos from the ruin brought on by the wars, and there was internal lawlessness and anarchy.
The restive situation troubled even Yazdigerd. He opened an investigation into the causes of the turmoil and those responsible for it. He summoned the accused Vasag Siuni, the imprisoned Ghevont Yerets, Catholicos Hovsep, Bishop Sahag, and various other important persons to Ctesiphon (Dizbon).
Vasag Siuni’s duplicity and acceptance of bribes were substantiated. He was immediately divested of all privileges and sentenced to a horrible death. It was then time to judge the clergy who had been undergoing un bearable treatment in the prisons by the magi.
“In spite of all that, the holy men never became disturbed nor distressed. On the contrary, they endured the tortures with great patience and performed their daily services by singing psalms incessantly. After they finished their prayers, they lay on the hard floor to rest in cheerful contentment. But the guards, keeping watch over their prisoners, were exceedingly amazed at their unfailing health, as they kept hearing the constant sound of their voices.” (Elisaeus, Chapter 8).
Thanks to their prayers and their God, for months the Armenian clergy lived a life full of miraculous happenings in places of tortures, dank prisons where others had not been able to endure a month. An even more remarkable event took place in the prison, when a jailor magus became a convert to Christianity and prayed for the saints.
Ghevont Yerets, Catholicos Hovsep, Bishop Sahag, and the other clergy knew for certain that they would be sentenced to death. They had been accused of destroying fire-worshipping temples that had been con structed in Armenia, of torturing magi, and of killings.
Furthermore, whereas in Persia the jailor magi were waiting for the Armenian clergy to apologize, they instead were saying that life no longer had meaning for them since they were being deprived of the right to freedom of conscience, and being imprisoned by such a tyrant as Yazdigerd.
The magi were petitioning their king, arguing that the Armenian clergy were the whole cause of the misfortune befalling the Persian armies.
“It is because of the fury of the gods. They are angry at us on account of the god-slayer Armenian priests who should long since have been put to death. But thanks to your heedlessness they are still alive…” (Lazar of Pharbe, Ghazar Parbetsi).
Finally the sentence of death was issued. The saints were subjected to unprecedented and untold tortures. Samuel Yerets and Deacon Apraham, imprisoned by the army, were ordered to be the first to be put to death.
“They were to be taken to a secret place and beheaded there so no Christians would know of it and revere their remains. It was arranged, before the killing, to cut off St. Samuel’s right arm and put it in Deacon Apraham’s hand, and also to cut off St. Apraham’s right hand and put it in Samuel’s hand, because they had touched the ‘sacred fire.”‘ (Lazar of Pharbe).
Those remaining conducted a joint ceremony of worship. A most moving atmosphere prevailed. Ghevont Yerets led a stirring discussion, doing so in a remarkable composed manner. He then gave his final benediction.
“May the most beneficent Christ be moved to pity, that he may be your comforter and savior, release you from these material bonds that constrain you, and humiliate your enviers and enemies. May he make you worthy in the eyes of your families and all the Armenian would. May the remains of each of you be interred alongside those of your forbears, and may your souls be released from the invisible bonds of Satan, and thus be safeguarded always.” (Lazar of Pharbe).
When those who were there expressed their appreciation for those words, Ghevont Yerets answered most modestly.
“We have now been strengthened through the words of our own gracious heirs, just as fathers have through their sons; teachers have through their pupils, and priests through their flocks.” (Lazar of Pharbe).
It was the king’s command that after the unheralded slaughter the bodies were not to be handed over to their families, so that the remains of the martyrs would not become spiritual relics, as was custom, and reinforce the faith of Christians.
As it occurred, in spite of the care taken to prevent it, one named Khouzhik, a Christian secretly, succeeded in placing the bodies of the martyrs each in a separate coffin.
PERSIAN PRINCES CONCERNING THE GHEVONTIANS
After that horrible slaughter, the executioners, though pleased in having carried out their duty, expressed their admiration openly.
