23 February 2020
St. James Pilgrims Go Beyond the Sites
Published - 4 October 2019

A group from the St. James Armenian Church in Los Angeles, headed by the Parish Priest, Rev. Fr. Haroutiun Tachejian set out for Armenia on a two week excursion that took them to some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring places on Earth, and even more, gave participants a chance to connect with their spiritual selves at some of the most sacred spots of all Christianity. Armenia has its charm. It brings together the ancient and modern worlds in a most unique manner. And to be able to tap into that charm in a manner that brings joy and personal growth is part of the magic that comes with a pilgrimage such as this one.

Organized with the blessings and vision of His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese, this was the second pilgrimage led by Fr. Haroutioun at St. James. The popularity of last year’s trip prompted some of the participants to return for more this year with new faces and people from the parish getting on board as well.

Joining the group was Fr. Vazken Movsesian and members of his Bible Study group who had a special project in Sasnashen, Armenia. The two groups got together for an unforgettable two weeks in Armenia that culminated in an expression of humanitarian assistance to the children of that village.

Among the many sites that were visited were stops at the Dzidzernagapert Genocide memorial, Oshagan  - the resting place of Mesrob Mashdots, Sahgmosavank and the monasteries of Geghard, St. Hripsemeh, Etchmiadzin, Tatev, Shushi, Gandzasar, Sevan and Dadi. At each of these sacred shrines the participants were given specific details of the history associate with the sites by the exceptionally pleasant and knowledgeable guide, Kariné. Both Fr. Haroutioun and Fr. Vazken supplemented the history with spiritual reflections and Biblical correlations.

The pilgrimage took place during the 28th anniversary of Independence of Armenia. On Sunday, September 22, the pilgrimage participants attended the Divine Liturgy at the Monastery of St. Gayané in Etchmiadzin. There, His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians presided and Archbishop Khajag Barsamian was the celebrant. Following Holy Communion, the pilgrims received a special blessing from His Holiness. Getting a rare and special tour of the museum at Holy Etchmiadzin tuned them into the entire history of Armenian Christianity from the time of the Apostles. It also happened to be the 20th Anniversary of the passing of His Holiness Karekin I of Blessed Memory and a special requiem service took place around the grave of the Pontiff. Armenian President Armen Sarkissian was in attendance along with other state officials.

Beyond the usual fare, excursions were organized to Jermuk, Dilijan, Sevan and Artsakh, with time to take in the local flavor of the areas. A boat ride on Lake Sevan, an evening at the Mugerian Carpet Company, tours of Ararat Cognac factory and Areni winery and attending Aram Khatchadourian’s “Masquerade” at the Opera House all added to the excitement and flavor of a most remarkable assemblage of spirituality and history coming together in one tour.

True to his calling as the Pastor of St. James, Fr. Haroutioun made sure that every step and turn of the pilgrimage was filled with excitement and opportunities for participants to engage with everything Armenia had to offer. Each stop included lodging in some of the finest hotels in Armenia and meals at exceptional cuisines. Singing songs, telling stories, sharing comradery and strong prayers were joyously inserted by Fr. Haroutioun at each turn of the adventure. A large bus, with these Los Angeles-based pilgrims could be seen and heard throughout the most remote regions of Armenia, reflecting the joy and energy they received from being in Armenia. One of the participants summed it up nicely, “As each day ended, I thought it could not  get any better, only to find myself saying the same the following day. Every day was a new and full adventure.” Another said, “I feel like I have finally come home. I have found a place where my soul and spirit are alive. Thank you Fr. Haroutioun for making this opportunity for us.”

The finale of the Pilgrimage took place on September 29, in the Town of Talin where the Sasnashen Youth Center, a project of the Western Diocese, was officially opened with a Ribbon Cutting ceremony. The morning began with the celebration of the Divine Liturgy at the Holy Asdvadzadzin Church in Talin. Fr. Vazken was the celebrant, assisted by Fr. Haroutioun at the invitation of the Parish Priest, Fr. Tadé Takhmazian. It was the feast of the Holy Cross of Varak and for his sermon Fr. Vazken focused on the challenges of the “Armenian Cross” with a message for the locals as well as the pilgrims in the congregation. One-by-one, he mentioned the different stops of the pilgrimage, pointing out that they all pointed to the centrality of Jesus Christ in our faith. Read an excerpt from his sermon below.

Following the services, the entire congregation was led across the street to participate in the Sasnashen Youth Center official opening with a ribbon cutting ceremony. Read more details about the Center opening in a separate story called “Sasnashen Youth Center Opening.” At the invitation of the In His Shoes organization a celebration dinner was hosted in the home of one of the villagers. Food, wine, songs and Armenian dancing in the tradition of the Sasountsis made this a most fitting finale to two weeks of prayer and regeneration for the pilgrimage participants, each one taking away memories that will last a lifetime.

Excerpts from Fr. Vazken’s September 29 sermon on Varaka Khatch (translated):

Our pilgrimage took us to some of the most spiritually charged places in all of Christendom, visiting monasteries on hillsides, valleys and caves. We heard the Armenian language spoken and sung. We delighted in all that Armenia has become. Yet, the one fact remains that all of this is connected to the single activity we celebrated this morning through this Holy Badarak, namely, the celebration of the Good News in Jesus Christ.

You see, the reason St. Thaddeus and later his student St. Tadé came to Armenia was to witness to the resurrection of Christ which had taken place only 10 years earlier. The reason for Hripsimé and Gayané’s martyrdom, for Khor-Virab, for St. Gregory Enlightening journey to Armenia, for Tirtad’s conversion, for the vision of Etchmiadzin, was because of a true and solid faith in Jesus Christ. The reason why Mashdots invented an alphabet and therefore we have a language and a culture was for the purpose of translating the Gospel of Christ to Armenian. The reason our people painstakingly lifted bolder upon bolder and erected the architectural monuments that reflected the creativity of God, upon the hills of Tatevavank, at Saghmosavank and Noravank and throughout Armenia was to put Christ in the center of their lives. It’s the reason why they carved out the mountains around Geghard, or went to the extremes of building a monastery on an Island in the middle of Lake Sevan. It’s the reason why Sayat Nova gave his life to the priesthood or Komitas, as a monk, impacted the world of music. The reason for our existence against the odds, despite martyrdom, Genocide, or what Charents refers to as “our blood soaked wounds” (արիւնաքամ վերքերը մեր) were all for the centrality of what we celebrate today: the victory of life over death, of good over evil, or plainly, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Our pilgrimage, like our entire history, comes together because of the centrality of Christ in our lives.

We went to Tadevank – built upon the remains of St the student of St. Thaddeus who brought Christianity to Armenia a mere 10 years after the Resurrection. We visited the holy shrines of Sts. Hripsimé and Gayané. We lowered ourselves into the pit – the Khor-Virap – where St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 13 years as a prelude to the discovery of Christianity. We touched the site of “Etchmiadzin” where Jesus Christ pointed to the place where the Church of Armenia was to be built. At Oshagan we paid homage to Mesrop Mashdots and the 36 letters which gave form and growth to the Armenian language and culture. And visited monasteries on hillsides, valleys and caves.