Armenia was the first state to become officially Christian, and this set a precedent for the adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire in the fourth century (beginning with the emperor Constantine, and becoming more thoroughly so under the emperor Theodosius). As a buffer state between the empires of Rome and Persia, Armenia endured many shifts of policy, as first one and then the other empire became the kingdom’s “protector”.
Gregory, known as the Illuminator and as the Apostle to the Armenians, was born about 257. According to legend his father was an Armenian or Parthian of noble birth who assassinated the Persian king Chosroes the First. As an infant Gregory was rescued and taken to Caesarea in Cappadocia, where he was brought up as a Christian. There he married a woman named Mary, who bore him two sons. About 280, he returned to Armenia as a missionary, eventually converting the Armenian king, Tiridates the Great (Armenian Trdat), to the Christian faith. With the king’s help, the country became Christian, and paganism was rooted out. About 300, Gregory was ordained a bishop at Caesarea. He established his cathedral at Vagharshapat, which came in time to be known as Echmiadzin (Ejmiadzin) and which remains to this day the seat of the Catholicos of the Armenian Church.
There is no record that Gregory attended the Council of Nicaea in 325, but according to tradition he sent his younger son Aristages in his stead, whom he had ordained as his successor as the catholicos (bishop) of the Armenian Church. Gregory spent his last years in ascetic solitude, and he died around the year 332.
adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts
Almighty God, whose will it is to be glorified in your saints, and who raised up your servant Gregory the Illuminator to be a light in the world, and to preach the Gospel to the people of Armenia: Shine, we pray, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth your praise, who called us out of darkness into your marvelous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Gregory the Illuminator, Bishop and Missionary of Armenia, are published on the Lectionary Page website.
Among the works written by the late Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness is his Prayer of St Gregory, written in honor of St Gregory the Illuminator.