“What shall we do? How shall we behave toward this inscrutable cult of Christians. Their behavior is outstanding while they are alive. They despise material things like those who have everything. They revere their saints like incorporeal beings. They are dispassionate as honorable people. They are fearless as immortal creatures.” (Elisaeus).
That was how the end came for a group of worthy ones of the glorious generations of the Golden Age. This episode occurred in the second half of July 454, in the vicinity of Neushabouh, in Persia.
They were steadfast and devoted men of the church.
Their firm faith, their love of the church, their uncompromising patriotism, and their legendary courage became an exemplary ideal in the rich history of the Armenian people.
In supreme recognition of the life they lived, the Armenian Church has sanctified them and their memory is celebrated each year in special ceremonies.
Moreover, demonstrating the principle of Christian and humanitarian impartiality, the Armenian Church memorializes, along with the Ghevontians, the Persian magus (Khouzhik) who was also martyred for his having become a Christian convert.
It is popular custom among Armenians for those named Ghevont, Levon, Moushegh, Arshen or the names of any of the other saints who were martyred with them, to celebrate their “name day” on the Ghevontian feast day. Families and friends gather together for a joyous celebration on this occasion. The Armenian people have often built churches bearing the name of St. Ghevontiants, or St. Ghevont Yerets.
TESTIMONY REGARDING ST. GHEVONT YERETS
He was an orator, rhetorician with a very persuasive tongue. When the moment of battle was drawing near, Catholicos Hovsep called on St. Ghevont to kindle the spirit of the men of the army.
“St. Hovsep the Cleric, who also occupied the throne of the Armenian Holy See, directed Ghevont, hallowed in the eyes of God, to advise and en courage the people. St. Ghevont Yerets, unwearied, throughout the whole night counseled the people with apostolic teachings of spiritual doctrine. His words issued forth from his just lips in ambrosial sweetness, exhilarating the listeners. When he slept, his teacher, the god-like Mashdots, and the saintly Goriun and Ardzan and some pupils, were awake and saw that an intense light shone around Ghevont.
These saintly men understood through the Holy Spirit that the saint’s end would come with martyrdom. And although they did not disclose what they comprehended from the majestic vision, the word of the vision became rumored widely.” (Lazar of Pharbe).
Vartan Mamigonian, the national commander of the Armenians, followed St. Ghevont’s magnificent words with the following exhortation.
“On hearing the divinely inspired words and the exhortation to expect martyrdom from the sublime Lord Hovsep and from Ghevont, the beatific Vartan of the Mamigonian clan responded saying, ‘The honor of ordination of the hallowed priests of the church is not from men, but a grace in grant from the Holy Spirit, as well as for all their sage advice that turn the listeners toward heaven.”‘ (Lazar of Pharbe).
Ghevont Yerets had the vision of the old prophets. He always spoke out his thoughts, always putting truth above convenience. He imbued others with unqualified sublimity. For example, when as a captive accompanying his clergy brothers on the road to Persia, he came upon Vasag Siuni and his caravan of richly laden mules, the following transpired.
“Vasag Siuni quickly dismounted from his steed and greeted the saints, who showed no animosity toward him whatever. They acknowledged him with joy and affection, especially St. Ghevont, who, with sadness but with a joyous face, spoke long, pleasantly, and with seriousness with Vasag, Prince of Siunig.
Vasag listened to the exalted one’s affable and gracious words. Like a demon enthralled, he thought to himself that they had no knowledge of the evil he had committed against them. And as a result, he became more and more comforted by St. Ghevont’s words, and walked with them for a long distance.
After hearing reassuring words, the Prince of Siunig wanted to honor the saints and invited them to join him at the inn for dinner. But when the evil-minded Vasag had gone on ahead a short distance, St. Ghevontcalled out to him in a very loud voice, using terms of respect, ‘Lord of Siunig, Lord of Siunig.’
Vasag responded in a respectful tone, ‘What do you wish?’ The saint answered, ‘We spoke to you about many things, but we failed to ask you a necessary and meaningful question. Where are you going?’
