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  • Fr. Hovnan Demerjian

More Than Words

Armenian Genocide

On many different sermons and studies we have noted the inability of words to properly capture and define the goodness and greatness of God. For as soon as we use our human words, we must acknowledge that our greatest words still fall pitifully short of the greatness and goodness of God who is always infinitely beyond our small, mortal reach. Thus the starting point of all true worship is to recall that God is sacred, is a mystery, and mysteries can’t be grasped, we can only be grasped by them.

Something we have never heretofore spoken of, however, is that just as it is hard to find the proper words to describe the great goodness of God, it is also very hard to find the proper words to describe the great badness of the evil one. We Armenians have come up against this problem whenever we refer to the greatest evil which has ever befallen us, the Armenian Genocide.

Indeed, words literally failed to describe this event. A new word actually had to be invented, by Jewish human rights lawyer Raphael Lemkin, to describe the past massacres of Armenians, Assyrians and others, and the Jewish massacres which were then in process. Genocide was that word.

Inventing that word, however, did not solve the difficulty of describing our genocide, which persists to this day. There is of course the contentious conversation of what word the world uses to describe our Genocide, that political battle is still being fought in courtrooms, and legislatures around the world, as well as in classrooms and billboards in Boston, New York, Chicago and LA.

But there is even much difficult discussion among Armenians of what words to use to describe this great evil that befell us. As just one of many examples, I looked back and found a chain of emails, more than 45 messages long, debating the words of the inscription to be inscribed on last year’s genocide monument. Should it be 1.5 million Armenians murdered, or massacred, or slaughtered or perished or were they simply victims? Was this done by the Turks, the Ottoman Turks, the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman Government?

There is not, and there never will be an easy way to talk about the Armenian Genocide, because this was a great evil that is beyond normal words to describe. That’s why perhaps the most accurate way to describe the Armenian Genocide is the original term used in our language Mets Yeghern. “Great Calamity” is usually how that is translated but Yeghern is more open than that, terrible “happening,” something that happened to us, so bad that we can’t yet put words to it and neither should anyone else. Like the God of great goodness, this event of great evil is sacred, it’s a mystery, it should not be touched lightly. You cannot grasp the genocide and get easily over it, you can only be grasped by it and go through it.

Put another way, when it comes to expressing great love or overcoming great hate, words fall short. Show me don’t tell me. In the Holy Scriptures, God has many words to guide us when our own words fall short, but his ultimate Word was by coming in the flesh to guide us, by the life and death of his Son Jesus Christ.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, Եւ բանն մարմին եղեւ, եւ բնակեաց ի մեզ, to show us—where words fall short—how the darkest evil can be transformed, with God into new life, renewed love. In doing so, God’s Word, Jesus, gives us the final word to describe the Mets Yeghern the “great happening” that befell us. That word is not victim, it is not murdered and it is not massacred—it is martyred. Martyr is the Greek word for “witness.” So the final word on what happened in the Armenian Genocide is that our ancestors were witnesses to, participants in, the passion of Christ, his suffering and his resurrection.

Thus today, on this Feast day of the Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide, let us turn again to God’s Word where our words fail. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says in today’s reading as if talking to our Genocide Martyrs, “Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will also come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also…I am the way, and the truth, and the life. (Jn 14:1-6).”

And so today, “let not our hearts be troubled,” that our ancestors were violently taken from their homes on this Earth. Let us be confident- as they were-in the ultimate Word of God that “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” And that as we speak, our martyrs, our ancestors have arrived safely and joyously home, where, when it is our time, Our Lord will also prepare a place for us, now and always; amen.

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