Memory Eternal, Vladyka Hilarion

From a homily on the eve of Mid-Pentecost, Tuesday May 4/17, 7530/2022, at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church

We gather this evening of the Mid-Pentecost Feast for Vespers and for memorial prayers for the blessed repose of our ever-memorable Arch-Pastor, Metropolitan Hilarion. The Feast of Mid-Pentecost is in one sense a commemoration of joyful sorrow, because it reminds us of the movement toward the end of the Paschal season, being the halfway mark between the Resurrection and Pentecost. But it is likewise joy-filled because of that passage. The Church at this feast reminds us of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ as Teacher. The Church’s Gospel reading for Mid-Pentecost refers to our Lord teaching in the middle of the Old Testament Feast of the Tabernacles, teaching about Himself being sent from God, and also about the living waters of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, prefiguring Pentecost and related to the tradition of the blessing of water on Mid-Pentecost, while pointing also to the upcoming Sunday of the Samaritan Woman. This spring-time festival was the altar feast of the great Hagia Sophia Church in Constantinople. Often icons for this feast reminds us of the account of an incident from His youth, when He taught amazed elders in the Temple, but others also show the Gospel account (see below). The emphasis on teaching in both parallels His own wondrous teaching of His followers between the Resurrection and Ascension, including their encounter with Him resurrected as well as His precious words, through His farewell. Mid-Pentecost thus is a reminder of the transition from His grounding of the Church in His Resurrection, His ultimate teaching, to Pentecost. Then, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit fulfilled the Resurrection’s universal promise by overcoming the divisions of mankind and fully founding the Orthodox Church, against whom the gates of hell cannot prevail. For the same Holy Spirit reaches out to each of us in community in the Body of Christ at Chrismation and each Eucharistic Communion.

Icons of Mid-Pentecost (above) of Jesus Christ teaching the elders as a youth, and (below) of Him later teaching mid-feast (the Gospel reading for Mid-Pentecost).

Tonight as we begin Mid-Pentecost we also bittersweetly commemorate the start of the third day of the repose of our beloved Arch-Pastor Metropolitan Hilarion. His holy life and his falling asleep in the Paschal season looks toward Paradise with our Lord Jesus Christ. Coming from a rural Ukrainian immigrant farming community in western Canada, he became first seminarian and then monk at Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville (where he was cell attendant for Archbishop Averky), and then beloved for his pastoral gifts as a hierarch in eastern America and then Australia, overseeing the growth of parishes within the Russian Church Abroad. From the time he was a young seminarian and novice and bookstore worker at Jordanville he was remarkable for his kindness. He went on through God’s grace to become First Hierarch of the worldwide Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.

Some of us here remember so well in 2015 when we traveled to St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Mayfield to receive his blessing to start our mission in a region of central Pennsylvania where there was no Orthodox parish, and across a wider area no Russian Orthodox parish. He was such a kind and grace-filled pastor and teacher. He joins a line of unforgettable reposed arch-pastors of the Russian Church Abroad, including Metropolitan Anthony of blessed memory, who led our Synod out of the Bolshevik Holocaust into the West, where he also taught the importance for our redemption of our Lord Jesus Christ sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, our Lord’s human nature vowing “not my will but Thine be done.” His ever-memorable predecessors also included the holy Metropolitan Philaret of blessed memory, who suffered torture as a prisoner of the Chinese communists, among other holy teachers and arch-pastors. Metropolitan Hilarion became the first leader of ROCOR born in North America, for his predecessors had originally come from what Americans called “the old world.” He is universally mourned for his loving compassion, and is taken from us at a time of great challenge for the Russian Orthodox Church and the world at large in these latter days. But the Paschal season reminds us of our Lord’s words, “be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

When at the end of his last book The Brothers Karamazov the Orthodox writer Fyodor Dostoevsky describes a funeral, he focuses on the same familiar prayer we sang tonight for Metropolitan Hilarion’s blessed repose: “Memory eternal!” This is a plea to God to remember the reposed, as well as for us to remember the reposed, and in effect also for all of us to remember God. It bespeaks the synergy of ascetic prayer with God’s grace emphasized in Orthodoxy. That discussion of death and after-life in the book’s ending features the words of the young man Alyosha, drawn to monasticism and mourning also the recent death of his spiritual father, Elder Zosima. (Some even speculate that Alyosha was based on a young Metropolitan Anthony who met Dostoevsky as a youth when named Alexei or Alyosha, as his elder was based in part on St. Ambrose of Optina Monastery.) IAlyosha tells a group of mourning children at the funeral about the importance of good memories:

“…there is nothing higher or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood, from the parental home. You hear a lot said about education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life. And even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve some day for our salvation. Perhaps we will even become wicked later on, will even be unable to resist a bad action, will laugh at people’s tears and at those who say, as Kolya exclaimed today, “I want to suffer for all people”—perhaps we will scoff wickedly at such people. And yet, no matter how wicked we may be—and God preserve us from it—as soon as we remember how we buried [him], how we loved him in his last days, and how we’ve been talking just now, so much as friends, so together … the most cruel and jeering man among us, if we should become so, will still not dare laugh within himself at how kind and good he was at this present moment! Moreover, perhaps just this memory alone will keep him from great evil, and he will think better of it and say: “Yes, I was kind, brave, and honest then.” Let him laugh to himself, it’s no matter, a man often laughs at what is kind and good, it just comes from thoughtlessness; but I assure you, gentlemen, that as soon as he laughs, he will say at once in his heart: “No, it’s a bad thing for me to laugh, because one should not laugh at that!”

            “’I am speaking about the worst case, if we become bad,’” Alyosha went on, ‘but why should we become bad, gentlemen, isn’t that true? Let us first of all and before all be kind, then honest, and then—let us never forget one another….

            “You are all dear to me, gentlemen, from now on I shall keep you all in my heart, and I ask you to keep me in your hearts, too! Well, and who has united us in this good, kind feeling, which we will remember and intend to remember always, all our lives, who if not [him whom we remember today]. Let us never forget him, and may his memory be eternal and good in our hearts now and unto ages of ages!”….

            “’Memory eternal!’” the boys again joined in.

            “Karamazov!” cried Kolya, “can it really be true as religion says, that we shall all rise from the dead, and come to life, and see one another again, and everyone, and him [who has passed]?’”

            “’Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been,’” Alyosha replied, half laughing, half in ecstasy.

(Pevear and Volokhonsky translation)

The novel is in many ways, as the Orthodox professor Donald Sheehan noted, about self-emptying in faith versus modern emphasis on self-assertion. In that, the love from the Elder Zosima is transmitted to Alyosha, and from him to the boys he addresses after the funeral.

Elder Zosima’s repose; an illustration by Alice Neel from The Brothers Karamazov

Such a life-changing memory of the funeral gathering is personal as Dostoevsky portrays it, ultimately leading to the real source of our personhood in the God-man Jesus Christ. Persons of holiness implant such memories in us, to the glory of God, as icons of Christ for us in our lives. So, from our childhoods in Orthodoxy, and the childhood of our mission, we honor the memory of our Church’s father Metropolitan Hilarion. He helped guide the birth of this mission and of our lives in the Body of Christ here. We take a memory together today from his kindness in offering us a nurturing shelter as exiles from the world and from turmoil even within the larger Orthodox Church. We take that memory to apply now in our lives and pass forward to others, too, as we grow in Orthodoxy and as we unworthily become, God willing, influencers for good to others also young in Orthodoxy. Dear brothers and sisters, our best remembering of Vladyka is to live those qualities of Jesus Christ we venerate in his life, that his memory may be eternal and shine brightly between God and us, from this time in the joyous Resurrection season, on now to the path toward Pentecost, and unto the Ages of Ages, Amen. For Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

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Christ is Risen! Christian Transhumanism and Theosis

Dr. Jean-Claude Larchet gave an excellent talk today at Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, hosted also by Holy Trinity Publications, on “Divinization as the Christian Project and Model of True Transhumanism.” So many of the attacks on Christian anthropology and faith today emanate from a false technocratic secular transhumanism, which shapes systemic secularism that seeks to bury traditional Christian culture. Orthodox Christianity provides an answer as outlined by Dr. Larchet’s talk.

Indeed He is Risen!

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Faith, Hope, Charity abide. But the greatest…

(Given at the Ninth Annual Bucknell Sustainability Symposium on Radical Hope, April 23, 2022

Thank you for this opportunity to offer thoughts at this ninth sustainability symposium. Thanks also to my student Pierce Hoffer for reading this paper for me today. It relates to his study of dystopia and existentialism in story, especially to the author Paul Kingsnorth’s work. Needless to say, Pierce is not responsible for the contents of this paper, so please do not kill the messenger. Sadly I would wish to be with you, but happily in another sense, I am currently helping to lead services for the Eastern Orthodox Pascha, our holiest observances of the year, so please understand my absence in that context.

“Radical Hope,” the title of this symposium, echoes the title of a book by Jonathan Lear. Lear is an Anglo author who sought to take certain tales and words of the Crow Indian people in America and highlight that concept in a book. But I’d like to suggest that “radical hopelessness” is a better verbal banner for us in mainstream Western secular culture. The award-winning novelist Paul Kingsnorth in his writing deals with the grey area between radical hope and radical hopelessness He abandoned radical environmental activism and various forms of modern spirituality for intentional rural living with his family in an ancient spiritual tradition. He transitioned from activism to what he called Dark Ecology to writing of resistance against what he calls the global Machine. In his blog during Covid shutdowns in rural Ireland where he lives near Galway, he compared the current  global drive for techno-power to magic. He quotes Francis Bacon’s definition of science:.