The evil Vasag heard, and became much aggrieved. Astonished, he answered, ‘I am going to my master. To receive the great rewards for my great works.’ Responding in turn St. Ghevont said, ‘That fiend deceitfully led you to abjure the vow you made on the Holy Gospel.
And now, he leads you to believe that it is only by putting you as king on the throne of the Armenian world that he can reward you amply.
On the contrary, he is able to grant you nothing. But, in truth, if you will be able to return to Armenia with your living head resting on your shoulders, it means that God does not speak to me.’
The evil prince, on hearing these words, became despondent, and abandoned his vain hopes. He knew that the saint’s words were unerring and that they would be fulfilled …” (Lazar of Pharbe).
St. Ghevont, although senior to Catholicos Hovsep in age, called on the saints and cautioned them to behave with reverence and respect toward those who were of higher rank, and with Christian ordination of high honor. “He, as you can see, though in appearance younger than I, has been ordained with honor, and worthily, as the head of all Armenian churchmen.”
(Lazar of Pharbe).
PILGRIMAGE SITE OF THE GHEVONTIAN SAINTS
The St. Ghevont pilgrimage site is to be found on a hilltop northeast of the Avetaran village of Varant. According to custom, Ghevont Yerets’ relatives searched long in the province of Varant and finally succeeded in finding the saint’s remains in Apar, where he had been martyred. On the site of those relic remains they built a church, which has become an important pilgrimage site in the name of St. Ghevont Yerets (Avantabadoum, p. 234).
GLOSSARY – NOTES
GHEVONTIANS: Historians Yeghishe (Elisaeus) and Ghazar Parbetsi (Lazar of Pharbe) have identified the following martyred clergy, who are classed together under the term Ghevontians (Leondians):
• Ghevont Yerets
• Catholicos Hovsep Hoghotsmetsi (440-452), who is also known as Vayotstsoretsi. He studied under St. Mesrob Mashdots and Catholicos Sahag, succeeding him as Catholicos after his death. His era was marked with political crises. Nevertheless, he was able to introduce reforms. In 444 he presided over the Council of Shahapivan, and in 449 over the Council of Ardashat, where the letter to Hazgerd (Yazdigerd) II was composed regarding the demand for renunciation of faith. After the Vartanian Wars he was captured and imprisoned in Persia.
• Bishop Sahag Rushdouni
• Bishop Tatik of Aghbag
• Ashen Yerets, of the Eghegek village of Pakrevand
• Samuel Yerets, of the Aradz village of the region of Ayrarad
• Deacon Apraham, of the Aradz village of the region of Ayrarad
• Deacon Kajag Rushdouni
AVEDARANOTS: Historically significant village in the province of Va rant, region of Artsakh, in Greater Haig (Armenia). It is now also called Chamakhchi, in the Askerani district of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. There are important churches and mon asteries there dating from the 13th century.
SHAHAPIVAN: City in the province of Dzaghgotsn, region of Ayrarad of Greater Armenia. It is regarded as an important religious and cultural center. It was a military location during the Arshaguni dynasty. It began to gradually lose its preeminence in the 6th century.
The Council of Shahapivan in 444, is historically significant for social issues. Basic social and religious rules were established there, in part as follows:
a. Clergy must live a morally pure life.
b. A priest may be ordained a bishop only with the consent of the Catholicos. Any person desiring to enter the religious order as priest or monk must apply to the bishop of the region. If in any province a clergyman or a layman has been anathematized, bishops from other regions may not bless them or release them from their anathemy.
c. Near relatives to the third degree may not marry one another. A husband and wife must remain faithful to one another.
d. Pagan customs, such as hopeless weeping and wailing over the dead, or satanic rites, etc., are forbidden.
e. Religious relics may be transferred from one consecrated site to another only with the written consent of the bishop, etc.
Courtesy of “Feasts of the Armenian Church and National Traditions” by Garo Bedrosian, 1993