Last Thursday, at our monthly men's dinner, we celebrated the Feast of St. Patrick, complete with corned beef, cabbage, and Guinness. I noted during my talk that night that some of the greatest stories ever put to paper were written by hagiographers, those who write about the lives of the saints of the Church. In the olden days, one did not write comic books about super heroes and amazing feats, instead one wrote of the life of St. So-And-So full of miracles of ridiculous proportions. Surely Jesus told the truth when he promised the Disciples, “greater things than I have done, you will do.”
Today the Church remembers one of its earliest, non-apostolic saints, Greogory the Illuminator. Gregory was born about 257 in Armenia. Soon after his birth his father was accused of assassinating the King and was drowned, apparently with his whole family save two sons, while trying to escape. Gregory and an older brother are the only two who survived the ordeal, and Gregory was taken away to Caesarea in Cappadocia where he was raised a Christian. In about 280, he returned to the land of his childhood and was arrested when he refused to take part in the pagan customs and declared himself a Christian. His punishment would have been severe for that charge, but it was made worse when the King figured out that Gregory's father had killed his own Father, and Gregory was sentenced to twelve years in a pit. Here's where the story begins to get fun. The pit, according to legend, was full of dead bodies, poisonous filth, and serpents. Gregory's only means of survival was some bread, tossed daily down the pit by a faithful widow. As the years grew longer, King Trdat grew more and more maniacal, until one day he ordered a holy virgin, named Rhipsime, killed for refusing his advances. Trdat is then turned into a boar and possessed by an evil spirit in punishment for his terrible behavior.
One of Trdat's sister's, after having a vision, seeks out Gregory, who everyone thinks is long dead, and he is pulled from the pit. During the next 70 days, Gregory fasted, preached, and taught, eventually converting the King to Christianity. The royal court and upper class of Armenia soon followed, and after Trdat made Armenia the first nation to declare Christianity the official state religion, Gregory led the army as it moved throughout the country converting peasants and townsfolk along the way. It is said that the move to Christianity in Armenia was so swift and so pervasive that very little of the folk religion of Armenia is able to be pieced back together. According to his hagiographer, Gregory is said to have baptized four million people in seven days. He then ordained 12 missionary bishops who helped bring the Church in Armenia to a total of 400 bishops and priests too numerous to count before Gregory's retirement to the hills of Upper Armenia around 320. Gregory died in a small convent of monks around 331. The greatness of his story doesn't end there, as the great tradition of Saints Relics takes his head to Italy and his right hand to Lebanon, while at least his left hand remains in Armenia.
Gregory's life, before the embellishments of his biographer, was an amazing one, full of the amazing grace of God. His surname, the Illuminator, is one to which I think we all aspire. Jesus, during the early part of his sermon on the Mount, promised all of his followers, from Peter to the last man, woman, and child in the crowd, that as followers of his true light, they too could be a light to the nations. He admonished them not to cover that light with the bushel basket of pride or fear, but instead to he asks us all to let our light so shine before other that they might see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven. We won't have to shine light in the a depths of a pit of filth for a decade or more, but maybe you'll be called to shine a light into a friend or family members own personal pit of despair. Maybe you'll be asked to shine the light of Jesus into a heart that has long since turned dark and gloomy. Chances are, you'll never know how brightly you light has shone for someone in need.
This afternoon, as we remember Gregory the Illuminator, we pray again for the light of Christ to come into our lives, to shine through our cracks, and to bring honor and glory to God. Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, who is in heaven. Amen.