The knowledge of causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.

Then he compares that foundational quote to the occultist Aleister Crowley’s modern definition of magic: The science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the will.

Kingsnorth concludes: “These [definitions] could be swapped around without anybody really noticing. The thread that links them together is control. Both the scientific enterprise, and the magical quest which it was [originally] part of, spring from the same desire: to know the world, and to bend it to our will.”

(You can find, and should subscribe, to Paul Kingsnorth’s writings online at his substack, The Abbey of Misrule, https://paulkingsnorth.substack.com/p/do-what-thou-wilt?s=r)

In the same series of essays last fall, entitled “Divining the Machine, “ Kingsnorth also writes:

“The powers of the world are merging: corporate power, state power, institutional power, ideological power, the power of the oligarchs who built and control the Internet, the power of the network itself. Call it the Great Acceleration, the Great Reset, the coming of Technocracy: whatever you call it, it has been long planned and long feared, and now it is upon us….

“The Machine makes us – is designed to make us – homeless. It rips up our roots in nature, in real cultures connected to time and place, in our connection to the divine centre. In their stead we are offered an anti-culture, an endless consumer present: planned, monitored, controlled, Smart, borderless, profitable and soul-dead, increasingly detached from messy reality, directed by who-even-knows, mediated through monitored screens.

“I am trying to say two things here. Firstly, that an unprecedented technological network of power and control is being constructed worldwide, which is walking us into a tightly-controlled future in which both humans and the wider natural world will be bent to this network’s needs. Secondly, that in this bending, we are losing the essence of what it means to be human.

To which he added a third thing: “…rebellion is necessary, if we are to remain human at all.”

“But why a machine?” he asks.

“Why choose this particular image to try and pin down this thing that is enveloping us? Well, partly because it is a term that has been used many times before, by better writers and thinkers than me, and I think it has still has protein on its bones. I’m working, in that sense, within a tradition. But also because, as an image, it sums up everything that I can feel rising around me: an emotionless, inorganic system; something not of the ground but of the abstract, questing mind; something that does not meet human needs but which works to replace them or create them anew; something which is pitiless and determined, and which has some task to fulfill.

“Above all, a machine is something that is unnatural: something constructed. Specifically, it is constructed of separate parts, all of which, when taken together, perform the wider function for which the machine is designed. If today, then, we live under the reign of the Machine – a global network of communication and control which is much bigger than any of us, and which bends us to its will – what is this machine made of? What are its parts, and how do they operate? The simple answer is: technologies, and especially digital technologies. We live now in a tech-saturated world; one that has crept up on us rapidly within my lifetime and yours. In the [so-called] ‘developed’ world today, it is virtually impossible to live outside this system…”

(The above paragraphs are from https://paulkingsnorth.substack.com/p/you-are-harvest?s=r)

Kingsnorth titled the last essay in his series chillingly “You are the Harvest,” a phrase that also parallels the work of Shoshana Zuboff on the American left in her tome The Era of Surveillance Capitalism.

In such a situation as we are now trapped in, radical hope disconnected from deeper contexts of the heart can just feed the human isolation nourished by the global Machine described by Kingsnorth, by making us more cheerfully burning members of its machinations. Returning to the Crow worldview and the stories that Lear packaged into his book Radical Hope, we find their cultural roots involve a level of spiritual tradition with which we generally do not approach sustainability. It seems outside the visual field of twenty-first century politics. From the globalization of neoliberalism all the way even to the Green New Deal, any packaged culture of secular sustainability ultimately runs the risk of co-option by the Machine.

When a group of Bucknell students and faculty led by former lacrosse coach Sid Jamieson came to visit the longhouse of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in upstate New York, we met Tadodaho Sid Hill, spiritual leader of the Iroquois. I asked him what in his view is the greatest problem the U.S. has with the environment. He replied “separation of church and state.”

That surprised our group. But by this he meant that, the tendency to separate spiritual tradition from American daily lives, including our approach to the environment, hurts sustainability in our culture. It deprives us of humility. It leads us to over-value self-assertion and consumption, and to what Dostoevsky suggested were the demonic aspects of the Machine, while neglecting the face-to-face relational identities that include the spiritual.

The latter were important to Dostoevsky’s existentialism of faith and love alongside hope, but he felt they were being erased by Western culture. That process leads us to forget about the values embodied in the great Haudenosaunee concept of the Seventh Generation: To think about the seventh generation to come in making decisions today. This is a recognition of the mystical spiritual unity between people in the past, present, and future, and indeed with all creatures in the network of life that includes each of us.

The Seventh Generation is an antidote to what the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn called two leading principles of destructiveness and oppression in mechanistic totalitairanisms of the modern world, namely “survive at any cost” and “only material results matter.” Solzhenistsyn warned those destructive principles can inhabit in different ways both prison camps of revolutionary regimes and canyons of Wall Street.

When I first came to Bucknell, my faculty mentor was an adopted member of the Crow nation that Lear studied. Prof. John Grimm is a Religion scholar now based at Yale. John liked to tell me and others about the Seventh Generation sculpture at Bucknell. The sculpture had been dedicated by Chief Oren Lyon of the Haudenosaunee peoples, as the indigenous confederacy that had once governed this region. But the hostility engendered by that sculpture, despite its beautiful meaning for sustainability, shows how our politics even when in resistance to the Machine often still partakes of it. That sculpture was vandalized twice by faculty who considered its seventh figure, in the shape of a fetus, to be an anti-abortion statement. To this day it only has six figures left representing the seven generations. Recently some campus administrators have made statements to the effect that the sculpture is not authentically Native American. However, members of the working group of Native Americans at Bucknell this year re-affirmed their commitment to the Seventh-Generation outlook as authentically Native, and their rejection of any erasure of it due to Anglo-American politics, and their support of the iconic but neglected sculpture on campus.

There are many examples at American educational, corporate, and media institutions of rejection of spiritual traditions, including those of minority religious and cultural traditions such as my own, which I also have experienced firsthand from some but not all colleagues in higher education. Such aggressive rejection of spiritual tradition is typical of techno-perspectives that reduce sustainability to a materialistic matrix alone, to neocolonialist Western scientific secular terms. Doing so impoverishes sustainability by removing truly diverse elements such as the Seventh Generation tradition.

Even when we think we are resisting environmentally destructive activities in the name of sustainability, we are still immersed in the Machine, like fish turning in water, or characters in the Matrix movie. In the final novel of his Buckmaster Trilogy, Kingsnorth describes how a technological elite identified with the Machine melds aspects of Artificial Intelligence and the Singularity to seek technological immortality on a destroyed earth. In the words of the free peoples still living apart from the Machine in the woods, they suck the body and soul out of people into a Metaverse.

In biblical terms, we are told that the first progeny of technological culture came from the offspring of Cain, the proto-murderer and liar. Thus Solzhenitsyn wrote of the “permanent lie” in modern technocracy as propagating a virtual reality that kills. Even we who value sustainability and subscribe to radical movements for it, how much time do we spend in cyberspace each day, how much do we value travel to faraway places to try to find ourselves, and an uprooting and re-making of our lives into a new virtual reality? We do carbon offsetting that like some kind of distant landfill is out of sight and out of mind and of questionable effect, to ease our consciences. We do not sacrifice professional careers that place us in the dominant top few percentages of people on earth in terms of consumption of resources. We do not form close friendships with people outside and beneath our technocratic standing and class.

Paul Kingsnorth suggests in his writings that it is separation of the mind from the heart that underlies our civilization’s crisis. In moving from radical activism to Dark Ecology and through various modern spiritual practices, he now helps tend a small family farm in rural west Ireland, cutting hay with a scythe. He was baptized last year in the River Shannon into the ancient traditions of a neighborhood Romanian Orthodox Christian community.  Significantly, the last book of his Bucknmaster trilogy, Alexandria, ends with the environmental destruction of both the communities of the neopagan resistance to the Machine and the Machine’s avatars. Exiled members of the resistance join with the former technologically post-human character known as K, seeking to survive in a diluvian catastrophe, which symbolically joins them all with the sea. The ending of the novel significantly centers amid this catastrophe on Glastonbury Tor as the refuge of the survivors, a landscape of great mythic significance in Britain, according to legend the repository of the Holy Grail and a center of Arthurian legend and early Christianity. It is a reminder of how the spiritual side of landscape is a refuge from the Machine for us as we seek sustainable hope today. My academic work on the early origin legends and archaeology of Glastonbury, together with my environmental journalism on landscape restoration, led me at Bucknel to my interests in sustainable landscape in the Susquehanna Valley, alongside my studies of otherworldly landscapes in literature.

Russian Christian philosophers in exile or under persecution from Communism called the  mystical spiritual unity exemplified at Glastonbury at the end of Kingsnorth’s trilogy sobornost. How do we achieve it today? The Apostle Paul famously spoke of three abiding entwined aspects of life, the source of dwelling, as hope, faith, and love. Dostoevsky’s Christian existentialism and his storytelling resistance to the Machine celebrate that type of spiritual dwelling in those otherworldly grounded virtues as well. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for,” Paul also wrote. But he says of the three groundings of dwelling that abide, of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love.

