FEAST – ST. SERGIUS (SARKIS) THE COMMANDER
St. Sergius (Sarkis) enjoys special popularity among the Armenian faithful. The feast day is movable, occurring between January 11 and February 15, and follows the five-day abstinence for the Catechumens (Arachavorats), as established by St. Gregory the Enlightener. Although the abstinence interval is not associated with the Feast of St. Sergius, people often mistakenly call it the abstinence of St. Sergius, or the St. Sergius week of fasting.
In families where there is the name Sarkis or Mardiros or Mardig, festivities are held with relatives and friends to congratulate the honoree.
LIFE OF ST. SERGIUS THE COMMANDER
Sergius the Commander was Greek by birth, and a Roman citizen. Although for centuries he had been memorialized and his feast day celebrated, it was not until the 12th century that St. Nerses the Gracious made a thorough study of his life and wrote a biography. Commander Sergius lived in the fourth century. He was appointed military commander of Cappadocia by Emperor Constantine of Rome (337). A later Caesar (361-363), Julian the Apostate, suddenly began an intense persecution of Christians, making every effort to restore the old pagan faith.
The Commander was a devout and faithful Christian. He fled Cappadocia to Armenia with his son Mardiros. Then, fearing that his presence in the Armenian royal household might precipitate war between the Greeks and the Armenians, he moved on to Persia where he was gladly received by King Shapouh II (310-379). He was designated by the king as commander of the Persian forces at the Perso-Roman border.
Commander Sergius claimed many military victories and left the Persian king much pleased. On the other hand, word of his preaching Christianity reached the Persian royal palace.
The devious King Shabouh II invited Commander Sergius and his son Mardiros to take part in their great religious holiday. Though the Commander had a premonition about the impending threat, he decided to attend anyway and there declare his true faith within the royal circle. The inevitable did occur. Commander Sergius refused to bow before the idols and the fire. Moreover, he spoke defamatory words about the Persian gods. The enraged magi seized his son Mardiros and killed him on the spot. Commander Sergius was sent away to a distant place to be beheaded. The order to do so was carried out.
Fourteen faithful of his soldiers who had embraced Christianity went to recover Sergius’ body and bury him honorably. But they too were arrested and put to death in the same manner. Unyielding faithful persevered stubbornly and succeeded in finding Commander Sergius’ body, and sent it to Assyria.
This episode was justification to class Sergius the Commander, who was martyred for his faith, his son Mardiros, and the fourteen soldiers among the saints. During the fifth century, St. Mesrob Mashdots, in a meeting with Assyrians, obtained the remains of St. Sergius and brought them to Armenia, storing them in a hamlet named Karb, in the region of Vasburagan.
In reverence and admiration for the Commander, his son Mardiros, and the soldiers for their faith, the Armenian people have over the centuries built countless churches named in their memory. It is noteworthy that in churches named after St. Sarkis, and often in other churches, there may be a painting in which St. Sergius is shown astride a white horse, with a spear piercing a dragon which symbolizes evil. Usually, below such paintings tare trays provided where worshippers light candles to the saint seeking intercession.
Over the centuries, St. Sergius has been the subject matter for our illuminators of miniatures who have tried artistically to portray, to the best of their abilities, the commander’s noble and brave character and strong faith. We also find gems in our literature dedicated to St. Sergius.
To understand the boundless faith our people have had in calling on St. Sergius as an intercessor, even to the level of fanaticism, we recommend reading the heart-rendering tale by the peerless martyred writer Roupen Zartarian, “Baud Muh Chour” (A Drop of Water).
There are many cities with large Armenian populations having churches named after St. Sarkis. On the feast day of the saint, those churches hold glorious religious festivals and conduct the blessing of “madagh.”
POPULAR TRADITIONS CONNECTED WITH THE FEAST OF ST. SERGIUS
According to popular tales, St. Sergius the Commander had rescued a girl. As written by Avedis Aharonian, the girl was a Jewess. But according to the writer Armenouhi G. Der Garabedian, the girl was Greek.
This traditional belief is the reason why young people have such a warm fondness for St. Sergius the Commander, believing that the Saint best understands them as young people and can therefore help them in the realization of their dreams. Based on that, young people, especially girls, maintain an agonizing fast for three or five days during the week preceding the feast day of the Saint. In any case, abstinence is the rule for that week. Also, in earlier times, a wheat and flour meal was put on the corner of the roof where St. Sergius would ride by on his horse. The next morning the members of the household would look to see the horseshoe imprints on the rooftop and they would gather up the meal and feed it to young people so they would attain their desires.
Two significant traditions were penned by Avedis Aharonian. “On that feast day, using pure flour, they baked a very salty bun (Gata). Young men and maidens ate of those buns in the evening and went to bed for the night without drinking water. If in their dreams they gave or received water from the object of their love, that was a sign that their wishes would be realized. On Saturdays, in bringing their abstinence to a close, young men and girls placed their first bit of food on the rooftop and monitored it to see which morsel the crow, which does not usually leave the village in winter, takes, or in what direction it flies with the morsel of food. These would be indication of which girls would become lifemates.”
GLOSSARY – NOTES
CONCERNING THE VISIT TO ARMENIA BY ST. SERGIUS THE COMMANDER: St. Nerses the Gracious wrote that the visit occurred when Diran was King of Armenia (339-359). Arshag II was King of Armenia (359-368) during the reign of Julian the Apostate (361- 363).
Courtesy of “Feasts of the Armenian Church and National Traditions” by Garo Bedrosian, 1993