The relics of St Gregory the Illuminator (Lousavorich) are one of our most revered within the Armenian Church, as well as all Christian Churches.
The discovery of the relics of St Gregory the Illuminator is one of the three significant feast days dedicated to the memory of the Patron Saint of Armenia and the impact of the holy father on the foundation of that which has become our National Church.
As St Gregory grew old and became more involved in solitary life, King Tiridates III (Drtad) asked him to ordain Gregory’s younger son Arisdagés, a bishop, and to take him on as his assistant. Gregory had already retired by 325AD, when the Holy Council of Nicea took place, and thus he sent his son Arisdagés in his place to participate in this first ecumenical gathering of bishops of the Christian Church. In his retired state, however, Gregory continued his pastoral work by preaching and writing homilies, employing a simple language so that people could understand.
According to Holy Tradition, following Armenia’s conversion to Christianity, in his final years, St Gregory led an ascetic life in the cave of Mane. The “Caves of Mane” were located on a mountain named Sebouh, near Erzindjan (now in Eastern Turkey), where he died. This place had previously been the residence of the Virgin Mané, one of St Hripsime’s companions. It is unclear how long St Gregory lived there and when exactly he died. Shepherds found his body and buried him beneath a pile of stones, not recognising the Armenian Pontiff.
During the fifth century, a hermit named Karnig of Basen was guided by a vision to the grave of the saint and discovered his relics. It was customary in those days to distribute relics of saints to various churches in different parts, and most probably, the same practice was implemented in St Gregory’s case. Karnig took the body of the saint to the village of Tortan, in the province of Daranagh, located to the east of Mount Sebouh, and buried some of the relics there; the rest were taken elsewhere. At some point, on or near St Gregory’s unmarked grave, a church was built, which is now known as The Holy Saviour Monastery of Tortan (Grave of the Nine Saints). The exact site of St Gregory’s grave in Tortan was not known, even to visitors in the tenth century; but nine other graves existed inside the church and were said to belong to King Tiridates, his queen Askhen, his sister Khosrovitoukht and other members of St Gregory’s family. The church has been abandoned since the events of 1915.
The remaining relics of St Gregory were later taken to the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Pakavan (Bagavan), where St Gregory had baptised King Tiridates and the Armenian people in the Aradzani River. The relics were kept in a box and taken out on important occasions. In 450 AD, a rumour arose in Armenia that St Vartan and the Armenian wealthy and influentials had accepted the Persian religion during their visit to Persia’s royal court. On returning, they were met by a gathering of priests, noblemen and common people who held forth the box of St Gregory’s relics as a reminder of their Christian roots. Similar incidents occurred at times of turmoil and joy.
The relics of St Gregory were later taken and laid beneath the massive columns of the Holy Zvartnots Church, whose ruins are still visible near the airport of Yerevan. The saint’s skull was kept separately in a box. At some point the skull was transferred to the West and is now kept in the church of St Gregory the Armenian in Naples, Italy. Recently, some other relics of St Gregory, deposited in Naples, were recently transferred to the Armenian Church by the Roman Catholic Church, as a tribute to the 1700th anniversary of Armenia’s conversion to Christianity.
Today, relics of St Gregory may be found at Holy Etchmiadzin, Holy Jerusalem and Antilias. The relic at Holy Etchmiadzin, encased in an arm shaped reliquary, is used to bless the Holy Chrism (Muron) once every seven years. It is on display in the treasury of the Holy See.
In the calendar of the Armenian Church, the discovery of the relics of St Gregory is an important feast and is commemorated on the Saturday before the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost.
Ref: Very Rev. Fr. Krikor Maskoudian, adapted from his book “The Holy Feasts of Saint Gregory the Illuminator: Celebrating the Life & Lineage of Armenia’s Patron Saint” (2003).