Without faith and love, hope by itself also can be but a clanging cymbal, devoid of real meaning, disembodied and superficial, a pep rally for the Machine consuming us and the earth. So much of American life in our unsustainable culture is based manically on radical disconnected hope, like a Hollywood theme just telling us to follow our dream. Trying to solve the world’s sustainability problems with hope disconnected from the spiritual traditions represented by faith and love, or the Seventh Generation sculpture, is like trying to just whistle past the graveyard of eco-catastrophe. Technology itself will fail to answer crises of climate change and environmental despoilation if solutions are rooted in the same technological mindset in which we are becoming the Machine, Kingsnorth argues. Better in such a case to adopt hopelessness than a false-flag technocratic operation of hope, which just further immerses us in a soulless Metaverse of digital determinism.

One way to find authentic hope, with faith and love, is in spiritual traditions. Bucknell does have such traditions, but they need to be excavated and highlighted and renewed in fragmented form. They are a way to build radical hope that is also connected to faith and love. In the President’s Sustainability Council’s Campus Trail project, to encourage fitness and foot and bike commuting and meditative experience outdoors in natural settings, we have also, in collaboration with Shaunna Barnhart’s Sustainability Path effort, formed a Story and Art Trail working group. Its goals include a public art project for the Campus Path connecting the trail also to a journey evoking spiritual traditions of the Bucknell landscape.

First, a committee of Bucknell Native Americans has formed, to sponsor the new Sid Jamieson Fellowship. This will include work honoring Native American stories of the landscape, including perhaps a sculpture representing early students and staff of Native background at Bucknell, and/or early Native leaders of this region. That public art work may deservedly include an honoring of Sid Jamieson himself, as a wise elder in our midst. In addition, the plan includes highlightng and perhaps re-locating the Seventh Generation sculpture to a more prominent place.

Second, a group of Bucknell students is developing the Bucknell in the Civil War and the Underground Railroad project, in collaboration with WVIA and Stories of the Susquehanna Valley. They look to tell the story of why Bucknell students and faculty chose to fight for the Union and against slavery at Gettysburg and elsewhere, and of Charles Bell who found freedom on the Underground Railroad and reunited with his family in Lewisburg, working at Bucknell.

Finally, we’re working also with local Baptist historical networks to tell the story of the founders of Bucknell as the University at Lewisburg and its Female Institute, a pioneering effort to include women in higher education, which also hopefully will be featured in trail art.

These are small symbolic efforts that we hope to see embodied in the new Campus Trail– to help connect people with spiritual traditions of landscape that can help sustain us in humbler and more mystically connective ways, even if on a small level, encouraging renewal of a more intentional community in the spirit of the Seventh Generation sculpture. From such linking of hope to faith and love we may hope to grow modestly beyond either an isolated radical hope or hopelessness, to a sustainability infused with faith, hope, and love, in spiritual solidarity against the Machine, realizing deeper sustainability of the heart.

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Faith and Freedom

The article appended below appeared recently on the Princetonians for Free Speech website. It is an account of a situation at a secular (formerly Baptist) American university that reflects trends and situations around American education currently. While freedom of speech is not an article of Christian faith per se, it is a reflection of Christian cultural backgrounds of the United States, in the link between the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” and the U.S. Constitution and original Bill of Rights. Eric Nelson has cited cultural underpinnings of foundational American constitutionalism in neo-Stuart Jacobitism (as opposed to revolutionary Jacobinism), rooted in Christian ideas of monarchy and spiritual unity, and each person as made according to the image of God, “under God.” For Orthodox Christians in America, an element of concern with current negativity about freedom of speech on campuses is that it often links with hostility toward traditional Christianity and bias against Orthodox Christians, including especially Russian Orthodox tradition.

From an Orthodox theological perspective, as the late poet and Dartmouth professor Donald Sheehan noted, rights (including free speech) are not about self-assertion but self-emptying. Symphonia between Church and State in historical Orthodox tradition (symbolized by the double-headed eagle) is typed in part by the U.S. First Amendment’s synergy of freedom of religious expression with not establishing religion (not identifying it as the State in effect)–in a Constitution that nonetheless cites “the year of our Lord” with its signatures. The synergy between sobornost (conciliarity) and govenie (ascetic discipline and obedience to hierarchy) in the Orthodox Church illumines her approach to freedom. It should be freedom not to destroy others through objectifying pornography and hate, for example, but freedom for humility in a “nation under God,” as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address put it by linking statements about God in the Declaration to the Constitution. The Russian Orthodox Christian philosopher S.L. Frank (who himself experienced persecution both under Communism and under Nazism as a dissident of Jewish background) in exile defined freedom as “voluntary service to universal truth,” in the person of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, who tells us “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

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[From Princetonians for Free Speech]

Bucknell University’s faculty recently voted down a free-speech motion. It was a ritual slaying.

By anonymous vote, professors opted 191 to 31 to prevent any discussion of the motion, and to require a super-majority to resurrect it in future, by postponing it indefinitely.

In doing so, faculty at the highly ranked liberal-arts university in central Pennsylvania sought to put a stake in the heart of what are known as the University of Chicago Principles, which call for universities to allow free speech of all kinds except such “unprotected speech” as threats, harassment, and libel.

Despite 80-plus other institutions having adopted the Chicago Principles and leading Bucknell alumni supporting the measure, Bucknell faculty members made themselves outliers from their own university’s values, given that its mission statement calls for support of “different cultures and diverse perspectives.”

But the Bucknell professors also provided an extreme caricature of what faculty culture in America has become today in the eyes of many: Narrowly ideological, intellectually xenophobic, and passively-aggressively policing others’ views.

More and more Americans view such privileged U.S. educators as willing to destroy the liberal-arts tradition and American civil culture for the sake of ideological dogmas and their own status.

The Bucknell proposal was brought up to the faculty once before, in 2017, by faculty sponsors of varied political views. At that time it was tabled indefinitely, purportedly to avoid “negative publicity” from a direct “No” vote, after the university counsel had intervened to call it unnecessary. But a parliamentary flaw in that tabling allowed it to be brought back in 2022 after a delay during the Covid era.

Just how needed the motion remains was seen last fall, when University of Toronto psychologist and bestselling writer Jordan Peterson visited Bucknell, his first public appearance anywhere in more than two years. A newsworthy if controversial event, Peterson’s talk was preceded by custodians prying the Bucknell seal off the podium, and an information blackout from university public relations staff.

On the night of Peterson’s talk, many students were reportedly prevented from getting seats in the auditorium by activist faculty who urged their own students to reserve tickets online and then not show up, leaving empty seats. An estimated 250 of 600 available reserved seats were kept empty while a long line of students and community members waited outside.

University police responded by opening balconies closed due to campus Covid restrictions, to allow entry to those who were waiting. But some had already gone to a remote overflow location or returned to their dorms.

While this was reported at the opening of the program, and circulated later on a video of the event, there were no challenges or denials to the report, and no statement or inquiry apparently by the institution.

In this new kind of higher-ed “social credit” system, the faculty are would-be enforcers of politicized morals, and students are the main losers.

The Chicago Principles vote last month was preceded by broadcast and circulation of a 90-minute webinar explaining the need to highlight free speech on campus. It included educational and developmental reasons for allowing college-age students to engage with different views, and how that fits Bucknell’s mission statement to make students and faculty of different backgrounds and viewpoints feel welcome. The last half of the webinar featured appearances by free-speech advocates Profs. Robert George of Princeton and Cornel West of Union Theological Seminary, addressing the integral relation of free speech and the liberal arts, and to a spiritual culture of humility needed at universities.  Cultural humility is not the virtue that comes to mind to describe privileged American academics, however.

At Bucknell, the last two known surveys of faculty politics tell part of the story. In 2014, a university survey of Bucknell faculty indicated that 70 percent identified as liberal or far left politically, and only 9% as conservative and far right. In 2015, a student journalism-class investigation of county records showed that 74% of Bucknell faculty in Bucknell’s county were registered as Democrats, 6% as Republicans.

Those percentages have undoubtedly grown more lopsided since. While the data are political indicators, they suggest inhospitableness toward those whose religious and ethnic cultures don’t share progressive American political values.

Examples abound. When Prof. Shelby Steele of Stanford’s Hoover Institution debated Prof. John Fountain of Roosevelt University in Chicago in 2020 in a webinar for the Bucknell campus, as two African-American scholars debating the utility and truth of the concept of systemic racism, faculty critics commandeered the university’s online announcement center to denounce the event and me personally as racist. To even apply critical thinking to the model of systemic racism was racist, they argued. The university apparently took no action against them, beyond instituting a stronger screening system for announcements.

In 2019, conservative scholar Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute had appeared on campus. Some faculty and administrators helped organize meetings, a protest, and a counter-event, apparently so that students wouldn’t be tempted to hear her. Students with encouragement of administrative staff spoke of the need to ostracize peers involved in the event, and publicly called for firing the faculty involved. The administrator in charge of diversity policy (which is supposed to include counteracting religious bias) reportedly told the counter-event protesters that “Christian values” are “originators” of white supremacy.

Because the administrator was speaking with the title of diversity administrator charged with adjudicating issues of religious bias, a Catholic student at the historically liberal Anglo-Protestant and now secular campus filed a bias complaint as part of a university reporting system. He reports that he has not even received an acknowledgement.

I was approached by a distressed first-year student this fall, a conservative Catholic, who since dropped out due to the ideology of the faculty and its shadow over campus. A Black student from Africa told me he withdrew from Bucknell for similar reasons while fighting related depression. A second African student told me of how uncomfortable and alien he was made to feel by efforts to assimilate international students of color into the Bucknell faculty-staff ideology, regardless of different individual views and cultural traditions.

