Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Gregory, whose account is found in Volume 3 of the series.)
Saint Gregory the Illuminator
There have been several saints of the Church named Gregory. Each has added to his name a title, not so much to distinguish one from the other as to suggest what he is primarily remembered for. Although the title “Illuminator” distinguished the Gregory who is presently our subject, he was not so called just for the sake of avoiding confusion in names. He was called the “Illuminator” because he was a beacon of Christianity that brought the light of Jesus Christ to an entire nation.
Gregory the Illuminator was born into the royal family of Armenia during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (284-314). Fortunately for his native land, he was attracted to the new faith of Christianity, whose faint light he saw on the horizon when his countrymen were groping in spiritual darkness, lost in a welter of pagan ignorance and superstition. By birth, he was destined to lead his people to what would have been the oblivion of paganism; by choice, however, he led his countrymen to the throne of heaven through Jesus Christ by discarding the royal purple for the garb of the Christian priest.
His preparation for his future missionary work was completed under the pious Archbishop Leontios of Caesaria. The archbishop must have wondered how the conversion of a nation steeped in pagan tradition could be brought about by a single priest, who had to pit the wisdom of Christianity against the ignorance of idolatry. But Gregory knew his people and went back to Armenia secure in the knowledge that they would ultimately come to Christ. The troubles that lay ahead would come from those in power, not from the common man whose parched soul needed to be watered by the love of the Savior.
It is common knowledge that Armenia became the first country to officially adopt Christianity as the religion of the realm. The events that brought this about were designed by the masterful and dedicated Gregory, whose unswerving loyalty to Christ brought distinction to his native land and spiritual laurels to himself. He built the first Armenian Church in the year 301 at a place called Etchmiadzin or “The Descent of the Only-begotten.” To this day the residence of the Patriarch of Armenia is still located there after sixteen hundred years, except that it is now known as Yerevan.
With each success in the development of Christianity, Gregory met mounting opposition from King Tiridates of Armenia, who thought it his duty to cling to paganism and to discredit Christianity. Failing to stem the Christian advance, the king ordered Gregory to be exiled. Thus he was exiled at Ararat, the place where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the floodwaters had receded. Little did the king know that the faith that was flooding his country would never evaporate. Expatriation soon proved not enough, and the king decided to heap all manner of indignities on the pious Gregory. He hoped so to weaken him physically and spiritually that his leadership would be rendered useless.
Accordingly, Gregory was thrown into a pit, there to abide with the crawling creatures of the damp earth. Thus his enemies hoped that his spirit would be broken and that his cause would fail for lack of his guidance. It is estimated that Gregory lived in the ignominious pit for a period of fifteen years. During this time he was kept alive with the help of Christians who dared to come to his assistance. His courage and steadfast loyalty to Christ served only to strengthen Christianity. Finally he was reluctantly released to complete his mission, which culminated in his conversion of the royal household itself and the conversion of Armenia to Christianity after centuries of spiritual stagnation.
Armenians still pride themselves on their first unified acceptance of Christianity. Nothing can extinguish the light that was brought to them by Gregory the Illuminator, who died in 332 but lives today in the hearts of Christians everywhere.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.