One of the main differences between the Protestant churches on the one hand, and the ancient Apostolic churches, including the Armenian Church, on the other hand is that the latter have canonized saints, while the former have not.
The first thing we must know about saints is that we do not adore them; we adore God alone. We simply venerate the saints as the true and closer followers of Jesus Christ. Just as the state honors and respects its great men and women, so the Church honors its saints. By honoring the saints, the Church values their love of God and their devotion to His cause on earth.
Saints are to us as models to be imitated, because they were better and closer imitators of Christ. St. Paul says: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (I Cor. 11: 1). The veneration of the saints is really an incentive to a better Christian living.
Saints were made of the same flesh and blood as we are, meeting the same difficulties and temptations as we do here on earth. They were subject to the same infirmities as we are. Yet they became imitators of Jesus Christ by conquering those infirmities and temptations. That is why they are honored.
The list of saints is headed by the Holy Virgin Mary, as she is the first and greatest saint of the Christian Church.
She is a great saint for two reasons: a) She has the most and the highest qualifications which make a saint; b) She has played the most important role in the life of Christ, our Saviour. Therefore the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary is due to the recognition of her divine motherhood, and of the unique sanctity which was hers as the mother of the incarnate Son of God. Our veneration is shown by the fact that her picture with the Child Jesus in her arms is placed on all our church altars.
The veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been spontaneous and gradual, almost without stimulation of Church authorities. Speaking of the gradual manner in which the veneration of the Holy Virgin has been established in the Church, someone has said: “As she increased day by day in God’s grace in Nazareth, her home town, while the world knew nothing of her, so the Holy Spirit, working in the Church, has raised her silently and by a natural process to the place which she occupies in our churches.”
Her image is found in catacombs, the earliest places of Christian worship. This proves that from the earliest times the Church has shown great veneration to the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary. The first and the most venerated shrine in the Armenian Church, Holy Etchmiadzin, is dedicated to her. Our Prayer Books, as well as our Hymn Books, are full of songs in her honor. The honorable position which she enjoys in the Church is nothing else but fulfillment of her own prophecy about herself, as preserved in the Gospel: “From now on all generations shall call me blessed, because He that is mighty hath done great things to me” (Luke 1: 48-49).
Scripture and Tradition agree in ascribing to Mary the greatest personal sanctity. She has shown the greatest humility and patience in her daily life. Humility and patience are the key virtues in a holy life. She has exhibited a heroic patience under the most trying circumstances, on Calvary for example at the Crucifixion of her beloved Son.
Mary was truly the mother of Jesus; and as Jesus was truly God from the first moment of His conception, therefore Mary is truly the Mother of God, “Astvadz-a-Mayr,” as we call her affectionately in our language.
As Mary is the mother of Christ, so she is mother of all those in whom Christ live. Therefore, we have the right to claim Mary as our mother, in so far as we identify ourselves with Jesus by the life of grace, i.e., by a true Christian life.
Eve is our natural mother, because she is the origin of our natural life. Mary is our spiritual mother, because she gave birth to One who became the origin and source of our spiritual life.
We must realize and declare that nothing has exercised a more profound and a more salutary influence upon Armenian womanhood than devotion to and veneration of the Holy Virgin. If Armenian women had higher moral attributes in the East than their sisters in other neighboring nations, it was mostly due to the high esteem that our Church has about this Holy woman, the mother of Christ.
May she continue to be always an inspiration to all of us, particularly to our mothers and sisters, for a higher, purer and better life.
The Armenian Church observes five main holy days in honor of the Virgin Mary: a) Annunciation on April 7; b) Her Conception from Anna, her mother, on December 9; c) her Birthday on September 8; d) her Presentation to the Temple when she was, according to tradition, three years old, on November 21; and e) her greatest holiday, however, is the Feast of Assumption, which is celebrated in our Church on the Sunday nearest to August 15, and lasts nine days.
Assumption means “taking up” (to heaven). The Armenian word for the feast, “VERAPOKHOUM,” has the same meaning. This great feast of the Church honors the Holy Virgin for the sanctity of her life and purity of her heart with which God has endowed her, our blessed Mother. The story behind this great feast, in a nutshell, is this: because of her extreme holiness and purity, St. Mary was preserved from corruption after her death and was raised and taken in heaven. The Assumption differs from the Ascension of our Lord in the fact that Christ went up to heaven by His own divine power, whereas St. Mary was taken up by the power of God, and by the ministry of angels.