This is not to mention how professors have felt ostracized and even pushed out of the university because of faculty-staff group-think. The latter intrudes into the business of the university by ostracizing those with different views and gifts to offer in serving students.

Bucknell’s majority white-American faculty seem uninterested in any real response to such different voices. The cynical might say many are “virtue signaling.” The blocking of debate on the Chicago Principles was led by a white professor whose department recently had protested losing a position to diversity hires and was trying hard to show its commitment to diversity. But arguments that the Chicago Principles are racist were belied by the presence of prominent African-American activist and scholar Cornel West on the video webinar produced by supporters, extolling free-speech efforts at Bucknell, and by the text of the motion itself.

Other arguments that the motion was unnecessary are belied by the Peterson incident and others like it, the experience of non-conforming students and faculty, and the fact that existing language in the university’s Faculty Handbook is not as embracing of community free speech as the Chicago Principles, despite claims to the contrary by some faculty in trying to justify their opposition to the motion.

While many new texts produced by the university continually re-state and expand on older texts supporting diversity, the adding of one additional text highlighting free speech was labeled in effect pathologically obsessive and unnecessary by opponents in preventing debate.

Leading university donors, at a time when Bucknell is entering a major fundraising cycle, formed a non-profit entity, the Open Discourse Coalition (ODC), as a way to support the faculty free-speech movement organized as the Bucknell Program for American Leadership. But these efforts have met with opposition.

Last summer, activists posted a sign on the new ODC building near campus that read “Center for White Victimhood” and sent an anonymous hate letter to a faculty mailbox with the logo of the banner attached. Such acts are labeled humorous satire. That was also the “explanation” for labeling me (a Russian Orthodox clergyman) “Rasputin”—something done on social media with the support of three of my Bucknell faculty colleagues. The malicious context implied that like Rasputin I deserved to be erased, due to my cultural difference from faculty ideology, at a time of US-Russian hostility.  It was a little like calling a Muslim faculty member Osama bin Laden after 9-11.

In the past few years I also have had my personal office belongings “accidentally” removed from Bucknell’s campus and put on the street, with a threat that they would be trashed by a colleague who earlier had said he blamed his divorce on his ex-wife’s interest in Orthodox Christianity. I was forced out of a department affiliation on campus after being singled out for unfair investigation of my free-speech activities as allegedly racist. Other unusual “coincidences” have included being removed from a planning committee by a last-minute rule change, and being the apparent subject of unusual curricular review and of attempted cancellation of a campus project I was coordinating.

Maybe that’s not surprising given that I’m often a visibly different person among our faculty (even pointed out as being such in a joke by a dean at a faculty meeting): The Russian Orthodox cleric with the long beard and hair wearing riassa and skufia, in a blended Russian-American family with children identifying as Russian. But my ostracism started when writing about religious freedom with regard to sexual and family anthropology in my Russian Orthodox tradition, out of line with Bucknell’s dominant secular progressive ideology. Yet attempted cancellation for my allegedly unethical Eastern Christian “gender expression” came from colleagues who seemed to tolerate other faculty who apparently without serious stigma engaged in activities such as sex with a student and unwanted personal attention to a colleague leading to distress.

Meanwhile children of faculty, including my own, have been cyber-bullied and physically bullied for being out of step with Bucknell-dominated community ideology in our small town.

Bucknell is a great university. It is an honor to work there and serve wonderful students. But the potential negative impact of out-of-control toxic faculty culture on students, their character and education, is corrosive. Princeton’s Robert George, on a visit to campus with Cornel West, hearing a complaint from a leftist student about the lack of “diverse perspectives” on campus, diagnosed the problem as “academic malpractice.”

The Bucknell student newspaper has covered these free-speech efforts negatively for the most part. A columnist wrote three articles critical of the Peterson event, in which she went from calling him “Jordan Peter-Sucks,” to bemoaning how Peterson as a powerful media figure allegedly had bullied her by re-tweeting her article with its epithet about him (garnering her much negative feedback). She attended the campus event, when attempted censorship of Peterson’s event was announced, but did not report on that. Instead she went on in a new column to blast the Chicago Principles in caricatured form. After the recent vote, a faculty critic of free-speech efforts (and open admirer of Lenin) boasted of his contacts among students at the paper. Coincidentally, the aforementioned writer is a major in his small program.

On all this the faculty motto seems to be: “Nothing to see here, move along.”

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Fish and Faith

Adapted from a paper entitled “The Compleat Angler on Penns Creek,” given at the Keystone Coldwater Conference, Feb. 13, 7530 (civil calendar Feb. 26, 2022), in State College, PA.

Penns Creek: A northern Appalachian fly-fishing stream in central Pennsylvania

I wanted to share a bit today about ideas for linking a university community to nature through story, and the relation of a meaningful life in nature to spirituality. I’ll tell the story of a class visit to Penns Creek while reading The Compleat Angler and its connections to related efforts in environmental humanities. Then I’ll talk a little more about models for linking story to conservation though a field known as environmental semiotics.

I teach a class called “the hidden God of nature,” which is about nature and spirituality in literatures of Christian cultures from the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century. I also have been involved for years in a project called Stories of the Susquehanna Valley. At the heart of these efforts is the simple idea that landscape is a dialogue, which involves multiple actors and voices so to speak, in a complex story or dance that nonetheless involves an objective reality, which is perceived through what metaphorically we might call a variety of visual spectrums. That variety of spectrums involves species, the animate and inanimate, and even what can be called the spiritual, which I’ll seek also to explain briefly in relation to literature.

In my course, we read The Compleat Angler by Izaac Walton as an example of 17th century literature. We discuss in a Bucknell classroom (or this past fall mainly under a large tent due to Covid restrictions) the ideas of Walton regarding human interactions with nature as a type of spirituality. He does this through the medium of fly fishing, somewhat in the way that a 1960s writer did it through accounts of cross-country motorcycle travel in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Yet Walton does this of course with much greater attention to fauna and flora and especially the details of a specific interaction with life on earth and landscape through fishing.

In the case of our class we then go on a field trip to the Union County Sportsmens Club near Weikart, along Penns Creek. This past fall we were joined by a number of members of the Union County Trout Unlimited Chapter who kindly helped demonstrate fly fishing and talk about Penns Creek. In the past we have also had also appreciated guidance there from staff of Bucknell’s Watershed studies program at its Sustainability Center.

Izaac Walton as many of you I’m sure know was a draper turned writer, who sought refuge from the English Revolution on the banks of the River Dove in England, among other spots, at the Fishing House with his friend Charles Cotton. On our field trips, the Sportsmens Club in effect became our class’ fishing house on the banks of Penns Creek, a refuge and a different dimension offering reflection on life through the discipline and mindfulness of fly-fishing, and the peaceful rushing of the water beneath the trees, another world from our current online and onpavement lives at a university campus whose students come mainly from well-developed suburban metropolitan regions.

The main part of the Walton’s book ends with the character Venator, who is the hunter converted to a love of fishing by his new friend Piscator, saying

So when I would beget content, and increase confidence in the Power, and Wisdom, and Providence of Almighty God, I will walk the Meadows by some gliding stream, and there contemplate the Lillies that take no care, and those very many other various little living creatures, that are not only created but fed (man knows not how) by the goodness of the God of Nature, and therefore trust in him. This is my purpose: and so, Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. And let the blessing of St. Peters Master be with mine.”

To which Piscator concludes: “And upon all that are lovers of Vertue; and dare trust in his providence, and be quiet, and go a Angling.[1] Angling for Walton involved a kind of spiritual pun, for he referenced its connection to biblical accounts of fishermen as central figures in finding faith, and on the Anglicanism that he saw as a faith associated with country apart from extremes in his view of historical English religious and political strife. It involved the recognition of how in the words of an epigraph to the book that “The world the river is; both you and I, / And all mankind are either fish or fry,

The conversations between Piscator the fisherman, Venator the hunter, and Auceps the falconer, establish a triadic relational identity for the book’s focus on human beings in the natural world. The fisherman’s opening critique of “money-getting men,” “poor-rich-men” anxious for material gain and cares of the world, rejecting pastimes such as fly-fishing, also forms a Christian critique of modernity the Puritan tendency paradoxically to prove pre-determined election by material success, in spite of scriptural and patristic admonitions on the dangers of material riches. The self-described voice of the “old-fashioned country squire,” Walton, sometime parishioner and biographer of the metaphysical poet John Donne, is neither capitalist nor communist in any seventeenth-century sense, but a type of otherworldly ecologist, to use a modern term. For, as his fisherman Piscator notes early on, simplicity “was usually found in the primitive Christians, who were, as most Anglers are, quiet men, and followers of peace; men that were so simply-wise as not to sell their Consciences to buy riches, and with them vexation and a fear to die,” in simpler times with “fewer Lawyers.”[2]

The conversation ranges from the comic to the cosmic, as Auceps lectures on the elements and the virtues of his favorite, the air, and its birds; Venator on the earth and wildlife; and Piscator on water and the fish. The seventeenth-century rural English worthies are transfigured for moments, as if philosophers be-draped in Classical robes in the countryside, or somehow cosmic poetic representatives of their art and element on Olympus, and certainly characters of an English Arcadia in the Midlands. In this they are, however, very much rough-and-ready heirs of the Hellenic-Christian synthesis. Piscator ties the discussion together with Genesis as Moses’ retro-revelation of Creation, in which the Spirit moved upon the waters. Venator later references the biblical “meek shall inherit the earth,” when noting the unhappy cares of a rich man with estates in the countryside through which they hike, while stopping at pubs, like JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis on their later countryside rambles between the world wars.[3] Piscator quotes the poet George Herbert (whose biography he also wrote) in a pun on his own book’s title–“And none can know thy works, they are so many, / And so compleat, but only he that ows [owns] them [God],” and Psalm 104 for its mentions of the sea, the rivers, and the fish contained therein. This is, as he notes in a later chapter, all under the care of “the God of Nature.”

