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A tribute to my ‘brother,’ my ‘unger,’ my ‘Brother-in-Christ’ Der Vartan Kassabian

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On the occasion of the 40th day of his passing

By Megerdich Megerdichian

Before I begin my tribute to our beloved Der Vartan, permit me to begin with the following prayer:

“Oh, Heavenly Father, we pray for strength for this difficult time and for these difficult moments. Teach us acceptance of what we cannot understand. Teach us understanding of what we cannot change. For our lives, dear God, are in Your good hands. You give life, and sustain life, and grant eternal life. You, and You alone, know us individually in our depths. You, and You alone, know the sorrow in our hearts. Keep us, comfort us, and surround us with the love and presence of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who loves us and so holds our beloved Der Vartan before your Holy Throne. We thank you Father, even through clouded eyes, that through Your Son our beloved DerVartan lives in Your Eternal Heavenly Kingdom. Amen.”

***

We are always saddened when death invades a family circle, and quite naturally so. We are saddened because of our loneliness, our fears, and our uncertainties. However, as we remember our beloved Der Vartan on the 40th day of his passing, let us turn our fear into faith, our sorrow into joy, our loneliness into Divine companionship, and reach out to God, our “Divine Comforter.”

St. Paul in his first Letter to the Thessalonians writes: “But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”

If we were without hope, we might mourn; if we were without faith, we might despair; however, the very essence of our centuries-old Christian faith is hope. Hope, which is irrepressible and unshaken, despite trials and tribulations, despite tragedy and hardship, even despite death. Hope is the “anchor” of the soul and steadies us in storms, holds us up, and gives us a spirit to go on with our lives. When hope vanishes, our faith is weakened and there is pain, sadness, suffering, and mourning, for all has vanished. When hope is alive, our faith is strengthened and there is peace, comfort, joy, and love, for all things are alive.

Today, though we stand in the valley of the shadow of death, we stand in the light of the greatest hope the world has ever known: the hope of the glorious resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Today, though we stand in the presence of death and remember our beloved Der Vartan, we stand on the threshold of life: the “abundant (eternal) life” which our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has promised to each and every one of us.

On the occasion of the 40th day of Der Vartan’s passing, let us, once again, listen to the whispering tender voice of our Lord and Savior, who said: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. In this world you will have many trials and tribulations; but be of good cheer, for I have conquered the world.”

Yes, Christ conquered the world; and through his glorious resurrection, he conquered darkness, evil, sin, and even death. Therefore, as we reflect on the life and ministry of our beloved Der Vartan, let us not simply focus our thoughts on his sad, tragic, and untimely passing; but let us focus our thoughts on the glorious resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Let us reaffirm our faith and hope in His glorious resurrection and comfort one another by saying: “Chrisdos Haryav ee Merelotz, Orhnial eh Haroutiounen Chrisdosee”(Christ has risen from the dead; Blessed is the resurrection of our Lord”).

On the occasion of the 40th day of Der Vartan’s passing, let us once again be mindful that after every sunset, there is a new dawn; after every cold winter, there is a warm spring; after every storm, there is a calm; after every Good Friday, there is an Easter; and after every death, there is a resurrection. The important thing in life is that we live with faith, hope, and love, just like our beloved Der Vartan lived his life.

***

When I think of a verse that best describes the life of our beloved Der Vartan, a verse from Psalm 23 comes to mind: “Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.”

Psalm 23 is one of the most famous, well-known, and most recited Psalms of the Old Testament. Der Vartan loved Psalm 23 and would often recite this Psalm to console a family and help them cope with the loss of a loved one. The inspiring words of Psalm 23 touched his heart and soul.

As I reflect upon the life of our beloved Der Vartan, I realize that through God’s love, grace, and mercy, Der Vartan’s life was not only blessed, but blessed abundantly, to the point his “cup runneth over.”

***

I first met Der Vartan 35 years ago. We met in Providence at an AYF event. During that period in his life, we called him Markar or Max. We instantly bonded and were destined to become “brothers” for life. From the very beginning, we loved and respected each other and for 35 long years immensely enjoyed each other’s company.

We had several things in common: We were both born in the same year (I was born in June and Markar was born in December); we were both American-born Armenians; we both spoke Armenian; we were both in the AYF together; we both loved to sing and listen to sharagans and Armenian nationalistic songs; we both served on the altar of our respective churches; and we both joined the ranks of the ARF in our respective communities and became “ungers” for life. We were always together at AYF Olympics, chapter dances, picnics at Camp Haiastan, and Church bazaars at “Rhodes.” Aand despite the fact that we lived 100 miles apart, we often visited each other on several occasions. I fondly remember 16 Doyle Ave. in Providence and the good times we shared together with his mother Rose and sister Roxanne.

