A Journey into a Merciful World: Christmas at St. Vartan Cathedral with Sant’Egidio Community

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By Ruth Bedevian

Her face lit up with overwhelming emotion as she cried out, “Oh, I really needed this coat, as she put aside the wrapping paper and tried on the navy-blue parka. It appeared to be an LL Bean or similar knock off, promising to keep its owner very warm through snow, sleet, wind and icy weather. In that moment, I could not fathom who was happier, she or me! Her radiant face is a glowing image that I will treasure from this 2019 Christmas Day “Luncheon & Fellowship” at Haik and Alice Kavookjian Auditorium that was co-hosted by Sant’Egidio Community and St. Vartan Cathedral.

My son, daughter, granddaughter and I were among the volunteers responding to an email request for donors and/or volunteers sent from the office of the Vicar, Father Davit Karamyan.

On Christmas morning, we delighted in our granddaughter Ruby’s excitement with Santa’s overnight visit and the stockings and gifts he had left under the tree. We satisfied our appetites with our Armenian breakfast which every year includes choerag, tel banir (string cheese), basterma and olives and then we set off to New York City, not knowing what to expect as this was a deviation from past Christmas Day activities.

The day grew to be a divine journey into a merciful world where the words from the Gospel resounded more rewarding, more profoundly into one’s heart: … “in as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40)

Morning volunteers wrapped over 175 gifts of new clothing provided from in-kind donations and donor dollars. The afternoon shift served delicious warm Christmas fare to guests who had been sought out in various parts of the city shelters and streets and given a printed invitation to join a Christmas Day Luncheon celebration at St Vartan Cathedral, at 630 Second Ave. As in planning a Banquet for visiting dignitaries, over 80 volunteers from both the Armenian and Sant’Egidio communities, gave attention to every detail to create a Christmas celebration where all could encounter the gift of God’s love to the world in the birth of His son.

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When everyone was seated, Paola, a representative from Sant’Egidio Community (https://www.santegidio.org/) welcomed the guests: “Everyone here has been invited… We all have a season in life of being neglected or lonesome. Know that you are welcome here.”

Another organizer from Sant’Egidio Community, Andrea, took the microphone to catch everyone’s attention and asked individuals to raise their hands to tell what other languages they spoke. Responses were varied — Spanish, Italian, Russian, some African native tongues albeit every soul spoke one common language — that of the human heart.

Fr. Davit Karamyan, vicar of St. Vartan Cathedral, offered the Lord’s Prayer in Armenian. There was no family-style service. Each guest was served an individual plate and seconds were in abundance. After a variety of desserts were served, each guest was presented with a wrapped gift with his/her name tag.

I sat with a table of eight, both men and women of varying ages. Perhaps like me, they did not know what to expect, but to fill their hunger with a warm meal. An elderly widow with no relatives sat next to me. She spoke English and Portuguese. A homeless woman spoke intelligently about world issues, seemingly well educated, yet unsettled. We were strangers to one another and together we created a sense of inclusion akin to family. My granddaughter, donning a festive elf costume, “worked” the room, visiting the tables and offering all the guests oranges. Her sociability, her curiosity, and her gentle spirit brought smiles to each person’s face.

A familiar adage applies: You learn something new every day.

I learned the Community of Sant’Egidio is a lay community of faithful with an ecumenical approach and enjoys a long history with the Orthodox churches and in particular, friendship with the Armenian Church and several of its clergy, including our recently elected Primate, Bishop Daniel Findikyan (Eastern Armenian Diocese) who has been a volunteer in past events. The Diocese and Sant’Egidio have partnered for the last several years on December 25. This is the first year, however, that the larger space of Kavookjian Auditorium was used to accommodate the growing number of guests.

I learned the Community of Sant’Egidio was established in 1968 in Rome and has grown from small beginnings. Today it is a global network of small communities, giving assistance to people in various needs -the terminally ill, the physically and mentally handicapped, refugees — the marginalized populations around the world. In 1982 the Christmas Day Luncheon Celebrations were first organized, using the sanctuary of a church in Rome and now are celebrated across the world on December 25 in various available venues. It is estimated that membership numbers 50,000.

I learned how to pronounce Egidio (E -gee-dee-o) l learned that Saint Egidio (St. Giles in English) was a monk of Greek origin who lived in southern France in the 7th century. The ancient Church of St. Egidio from which the Community of St. Egidio takes its name and the iconography of the monk defending a doe from the arrow of the king is noteworthy as a sign of defending the poor.

I felt the joyful depth, refreshment and hope in celebrating the birth of the Baby Jesus in the openness, the embrace, the inclusion of all God’s people. To touch, to see, to feel is greater than any words can express.

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