The outdoorsmen-friends while fishing also meet milkmaids, whose songs of nature they praise in a rural cosmic complementarity of the sexes from a Christian standpoint. Venator notes, “I now see it was not without cause, that our good Queen Elizabeth did so often wish her self a Milkmaid all the month of May, because they are not troubled with fears and cares, but sing sweetly all the day, and sleep securely all the night.”[4] In one of the poems within the book, “The Angler’s Wish,” Piscator tells of his wish to be in flowery meads by crystal streams, rejoicing in their harmonious noise, with his fishing rod, watching the turtle-dove court chastely his mate. In so doing, he addresses Walton’s real-life wife, Kenna, about watching a blackbird feed her young, a laverock at her nest “free from lawsuits, and the noise of princes’ courts, with a book and friend,” wishing to “meditate my time away; and angle on,” begging for “A quiet passage to a welcome grave.” Here Walton through his alter ego juxtaposes images from the natural world with theor own family life.

Walton’s book is a prototype of the modern Anglican philosopher Roger Scruton’s call for an “eco-patriotism” embracing England’s countryside, rather than globalization and technocracy as merely a new form of technological colonialism. Walton’s reflection shares the spirit of Tolkien’s love of the country, and detestation of a nation made abstract by global colonialism. In a sense, The Compleat Angler is not mainly a fly-fishing manual, although it is that, but a manual for what the philosopher David Bentley Hart has called anarcho-monarchism in the sense of Tolkien’s Shire, where government is an elusive and otherworldly force of nature, and Edmund Burke’s networks of organic tradition abound, evenon Penns Creek  in the sportsmen’s club and local Trout Unlimited chapter. Then there is the symbolism of the hook, which is for a fish, but is a term theologically used for the trapping of the devil in the Crucifixion in the divine economics of the Incarnation, a reminder also of how human beings can become enmeshed in worldly objectification, and of the river as an image of the overlay of spiritual life on earth. For Walton, the king who provides sustenance during a time without a king is God who forms a triad with human being and nature, and prevents nature from being objectified.

Even in the quiet of Penns Creek on a fall evening, there was a sense of the sublime as the class discussed The Compleat Angler, a sublime sense of being on the edge nonetheless, if safe in God. A sense that the whole direction of secular modernity, and all the revolutionary identities formed in it, form an otherworldly terror beyond, contrasting with a glint of Paradise on the creek. The Anglo-Irish writer and environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth, a developer of the dark ecology movement, has used the term The Machine to describe the modern world including our digital lives. There on Penns Creek, practicing basic moves of fly fishing at the stream, the students had a sense of the curtain being lifted on a reality beyond The Machine, so to speak.

I have mentioned Walton’s emphasis on relationship with nature through a triad. That idea of relationship and triadic communication is explored by Estonian scientists and academics today in the fields of biosemiotics and ecosemiotics. Of course Christians like Walton long ago understood the importance of triadic relationship, which was woven into the heart of their theology. Professor Timo Maran recently told a group of Bucknell professors in a Zoom call from Estonia’s Tartu University that in ecosemiotics, landscape is a dialogue. It is not a binary of self and other. It is a relationship. For Walton, this was based in God as the third element, but even more ultimately in the mystery of God as Trinity. There are other triadic relationships of course at any moment involved in reading and discussing The Compleat Angler on Penns Creek. There is the relationship with others, within the class, and with local fly fishers, and of course with the creek ecosystem and all the species there with ourselves. Eastern Christian philosophy has a name for this, sobornost, or mystical hidden unity of all beings with God.

The late Wendy Wheeler, a writer on biosemiotics and ecosemiotics in England, discussed how understanding an ecosystem as a web of communication, of meaning, shaped an otherworldly dimension to landscape. Wheeler explained that this helped highlight two of Aristotle’s Four Causes that often are neglected in The Machine globally today. It focuses on material and efficient causes that are visible. But the two “invisible” causes of form and purpose often get lost. Those can be seen as involving communication between and among species, in what I have called an ecosemiosphere, as imagination, and even as involving the spiritual.

I’ll just close that in addition to this modest class effort we continue to try to practice that sense of unity in an ecological and cultural sense by campus efforts that include development of a sustainability path around Bucknell. We hope to include public art linking the path to past history such as the Civil War and Native American culture, the founding of the university, but also link the path online and in physical ways to neighboring regions such as the John Smith Chesapeake National Heritage Corridor and Penns Creek Wilds, the state-designated area that includes state forest lands to the west of where we visited. The Penns Creek greenway is a great natural treasure that is also a great cultural treasure. In the small Russian Orthodox mission parish where I serve as a clergy member, we are building a modest temple in the countryside in Union Twp. near Penns Creek. We plan to include a garden and beekeeping and an orchard around it, modestly to encourage a community across generations such as that Walton encouraged in his writing on the River Dove — a Fishing House for biblically being “fishers of men” (including ourselves), in the spiritual dimension that Walton loved in his own Anglican way, and to find peace away from the revolutions technological and otherwise that distract us from our hearts and faith.

To return again to The Compleat Angler, “The world the river is; both you and I, / And all mankind are either fish or fry.”


[1] Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton, The Compleat Angler, ed. John Buxton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 229.

[2] Ibid., 23.

[3] Ibid., 192.

[4] Ibid., 82.

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Homily on the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia by Hieromonk Theodore (Stanway)

This homily was given by Hieromonk Theodore on Sun. Jan. 24, 7530 (Feb. 6, 2022 on the civil calendar) at Holy Trinity Cathedral at Jordanville NY’s Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary. It is posted here as an appropriate reflection as we approach Great Lent in a world of crisis today.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Dear brothers and sisters!

Today we commemorate a paradox. The feast of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia is paradoxical in that it is one of the greatest tragedies in human history, while at the same time being the crowning glory of the Orthodox Church of Rus. On one hand, from a worldly point of view, we see the tragic deaths of millions upon millions of innocent men, women, and children, who were beaten, tortured, shot, starved, stabbed, burned, buried alive, hung, drowned, and violated in manifold unspeakable ways, while on the other hand, from our Orthodox Christian perspective, we see the radiant adornment of the heavenly throne room, millions upon millions of martyrs vested in pure white robes who are glorified, magnified, beseeched, blessed, and prayed to by the faithful, and who in turn help, comfort, save, and intercede for the faithful.

While it is beyond us to know the inscrutable mysteries of God’s judgement, what we do know and what has been revealed to us is that Our Lord brings the greatest blessings out of the darkest times. As from Golgotha of old came our salvation, so too now does the greatness of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia come from what we now know to be the Russian Golgotha, where our Church was nailed to its Cross for seventy five years. In those three Biblical generations, the Church of Rus offered more martyrs for the Orthodox Christian faith than in the previous two millennia combined.

How could this happen? The largest Christian empire in world history becomes the largest concentration camp ever devised by the fallen and perverse human mind. The Third Rome becomes the Third International. The pious Tsar is replaced by a godless dictator. The episcopacy is replaced by the Politburo. The priesthood is replaced by commissars. Monasteries are turned into NKVD prison camps. Holy confession is replaced by brutal interrogation. Fasting is replaced by mass starvation. Asceticism is replaced with torture. Large Christian families are replaced with abortion on demand. The icons are smashed, the churches defiled, the relics desecrated, and the Holy Cross that for almost a thousand years proudly reigned over the lands of Rus is taken down and broken. How could this happen?

Simply put, brothers and sisters, it happened because of our sins: the sins of the faithful, our negligence, our taking the holy things for granted, and our neglect of God’s law. As the prophet says, “this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips glorify me, but their heart is far from me.” The people had fallen far from the lofty heights of God’s calling. What we saw in Russia immediately prior to the revolution and the outburst of violence against the Church was the more or less complete externalisation of Orthodox Christianity in the population. A faith based simply on externals is no faith at all, and, as we see from the Russian experience, can very quickly be replaced by godless materialism.

While many may have made the sign of the Cross properly, came to some of the divine services, maybe even fasted, and “kept the rules,” their hearts were far from the Holy One of Israel. While there were many, many genuinely pious people in Russia, many more had become corrupted by worldliness and attachment to the passions, beginning with the aristocracy – the elites – and the rich and powerful for, after all, the fish rots from the head.

Holy Rus was holy not because all of its people were saints, but because the holiness of Christ was the standard by which the people measured themselves. When this lofty concept had been forgotten and the faith had been reduced to the mere observance of externals, then the drift away from a genuine, living faith in God was inevitable and when faith in God dries up, the people, deluded and misled, will find other doctrines to quench their first. Unfortunate, then, is that nation whose people drink from the bitter and toxic wells of Marx and Engels, of Bakunin and Kropotkin, of Lenin and Trotsky, for instead of “seeking first the Kingdom,” they instead look for a worldly utopia, a utopia built not on humility, repentance, and self-abnegation as paradise is, but on the corpses of those with whom you do not agree, of whom you are jealous, and whom you simply hate.