As the years progressed, we attended each other’s weddings; we studied in the Theological Seminary of Antelias; we attended each other’s ordination; and we were always together at our Ghevontiantz Clergy Conferences and NRA Conventions. I was instrumental in having Der Vartan’s first set of vestments sown (the vestments he was ordained in and later wore during his Wake and Funeral Services) and I was there when he celebrated his first Badarak in Granite City and assisted him on the altar.

It is impossible for me to recount the number of times our paths have crossed during our lifetime. To put it simply, I was always there for Der Vartan when he needed me and he was always there for me when I needed him. Markar, who later became Der Vartan, was my second brother. I loved him as much as I love my own brother John. Der Vartan was my “brother,” my “unger,” and my “Brother-in-Christ.”

I have 35 years of sweet and everlasting memories of Der Vartan; and I’m sure he had 35 years of sweet and everlasting memories of me. He would often say to me: “God never gave me a brother, but if he had, I would want him to be exactly like you. Thank you for being my brother. Your friendship is much more than I could have ever imagined or hoped for.” Through our sincere and heartfelt friendship, “God anointed his head with oil and abundantly blessed his life, and his cup runneth over.”

***

Adversity was no stranger to Markar. When Markar was 13 years old, his father Vahan passed away. His mother, Rose, was then faced with the responsibility of raising Markar and his little sister Roxanne.

Despite the tragic loss of his father, God blessed Markar with two beautiful uncles, Peter Postoian and Thomas Postoian. Like two Guardian Angels, “Uncle Pete” and “Uncle Tommy” watched over Markar. They loved him and raised him as a “son” and they gave him the fatherly guidance and support that Markar needed during the formative years of his childhood.

As the years progressed, God blessed Markar with two additional father figures: Mal Varadian, and his younger brother, Jay Varadian. “Uncle Mal” and “Uncle Jay” instilled in Markar the love and importance of family and the duty and responsibility of community service. Without a doubt, Uncle Mal and Uncle Jay were both shining, outstanding examples of family and community service to Markar.

Not only did Mal and Jay Varadian provide Markar with a lifetime of fatherly love, guidance, and support, but they played a pivotal role on Markar’s road to ordination and helped him realize his dreams of becoming a priest. Markar would always say: “If it was not for Uncle Mal and Uncle Jay, I would have not realized my dreams. I appreciate everything the Varadian family has done for me and my family throughout my life. The Varadian family has a special place in my heart. God bless the entire Varadian family.”

Most children have the privilege of being raised by one father; God blessed Markar with the privilege of being loved and raised by five outstanding exemplary fathers: his biological father Vahan, Uncle Pete, Uncle Tommy, Uncle Mal, and Uncle Jay. Once again, “God anointed his head with oil and abundantly blessed his life, and his cup runneth over.”

***

In addition, Markar was blessed to be born and raised in the city of Providence, in particular, the Armenian community of St. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church. Providence was, is, and will always be a community with deep nationalistic feelings and aspirations. For decades, even after the fall of the First Republic of Armenia in 1920, the Providence community proudly raised the tricolor and kept alive the hopes and dreams of a free, united, and independent Armenia. This community organizations like the ARF, the ARS, and the AYF to preserve and protect our Armenian identity, language, and culture, so that we could worship in the faith of our forefathers, and at the same time, strive for a Free Armenia. Markar was blessed to be born and raised in such a nationalistic Armenian stronghold.

It was in this city that Markar joined the ranks of the AYF and the ARF. It was in this city that Markar became an “unger,” a member of the Providence ARF “Kristapor” Gomideh. These two organizations, along with St. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church, gave Markar’s life purpose and meaning. Markar was always proud to be an Armenian, proud to be an AYFer, proud to be a Tashnagtsagan unger, and proud to be affiliated with the community of St. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church. He faithfully served the Providence community and forged many bonds with a countless number of individuals and families. He had a very large “extended” family and, without a doubt, was loved by all.

Through the love, support, and generosity of the Armenian community of St. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church and Vartkes Markarian, the Godfather of his Ordination, Markar realized his dreams of becoming a priest. Without a doubt, it would be impossible to list the names of all the people that morally, spiritually, and financially helped Der Vartan. You know who you are, God knows who you are, and rest assured, God will bless you for your sincere and heartfelt sacrifices.

In addition, Der Vartan realized, without Providence, there would be no Der Vartan. For this reason, he would always say: “Home is where the heart is; and my heart will always be in Providence.”

