On Sunday, June 22, the Armenian Church will celebrate the Feast of the Catholic Church of Holy Etchmiadzin (canonically known as Don Sourp Etchmiadzini Gatoghiguh Yegeghetzin). The cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin was built in A.D. 303, after St. Gregory the Illuminator had a vision in which Christ struck the ground with a golden hammer and instructed Gregory to erect a church on the site. The feast day commemorates the founding of the Universal Church (the idea that there was one church, founded by Jesus Christ and spread by the Apostles) and St. Gregory’s vision. It follows the Feast of St. Gregory the Enlightener (his deliverance from the pit), which will be observed on Saturday, June 21.
The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin
The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin lies among the vast fertile valley of River Arax, near historic Mount Ararat, where, according to Biblical legend Noah landed after the Flood.
The Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin is one of the most ancient and most beautiful examples of Christian architecture. It was founded to commemorate the proclamation of Christianity as the national religion of Armenia. The original building was completed in 303 AD.
Since its distant beginnings, Etchmiadzin has remained the spiritual center of the Armenian people.
Etchmiadzin was built on the site of settlement called Vardkesavan after Prince Vardkes. The renowned Armenian historian Movses Khorenatzi (Moses of Khorene) writes that under King Vagarshak this rapidly growing and thriving settlement was fortified by a wall and a large rampart and renamed Vagarshapat or Nor-Kakhak (New Town).
In the middle of the 2nd century A.D., the Romans, having destroyed Armenia’s capital of Artashet, established themselves in Vagarshapat, which they renamed Cainepolis, and proclaimed it the new capital. For more than two centuries Vagarshapat remained the capital of Armenia and the seat of the Armenian kings.
It acquired growing significance as Christianity became the official religion. The Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin, built from 301 to 303, became the seat of the Armenian Church. However, 60 years later the invasion of the Persian army reduced Vagarshapat to ruins. But the Persians did not touch the cathedral. Today’s city of Etchmiadzin sits on the ruins of the ancient city of Vagarshapat — the city getting its name from the cathedral.
Etchmiadzin is Armenian for “the descent (echnel) of the only begotten (miatsin).” It is so named because of its origins in the miraculous vision of St. Gregory the Illuminator. St. Gregory saw Christ’s hand descend from heaven, then strike the land with a gold hammer. The image of a church soon appeared on that location. On that spot, St. Gregory built the cathedral, which he called Etchmiadzin.
The name of the feast day is officially “Feast of the Catholic Church of Holy Etchmiadzin” (canonically known as Don Sourp Edjmiadzni Gatoghiguh Yegeghetzin, found in the book of days liturgical calendar). It is not Catholic in the Roman Catholic sense, but in the older meaning of the word: Universal.
The use of the word “Catholic” to mean universal can also be found in the word Catholicos, which means universal bishop. It reflects the idea that there was one church, founded by Jesus Christ and spread by the Apostles. Using the term “Catholic” was a way of noting that fact despite the difference in language and local hierarchy that developed as the church grew. It is as a “Catholic” church that the various bishops and leaders gathered for the various ecumenical councils, trying to hammer out issues as one universal church.
The use of “Catholic” can also be found in the creed:
We believe also in only one Catholic and Apostolic holy Church