We are at risk too, brothers and sisters, of this temptation if we do not remember to first of all offer our hearts to the Lord God, and instead fall into mere observation of externals, a disinterested sign of the Cross here, a half-hearted fast there, a perfunctory and shallow confession here, and an unworthy Communion there. Prayers said by rote but with no spiritual feeling, psalms perfectly read and pronounced but with no effect on the heart. Beautiful divine services, glorious singing, but with no intention of striving to be Christlike, to be “perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” It’s easy for us to claim that we know better and that we have learned from Russia’s mistakes, but is it so? Have not the holy elders stated that “what begins in Russia ends in America”? Did not Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory often state in his day that it was “today in Russia, tomorrow in America”? Tomorrow draws ever nearer and, unless we continually strive against complacency in our spiritual lives as individuals and in the life of our Church as a whole, then we will share the unfortunate fate of Russia.

Beyond simply having our own responsibility to struggle to live a virtuous and God-honouring Christian life, those of us who are numbered among the clergy or those of you who are here studying and preparing to be numbered among the clergy, have a special calling to warn, to encourage, and to guide the faithful away from the darkness of life away from Christ, even if we ourselves are completely broken down in the process. As Father George Calciu, a man who martyric witness in the communist prison camps of Romania should serve as an inspiration to all of us, said, to be a priest “means to be an enduring witness of human suffering and to take it upon your own shoulders. To be the one who warms the leper at his own breast and who gives life to the miserable through the breath from his own mouth. To be a strong comfort to every unfortunate one, even when you yourself are overwhelmed with weakness. To be a ray of shining light to unhappy hearts when your own eyes long ago ceased to see any light. To carry mountains of others’ suffering on your shoulders, while your own being screams out with the weight of its own suffering.”

This powerful meditation reflects Saint Paul’s advice to Saint Timothy, which was read today, in which he exhorts him, “we labour and are reviled, because we hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, especially of the faithful […] be an example of the faithful, in word, in conversation, in charity, in faith, in chastity […] Neglect not the grace that is in you, which was given you by prophecy, with imposition of the hands of the priesthood […] For in doing this you shall both save yourself and them that hear you.” This is our calling, brothers. Are we worthy to take up this Cross? Are we ready?

Of the millions of New Martyrs and Confessors, that the clergy are the most prominent is telling. They were ready to take up this Cross and they set the greatest example to the believers in their lives and especially in their deaths. Despite human frailties, passions, and weaknesses, these bold pastors of the flock of Jesus Christ laid down their lives for the sheep in imitation of the Saviour. This is why the Bolsheviks sought to liquidate the Church and its clergy from the earliest days of the revolution, for they sought to kill the shepherds and scatter the sheep. They sought to remove the head, that the body may die. These men were seized, persecuted, delivered up … imprisoned, and brought before rulers for the sake of Christ’s most holy name, being turned into a testimony by the Lord, as He promised in today’s Gospel reading. Truly, this has been the case in all major persecutions, when the clergy have always been the first and most prominent victims of brutal repressions against the Church of God, and today we invoke the memory of Saint Tikhon of Moscow, Saint Benjamin of Petrograd, Saint Peter of Krutitsa, and all those other hierarchs who said “no!” to compromise, “no!” to submission, and “no!” to apostasy, instead setting an example of resolute faith and trust in the Lord God that, even if they were to die defending the Church of God from its enemies, they would never besmirch the name of ‘Christian,’ never allow our faith to be mocked, and never allow our Most-Holy God to be blasphemed by the godless.

It is not the case, however, brothers and sisters, that it is simply the clergy’s responsibility to maintain fealty to Christ and His truth in a time of persecution. No, it is incumbent on all of us that we must be willing to walk to Golgotha with the Lord, for, “he that taketh not up his cross, and followeth me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for me, shall find it.” The persecution of the Church in the Soviet Union was an opportunity, permitted by God, for the Christians of the Russian Orthodox Church to truly bear witness to their faith. Our Lord tells us that “many are called, but few are chosen,” and the chosen ones – the holy martyrs of Christ – were, as Saint Paul tells us in today’s epistle reading, predestined, called, justified, and, finally, glorified, becoming “more than conquerors” through Him Who bestows His mercy, grace, and love upon us, especially in times of trial, struggle, persecution, temptation, and trouble.

Looking forward and, some would say, into the abyss, we must cleave to the godly example of the New Martyrs and Confessors of our Church – all those who calmly, humbly, and piously went to their fates knowing that the greatest reward, that of eternal life, awaiting them at the end of the revolver of a Chekist or the bayonet of a Red Guard. We don’t know what the future has in store for us, brothers and sisters, but if the blessed elders who witnessed the death of Holy Rus are correct, then it is not good, at least from a worldly perspective. From an Orthodox Christian perspective, if such persecutions are to befall us as befell Russia, we should “rejoice and be exceedingly glad,” for, if we persevere, “great is our reward in heaven.” Remember, Our Lord counsels us that “in your patience, possess ye your souls,” and this is all He requires from us: perseverance. A resolute, solid patience that, fuelled by a burning love for God and His Truth, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” will undoubtedly persevere to the end and, as the Lord promises us, “he that perseveres to the end will be saved.”

Such a profound calling, yes? Such a lofty demand, yes? How can we, who are weak, attain to this? How can we possibly to manage to survive the madness that is to befall us? Simple, brothers and sisters, very simple: we must cling to the Ark of Salvation, the Holy Church, with all of our strength and submit ourselves to the commands of its Helmsman, Christ the Lord. Only with a burning love for God can we even think about making through the trials to come, and only by keeping God’s commandments can we grow in love for Him.

Brothers and sisters, our good God gives us everything necessary for our salvation, for our strength, for our endurance. Just as no right-thinking general sends his army to the frontlines without all the necessary supplies, our God does not call us to this glorious struggle without the ways and means of receiving His strength to fight, as it is not through our own strength that we succeed. Here, in our beloved Church, Our Lord provides for us the holy sacraments to strengthen us, divine wisdom to illumine and guide us, and the examples of the saints who adorn the walls around us to inspire us. Nothing is absent and everything is available if we indeed answer the call to take up the Cross and follow Christ.

Take a look at yourselves: are you carrying the Cross? Are any of us? If we are honest, many of us are not. Many of us simply fall into the externalisms that led to the destruction of Russia. Let us take heed and catch ourselves before we too fall, let us turn back and fully commit ourselves and one another to Christ our God before it is too late.

One more thing that the holy Church gives us is Great Lent, for our correction, to initiate our repentance, to guide us into having a contrite and humble heart that God will not despise. Today, the final Sunday before our Lenten cycle begins, we also remember Saint Zacchaeus the repentant publican, who turned away from his life of corruption, theft, deceit, and self-serving greed and, answering the call of Christ, received the Saviour into both his home and his heart, that he himself may be granted an abode in the heavenly mansions. Zacchaeus climbed a Sycamore tree to see the Lord because he was short in stature. Let us, who are short in spiritual stature, also ascend a tree to behold the Saviour, but let that tree be the Cross that He gives us, however large or small it may be. Let us take up that Cross, follow the Lord to Golgotha, and, as the Holy Apostle Thomas said, “let us go die with him!”

The Holy New Martyrs and Confessors did not seek death like some insane jihadists, but they simply accepted sufferings, tribulations, and martyrdom as being God’s all-good, all-knowing, and all-benevolent will, for “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose.” We do not fear death, brothers and sisters, for it has no power over us. To paraphrase Saint Paul, “neither death, nor life, nor Marx, nor Engels, nor Lenin, nor Trotsky, nor Stalin, nor communism, nor capitalism, nor godless materialism, nor globalism … shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We can face all trials and all enemies of the faith confident in the knowledge that we can overcome all things through Christ, Who has overcome the world.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, knowing what the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors experienced and what may befall us at any time, let us hasten to make our religion not merely one of externals and pious appearances, but one of the heart, with a real, burning faith that drives us on. Let us prepare for this season of renewal, Great Lent, and take it as a God-given opportunity to start the essential work of repentance, purification, and humility, so that, with our bodies weakened, our souls may be strengthened. Let us approach this holy chalice which is before us, receiving the great gifts of remission of sins and life eternal, and once again commit ourselves to the loving mercy of God, so that, like Zacchaeus, salvation may today come to our house, for the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which is lost and today, brothers and sisters, if we turn our hearts unto our loving Saviour, we have been found. Amen.

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St. Theophan, Govenie, and the Good Shepherd

Homily at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Jan. 10, 7530 (civil calendar Jan. 23, 2022).

The Gospel readings today are exemplified or typed by the life and work of St. Theophan the Recluse, the great 19th-century Russian monastic elder and writer whom we commemorate today, in this After-feast of Theophany. Appropriate to that feast, a major message of St. Theophan in his writings is repentance and preparation.  This is evident in his work in translating and compiling the Russian Philokalia, focused on the prayer of the heart, and also in translating and editing the book Unseen Warfare, about spiritual battle that extends from the heart to the body and mind. In his book-length commentary on Psalm 118 he reflects on that primer of the law of God, and the equation of God’s law with both contemplation and testimony, in the sense that God’s law as principle is logos, a synonym for principle or law that is also translatable as harmony, and of course is a Greek term also used for the word of God and for the Word Who is God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Law in St. Theophan’s commentary becomes identified with grace, and he presents in effect the law of salvation as grace. That is the love of the good shepherd Who is Christ.