Without a doubt, Der Vartan was one of the most compassionate, well-loved, humble, and faithful servants of the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian Prelacy. The Providence community should be proud that they cultivated and produced such an individual; and that individual was able to faithfully serve the Armenian Church and nation. If Der Vartan were here today, I am sure he would say: “God bless and keep the community of St. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church; God bless and keep the Providence AYF “Varantian” Chapter; God bless and keep the Providence ARF “Kristapor” Gomideh; and God bless and keep all the individuals and families that helped me realize my dreams.”

Indeed, God blessed Markar with not only his immediate family, but with an enormous “extended” family. Once again, “God anointed his head with oil and abundantly blessed his life, and his cup runneth over.”

***

As the years progressed, God had another wonderful surprise for Markar. God blessed Markar with a beautiful partner-in-life, a soulmate, whom he loved more than life. That soulmate was Pauline Bergreen. Pauline was Markar’s faithful and devoted wife; and God gave them the pleasure and responsibility of raising three beautiful children: Scott, Susan, and Mgo. As the years progressed, so did their love for one another. The Kassabian family was a loving family and the Kassabian household was a blessed household. Markar witnessed his son Scott’s wedding, he walked his daughter Susan down the aisle at her wedding, and was blessed to witness the birth of his son Mgo, who was his pride and joy. In addition, Markar was blessed with two grandchildren, Grace and Gabriella, and a great father-in-law, mother-in-law, and several sister-in-laws, brother-in-laws, nieces, and nephews. For 21 long years, he loved and enjoyed his family, and his family loved and enjoyed him.

Markar’s family was now complete. He now had the family he always wanted and so much deserved. Once again, “God anointed his head with oil and abundantly blessed his life, and his cup runneth over.”

***

It was at this point in his life that I began to see God’s Master Plan for Markar slowly, but surely, coming to fruition. I could see that God was holding Markar in the palm of His hand and that he was destined to a higher calling. In the Holy Gospel of John, Christ speaks to his disciples, and says: “You have not chosen me; but I have chosen you” And, indeed, I believe God had chosen Markar to be one of His good and faithful servants.

As I mentioned earlier, Markar was no stranger to adversity. He wanted to become a priest in the mid-1980’s and wrote to our Prelate, His Eminence Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian of Blessed Memory, and informed him of his calling. Initially, Archbishop Ashjian was reluctant to accept his candidacy to the priesthood.

I have to admit, there were many of us, like Archbishop Ashjian, who did not take the time to know the “real” Markar. We only saw Markar on the surface and unjustly judged him by his physical appearance and mannerisms. We saw Markar as a loud, boisterous, and comical young man, who through no fault of his own, was born with two bad hips and walked funny.

Unfortunately, only a few of us took the time to look into Markar’s heart and soul; and when we did, we discovered a heart of gold, a true treasure, a man of great faith and conviction, a man who was passionate about his Armenian identity, a man who sincerely loved Christ and his homeland of Armenia with all of his heart, soul, and mind, and a man who was always ready and willing to faithfully serve the Armenian Church and Nation.

Unfortunately, Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian made a decision based on Markar’s physical appearance and hearsay. He said to Markar, “I appreciate your candidacy to the priesthood and admire your dedication; however, I cannot picture you as a priest. You are a young man with a comical personality and, I feel, people will not take you seriously.”

Markar was devastated and disappointed. In the coming days, weeks, months, and years, he met with me on several occasions to express his sorrow and disappointment. He confided in me and sought my advice. He knew I loved him, he knew I cared about him, and he knew I wanted to help him realize his dreams.

He said, “Der Khatchig, what should I do? Ever since I was a child, I dreamed of becoming a priest, and now my dreams have been shattered.” I said to him, “Markar, do not be discouraged! Do not be disappointed! Do not give up your dreams! Have faith and believe in God. Do not be afraid; for with God the impossible is possible. God is with you.”

“Markar”, I said, “I want you to persevere. Show Mesrob Srpazan your unwavering love and dedication to the Armenian Church and nation, despite his decision, and one day God will answer your prayers.”

As I reflect upon these words, I have come to realize that these words were a message from God to Markar through me. God had chosen me to be his messenger and Markar needed to hear these words from God. Now I realize that my 35 year friendship with Markar was not just a coincidence, but it was one of God’s great blessings, with a divine meaning and purpose. My lifelong friendship with Markar was part of God’s Master Plan.

Throughout the years, Mesrob Srpazan tested Markar and placed numerous hurdles in front of him (too numerous to mention); however, like a true Providence AYF Olympic Athlete, Markar jumped over all of those hurdles and won the race. Like the patron St. Vartan he was named after, Markar proclaimed: “From this faith, no one can shake us; neither angels nor men; neither sword, nor fire, nor water, nor any, nor all other horrid tortures.” “Vassen Hesoosee yev Vassen Hayrenyatz” (for the Love of Christ and for the love of Armenia), I will prevail.” Ironically, like St. Vartan, Der Vartan lost his life on the battlefield; but, like St. Vartan, Der Vartan will always be remembered for generations to come.

