This calendar of saints is drawn from several denominations, sects, and traditions. Although it will no longer be updated daily, the index on the right will guide visitors to a saint celebrated on any day they choose. Additional saints will be added as they present themselves to Major.

Friday, September 30, 2011

September 30 -- Feast of Gregory the Illuminator

I almost skipped Gregory because I figured "Illuminator" meant that he was a gifted illustrator or icon artist and there would be nothing interesting to say about him.  I am glad that I took a look because Greg stands tall among those who should be more celebrated than they are. 

Gregory, Illuminated
The international politics of the third and fourth centuries (Anno Domini) are pretty intricate.  To describe it simply, Parthia was a big powerful empire which bordered the Roman Empire to the east.  At its height, it included Iraq, Kuwait, and Iran / Persia.  Poor little Armenia was a football for Rome and Persia, each ostensibly supporting Armenian independence against the other.  In practice, this meant that Armenian kings were always being toppled by agents of the larger empires in favor of closer, more subservient pretenders to the throne. 

Gregory's father, Anak, was a Parthian assassin sent to kill King Khosrov of Armenia.  I guess that Khosrov was too friendly with the Romans for Parthia's comfort.  Anak was in turn killed, and his son Gregory might have also been done in, had not a pair of foster parents whisked the boy away to Caesarea in Cappadocia (Turkey).  They raised him as a devout Christian; he married, had two sons, and at some point returned to Armenia. 

King Trdat the Great (Tiridates III) wasn't really eager to have the son of his father's assassin in the country, even if he had moved to Roman territory.  He didn't really welcome a Christian either, since he subscribed to the indigenous polytheistic beliefs.  So he had Gregory arrested, tortured, and thrown into a pit used as a pauper's grave.  It was full of decomposing corpses, rats, snakes, and filth.  They figured that Greg would die there, but instead he survived for fifteen years, living on the meager rations dropped to him by a pious widow.  Greg's own wife, by the way, was a nun by this time, having declined to move to Armenia with him.

Note the Armenian script by his right hand
Trdat, meanwhile was betrayed by the Emperor Diocletian.  The Romans had supported Trdat's war against the Parthians following Khosrov's death, but given some other shifts, Diocletian judged the time right to seize the western provinces of Armenia and annex them as Roman territory.  Poor Trdat lost his wits. According to some legends, he was transformed into a boar, and not just any old boar, but one possessed by a demon.  It's sort of hard to be a statesman when you are a pig possessed by a devil. 

Greg's right hand, in Lebanon
Trdat's sisters were given visions to say that only the prayers of Gregory could save their porcine brother.  They of course thought the holy man was dead, but launched a search for him anyway.  He turned up in the same pit where he had been dropped years earlier.  A long bath, a shave and a haircut, and maybe a full meal and sleep in a real bed were all he really needed.  He cured Trdat, baptized him, got himself appointed the Bishop of Armenia, and set out to convert the country.  In this he was aided by his new best buddy Trdat, who declared Christianity to be the official religion of Armenia, making it the first nation on the planet to establish that faith as its official religion.  He did this in AD 301, one year before Galerius persuaded Diocletian to launch a general persecution of Christians.

Greg's relics were venerated in Armenia until the Iconoclasts brought their intolerance to town.  They they were hustled off before they were lost.  Now they are spread out from Italy to Lebanon.  Oh, and the Catholics and Orthodox celebrate him on September 30, but to the Armenian Church (which ought to have the final say, really) his feast is on June 9. 

Last year's post on Saint Jerome, one of the four Latin Doctors of the Church, is linked here