In particular, St. Theophan writes about govenie [говение], the practice of preparation for Communion in Russian Orthodox Christianity, which he teaches should extend across the week when laity do Commune. Like the seven days of creation, the week of our lives should focus on this preparation. Even though this winter season we will have had a few weeks without Communion at our rural mission parish, we should not feel sad about this, but grateful, and rejoice all the more to greet our beloved mission pastor when he returns next week, God willing, for the Lord’s Supper. In this winter season of Reader and Deacon services, we should be grateful to devote ourself even more to the deeply joyful sorrow of govenie, for the nourishment of our souls. Govenie involves, St. Theophan wrote in his book The Art of Salvation, ascetic labors in preparation for receiving the Mysteries of Confession and Communion. Such mission services as we have today are worship that is govenie and good for our souls. Such ascetic spirit and practice of preparation is what sets us apart as Orthodox Christians from forms of heterodox Christianity that have split off from Orthodoxy and lost for the most part the central practice of govenie, only to decline into the secularism and apostasy of modern culture. Govenie is what often people remark on in particular as a culture of ascetic preparation for Communion in Russian Orthodox practice especially but not exclusively. It should not be a source of pride at all, brothers and sisters, for we know we are the chief of sinners, as we say in the pre-communion prayers. But we also know that in this preparation, in so completely unworthily following our Lord through His grace into the Garden of Gethsemane, to sweat blood as it were, we come into Communion in which we are no longer alone, but with Him, under His pastoral care and in His flock as our Good Shepherd.

Govenie involves self-reflection that observes what we need to confess, the spiritual battles through God’s grace that we need to practice every moment, fasting, spiritual reading, and how we spend our time and thought, including alms and evangelism we can do to help others, which is really allowing them to help ourselves, and attending Orthodox worship whenever we can, even when it is a humble Reader or Deacon’s service or an Akathist, or also participating in Orthodox Bible Study blessed by the Churche. It also especially involves submission in confession and seeking guidance from our spiritual fathers and the fathers of the Church, and even when this is not always possible due to human circumstances, bowing our head and our knee and prostrating ourselves before Divine Providence in submission and obedience, and seeking spiritual guidance from morning and evening prayer, from reading in the lives and works of the saints, and having those holy ones such as St. Theophan the Recluse as our spiritual fathers too through their writings, and in continuous prayer in our heart. I read in the news that some activists today say that it takes a cycle of 21 days or so to make a habit, good or bad, in the lives of children in schools. We are children before the Lord. Let us take periods of govenie to shape the habit of continuous preparation and accountability through grace to our Good Shepherd.

This is what softens or relates our heart to Him in tenderness, and strengthens our heart for deeds of battle for truth and help to others, this condition of preparation. This is what allows us like attentive sheep to hear the voice of the Shepherd and to go in and out of our inner and outer battles under His safekeeping. The heart in Orthodoxy is understood as the whole person, the body and soul made according to the image of God, Jesus Christ. He modeled this preparation of the heart for us in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he said “Not My will but Thine be done,” and sweated blood. Then he went to the Crucifixion and Resurrection and Ascension that completed the span of our salvation. Through this preparation we gain the strength of the Shepherd protecting us. Metropolitan Antony of blessed memory, the first First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, some have said as a young man with the birth name Alexei was a model for the unforgettable figure of Alexei Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers of Karamazov, since he met Dostoevsky. But in any case Metropolitan Anthony placed great emphasis on the struggle of Jesus in the Garden as a part of our redemption, so much so that some felt he went too far in that teaching, although it was to him a pious belief or theologumenon. Yet in this he arguably was in the spirit of Russian Orthodoxy. Its emphasis on govenie came out of St. Paisius Velichovsky’s contribution with his monastic followers in the late 18th century to renewal of hesychasm in the Russian Church, at a time when the Enlightenment was gripping the West with secular thought and self-centered materialism.

Through the nineteenth-century flowering of hesychasm in Russia, especially among the Elders of Optina Monastery with others like St. Theophan, govenie transmitted both into the so-called catacomb Church of underground faith during Communism and into the worldwide diaspora of ROCOR, and even across our country in America from Jordanville to northern California and the work of our patron St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco and of his spiritual son Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory. On the flotilla of boats bearing exiles across the Black Sea from Crimea to Constantinople in 1920, in the labor camps of the Soviet gulag, sometimes housed in former monasteries, and in the hearts of all devoted Orthodox believers in the trying times of this era, it empowered through God’s grace the survival of our Orthodox faith and still does today. We unworthily are lifted up into that great story of govenie that issues from the true story of the Gospel of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, the good shepherd, and goes all the way back through His theophanies of old to the prophets and people of the Old Testament Church, all the way back to Creation and beyond, and all the way beyond us to the Apocalypse.

The Good Shepherd giveth His life for His sheep, our Lord Jesus Christ tells us this. Thus too He says, there is no greater love than this, that a man lay down His life for His friends. This do in remembrance of me, he added of the Eucharist supper, but also as a reminder  of His gift in the Eucharist of His body and blood, in which we too empty ourselves in partaking. That self-emptying is the center of the practice of govenie. It is how He teaches us to live, through self-emptying and not self-assertion. This is Christian love in truth, or in grace. Orthodox commentary on the Gospel reading today observes that in the Greek, the famous verse “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly,” really can best be translated into English as “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have something more.” Something more than life, something more than biological safety and contentment. What is that something more? It is meaningfulness, the Word, the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd and His care felt in our hearts as grace.

St. Theophan concludes his discussion of govenie or preparation by reminding his readers that in communing we know that, “I am not alone but with Thee,” our Lord Jesus Christ. Behold the Bridegroom cometh!  The Recluse was the saint’s nickname because he lived long in solitude, in govenie, with God, and when he came out through his voluminous writings and letters, and counsel, it was as a mighty spiritual helper to others, a sheep who knew His Master’s voice and ever-care, who could truly pastor through his words and example, which continue to be heard through his writings and intercession. The Synaxarion updated from St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite’s edition states of St. Theophan the Recluse:

“…in his writings on the Jesus Prayer he placed no emphasis on the psychosomatic methods or on the more theoretical aspects that one finds in the Hesychast Fathers, but he laid all the more stress on the need to keep the intellect attentive to the words of the prayer before God in our heart, in such a way that the heart feels what the intellect is thinking on. While thus leaving room fo the feeling of tenderness of heart and of gentle warmth which the presence of God brings about, nevertheless in order to dispel every illusion, he teaches that the chief fruits of the prayer are fear of God and contrition. Thanks to his well-considered adaptation of the teaching of the Fathers, Saint Theophan has succeeded in making accessible the most precious treasure of Orthodox spiritual tradition to a great many God-loving souls even to the present day; he is therefore rightly considered to be one of the principal architects of the spiritual renaissance which the Russian Church experienced before the great trial of the Revolution.”

Let it so be with us humbly as we come forth from our inner spiritual battles and our growth in our Lord God in our heart, into the world from our govenie, stilling feel our Lord Jesus Christ’s care in our hearts warmed with attentive ongoing prayer, preparation, and Communion. Let us ask also St. Theophan the Recluse for his intercession, that in our mission parish’s meadow in rural Union County, ta Church Temple for our flock may arise forth from solitude, to the glory of God.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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The Forefeast of Theophany, the Prophet Malachi, and the “Angel” Forerunner John

A Homily from St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Sunday Jan. 3, 7530 (civil calendar Sun. Jan. 16, 2022).

The Feast of the Theophany will be upon us soon this week. Coming not long after Christmas, it in effect bookends the Nativity Season, and rightly so. The Orthodox Church commemorates Theophany as the time when St. John the Forerunner baptized his cousin, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, in the River Jordan. In doing so, as the Tropar or hymn for the Feast tells us, the worship of the Holy Trinity was made manifest for all time. God Who had become Flesh, part of Creation, hallowed Creation through his baptism in the river and the revelation of Him as a Person in the One Holy and Consubstantial Trinity, the Way and Truth and Life for us. This was the baptism of all Creation in Christ, to be fulfilled in the baptism that we experience in the Orthodox Church. Let us brothers and sisters renew or foretaste that baptism this week in the Theophany of Christ.

Theophany  iterally means a “revelation of God” in Greek (Θεοφάνεια; the Russian is Богоявление). According to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, Jesus Christ already had revealed Himself many times through theophanies in the Old Testament, such as to Moses on Mount Sinai, and to Abraham as the lead visitor at the Oak of Mamre. However, this Theophany early in Christ’s public career is in effect known as the Theophany Feast, because it came following and during His Incarnation on earth, and involved such a full revelation and also blessing for all of us creatures and the earth in His baptism in the waters that are source of earthly life and type of the workings of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel reading today from the Book of Mark includes a passage from the Old Testament Prophet Malachi, who is also commemorated today: “Behold I send My Messenger before Thy face, Who will prepare Thy way before Thee.” Malachi is sometimes called the last of the Old Testament-era prophets. His own name means messenger or angel, which the Forerunner is also called, and St. John the Baptist is often depicted as an angel in icons. Yet the Forerunner John, to whom Malachi’s prophecy points, is most properly called the final Old Testament prophet, as well as symbolically angel or messenger.

Holy Forerunner John
Holy Prophet Malachi

Just as the Prophets prepared the way for Christ, as if preparing for the feast of His coming, so too did John the Baptist by his calls for repentance and His ministry of baptism. John’s baptizing work was not that baptism of Christ that we share as members of Christ’s Body in the Orthodox Church toward our salvation. But John’s baptizing was a preparation. John served our Lord and our Lord arose in the waters in the revelation of His divinity and that of the Trinity, blessing all Creation. In some Orthodox icons, little creatures riding fish at the bottom personify the Jordan River and the Sea, fleeing from such a great marvelous presence in the water. The Jordan symbolized the crossing into Israel in Old Testament times, the border of Israel and the world, for the Church as the new Israel would bring the Gospel to the world at large. It also symbolizes the river of Paradise in Genesis at the beginning of Holy Scripture and the river of the New Jerusalem in the final book of the Apocalypse.