Markar was ordained at St. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church in Providence on July 26, 1992 by his Eminence Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian and anointed “Der Vartan.” By the love, grace, and mercy of God, Der Vartan realized his dreams and taught us all a valuable lesson: “Never judge a book by its cover.” Never judge a person by his appearance, but take the time to look into his heart and soul. You may just discover a treasure. And, indeed, Der Vartan was a treasure, treasured by all who knew him and loved him. Once again, “God anointed his head with oil and abundantly blessed his life, and his cup runneth over.”

***

Like a true and faithful servant of the Lord, Der Vartan lived his life according to the Golden Rule: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and Love your neighbor as you love yourself. “

Throughout his life, Der Vartan faithfully served the communities of Whitinsville, Mass., Granite City, Ill., and North Andover, Mass. In addition, his pastoral responsibilities took him to Portland, Maine, Camp Haiastan, AYF Junior Seminar…

He often came to Providence to visit family and friends; and during his short stays always made time to visit friends that were either hospitalized or sick at home. He gave them communion and prayed with them. As we all know, Der Vartan had a great sense of humor and during his visitations, he made everyone laugh. He would often say, “Laughter is the best medicine” and he had plenty of funny stories to entertain us.

He loved bringing happiness and joy to everyone; but he was also a kind, caring, and compassionate Der Hayr who was always there to comfort us in our times of sorrow and grief. He would often drive from North Andover to Providence to attend a funeral of a close friend and offer words of comfort to console a family coping with a loss of a loved one. As he enters his eternal rest, I am confident Der Vartan was greeted by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who said: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter now into the joy of the Lord.”

During Der Vartan’s Wake and Funeral Services, all of us witnessed the outpouring of love, sympathy, and tears from hundreds of mourners. His Wake and Funeral Services were attended by two Archbishops, over 30 Brothers-in-Christ, Rhode Island Secretary of State Mollis, Mayors Ciccilini and Fung of Providence and Cranston, R.I., and hundreds of mourners. The Rhode Island State Senate even acknowledged Der Vartan’s passing with a State Resolution. Once again, “God anointed his head with oil and abundantly blessed his life, and his cup runneth over.”

***

During the Wake and Funeral Services, and the days and weeks thereafter, many of us said: “Der Vartan’s sad and untimely death was a tragedy.” However, just think, if Der Vartan had never been ordained a priest, that would have been an even greater tragedy.

In 17 short years, Der Vartan accomplished more than some priests accomplish in 40 or 50 years of service. On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Der Vartan’s ordination, Mesrob Srpazan publicly apologized to Der Vartan at his anniversary banquet in Granite City, and said: “Der Vartan, you have become one of the most faithful and well-loved priests of the Armenian Prelacy. I am proud of your accomplishments and the Armenian Prelacy is proud of your accomplishments. I should have ordained you before 1992. I publicly acknowledge that I initially misjudged you and I hope you can forgive me. Thank you for your unwavering love and dedication to the Armenian Church and Nation.”

Let us always remember, it is not the number of years we live in this world that is important; it is how we live those years that is important; how many people we reach out to and touch; how many people we can bring to God and to the service of our nation. The quality of life is much more important than the quantity of life; and when it comes to the quality of life, we can all say: “Der Vartan lived a full life and, literally, touched thousands of people.” His funeral is a testament to the number of people he reached and touched.

In his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes: “For me to live is Christ; and to die is gain.” In other words, to live is to serve the Lord and to die is to be with the Lord. Throughout his lifetime, Der Vartan faithfully served the Lord; and now he is with the Lord. Today and always, let us be mindful that we are not saying “goodbye” to our beloved Der Vartan, but we are saying “farewell,” “pari janabar,” “until we meet again” in God’s Eternal Heavenly Kingdom. Our Christian faith teaches us that death is only a temporary separation, and one day, we will all be together again for all eternity.

Rest assured, Der Vartan is now in the presence of God and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; he is in the company of the saints and angels, and his loved ones that have gone before him, resting in Heavenly Peace. He is looking down upon us, he is watching over us, and he is praying for us. He is saying: “Love one another as I have loved you. Live with faith, hope, and love. Faithfully serve the Lord and the Armenian Church and Nation with all your heart, soul, and mind. Follow my example all the days of your lives and I will be with you forever and ever.”

Der Vartan, you will always be with us forever and ever. You are in our hearts, our thoughts, and our prayers. You always have been, and you always will be.

May the Holy Spirit comfort us and give us strength, may God illuminate your eternal soul, and may you “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

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