The blessed holy water from rivers and lakes around the world and in our region become at this time of year at Theophany services the holy water that blesses our homes and that we can drink throughout the year for the healing of soul and body. The axe depicted by a tree on the side of many icons of Theophany indicates John’s call for repentance and for a change of life in preparation for such blessing, cutting down the tree that bears not fruit, and sin at the root, from the time of Adam and Eve at the old Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that would become the Tree of Life in the Cross.

Another connection between Malachi and John the Baptist is their defense of traditional marriage. Malachi in his prophetic writing condemns divorce and relates it to unfaithfulness to God. The Forerunner lost his life by standing for the biblical standard of marriage. Let us remember that marriage is a living iconography of God’s love for His Church. In a sense we all as a community are married to Him whether we are humanly married, single, or monastic. We are washed clean in the baptism of Christ and other mysteries of His Body the Church, while needing to engage in repentance and ascetic struggle daily by God’s grace.

The Holy prophet Malachi in the ending of his book prophesies, “to you who fear My [the Lord’s] name the Sun of Righeousness shall arise with healing in His wings, and you shall go forth leaping as little calves released from their bonds… Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and glorious day of the Lord. And he will turn the heart of the father to his son, and a man’s heart to his neighbor, lest I come and strike the earth completely.”

John the Baptist was seen as partly prefigured by the earlier Holy Prophet Elijah who called sinning Israel to repentance. Elijah, who had been taken up into heaven by the Lord, did return at the Transfiguration of Christ later in the Gospel accounts. Also, we are told by Church tradition Elijah will return with Enoch as a witness against Anti-Christ before the Second Coming of Christ. John the Baptist, like Elijah the humble yet courageous dweller in the wilderness, lived a simple life while calling multitudes to repentance and pointing to the divinity of Jesus Christ. He would end up preaching the Gospel to the righteous of the Old Testament in Hades, among whom undoubtedly was Malachi, to prepare the way for Jesus Christ’s coming to Hades.

Let us this week brothers and sisters also “gather at the river,” as the old hymn written by a former resident of Lewisburg famously puts it. This week let us humbly and unworthily with God’s grace be right there with the Forerunner and behold in our hearts He Whom the Prophet Malachi foretold, the Sun of Righteousness arising with healing in His wings. May the message and role of the Forerunner John at Theophany indeed warm our hearts and lighten them with joy as Malachi foretells, filling our hearts with love for our family members and neighbors, as we experience our own baptism in Christ anew this Theophany season.

In anticipation, let us cry: Christ is Baptized! In the Jordan!

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Wise Men Still Seek Him

Adapted from a homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg PA on Sunday Dec. 27, 7530 (civil calendar Jan. 9, 2022).

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

The Star from Jacob prophesied in the Old Testament (Numbers 24:17–19), misinterpreted by some as pointing toward a Messiah who would establish an earthly kingdom, was much more revolutionary in a spiritual sense in its fulfillment. For the Star that came to Bethlehem led the Magi or “Wise Men” to a humble cave where the young Virgin Mother had given birth to the Creator as a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, greeted there also by an ox and an ass. As the Evangelist Luke tells us:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

One of the most memorable few moments in the “golden age” of American television (such as it was!) involved the reading of the above passage from Luke on a national prime-time show, a move strongly opposed by some TV executives involved, even as it was successfully championed by the show’s creator.

In the dark night of our own times and land, so many centuries later, the country singer Paul Overstreet with Taylor Dunn also wrote a memorable song inspired by that long-ago event, entitled “Wise Men Still Seek Him.”

For years they must have watched the heavens day and night.
How else could they have known a new star was in sight.
It wasn’t in the papers, wasn’t in the TV Guide.
I’m not really sure how they did, but somehow they got wise.
They rode their camels across the desert’s burning sand.
They couldn’t fly you know there were no planes back then.
Then they met ol’ Herod, who was out to steal their joy.
But they brushed ol’ Herod off and found God’s baby boy.
Wise men, still seek Him.
Those on earth who realize how much they need Him.
Following Jesus wherever He may lead them….
Well today they travel different, but they’re wise men just the same.
Still talking about the Savior and that blessed night He came.
I hear ol’ Herod’s out there still trying to deceive.
But a whole world of Herods can’t stop those who believe….

Bringing gifts to offer Him just like they did before.

“Wise men” doesn’t mean smart or clever or institutionally certified, supposedly better cultured or elite. We know the wisdom of the Lord confounds the sophisticated and is simple in faith and pure in heart, yet infinitely deep in the understanding that our Lord unfolds to those in faith who struggle ascetically to find truth in Him. Signs of nature such as the stars may have stirred the Wise Men, but Church Tradition tells us the Star of Bethlehem was an Angel guiding them through their faith and in their good hearts and willingness to struggle to find the Truth in their journey.

All of this was long glimpsed and revered at least in part in American culture, and if not so much today, the renewed presence in the world of Orthodox Christianity brings the mystery of Christmas to a fuller view each year at this time. The Orthodox Troparion hymn of the Nativity tells us:

Thy birth, O Christ our God, dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth.
For by Thy birth those who adored stars were taught by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of Justice,
and to know Thee, Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to Thee.

In iconography the Star of Bethlehem often is a dark aureola, a semicircle at the top of the icon, indicating the uncreated light of God’s energies, a ray pointing to where the Child lay, with sometimes the faint image of an angel drawn inside. As an earlier Protestant American hymn writer put it:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

A similar reflection on the Baby found under the Star is voiced in the famous short essay “One Solitary Life,” based on a sermon in Los Angeles in 1926 by the Protestant Rev. James Allen Francis.

He was born in an obscure village, The child of a peasant woman. He grew up in still another village, Where he worked in a carpenter shop Until he was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a house. He didn’t go to college. He never visited a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles From the place where he was born. He did none of the things One usually associates with greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He was only thirty-three When the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies. And went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross Between two thieves. While he was dying, His executioners gambled for his clothing, The only property he had on Earth. When he was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave Through the pity of a friend. Twenty centuries have come and gone, And today he is the central figure Of the human race, And the leader of mankind’s progress. All the armies that ever marched, All the navies that ever sailed, All the parliament that ever sat, All the kings that ever reigned, Put together have not affected The life of man on Earth As much as that One Solitary Life.

Later “One Solitary Life” was read in a TV broadcast from the White House in 1982, by an American President, in what would be an unimaginable act today.

While many consider American culture today to be “post-Christian,” the core of Rev. Francis’ piece remains true today as it has been from the beginning of the world in God’s plan, but is shown forth most fully in the beauty of the Orthodox Christian services of the Nativity. Traditionally they are celebrated on Dec. 25 on the Julian calendar, which is Jan. 7 on the regular American calendar, known historically from the 18th century as “Old Christmas” or “Appalachian Christmas” still in parts of the United States.

Seen in one way from mortal logic, the working out of God’s plan at Christmas may seem like the rough shaggy underside of a tapestry with the pattern non-discernible. Yet consider it from the spiritual side, from above as God grants us to see, then we can make out the design even if only dimly, working across all the genealogies of the Bible toward that little cave and the cries of the baby Who is God With Us. In iconography His manger-cradle and swaddling clothes prefigure the tomb and winding sheets he left behind in his great victory over death for us.

Today we commemorate on the first Sunday after Christmas, and on the third day of Christmas, St. Joseph the Betrothed, who went with the Theotokos and her baby son, our Lord and God and Savior, into Egypt, fleeing Herod, with the guidance of the angel. The Gospel reading today reminds us of this. According to Church Tradition, a thief protected the little caravan when his robber gang would have attacked them. Latter according to Tradition that thief remembered what he had glimpsed of the Christ-child, when Crucified years later, he looked next to him and saw Jesus on the Cross, and recognized in his bloodied fellow human the hidden God. “Remember me O Lord in Thy Kingdom,” he said. “Truly today you will be with Me in Paradise,” our Lord Jesus replied. St. Rakh, that wise thief, thus “stole Paradise” hymns of the Church tell us. He earned his place customarily on an outer door of the iconostasis in Russian Churches, and in our pre-communion prayer, for he helped show us the way of repentance with God’s grace.

Likewise today we commemorate the ancient Prophet King David on this day also, for he is an ancestor of Christ who also represents the wise ruler protecting the Church, even with all his serious sins, which with God’s grace and the help of the Prophet Nathan he met head on in severe heartfelt repentance from which came the Psalms. We also commemorate today the Apostle James the Just, the first Bishop and stepbrother of the Lord, who became an early leader helping to nurture the Church, and one of her earliest martyrs, following the lead in that sense of Protomartyr Deacon Stephen, whom we also commemorate today, who was stoned to death in the early days after Pentecost. For the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, and as a Deacon he was there to serve to the death. Holding the garments of his killer was Saul who would be transformed by an encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ and become later the Apostle Paul.

All the figures from Christian history we commemorate today are related to the Nativity by their roles as nurturers and protectors of the Church in the family of Jesus Christ. The Most Holy Theotokos in her purity and love of God and her willingness to bear Him in her womb, later also helped nurture His Church after His Ascension. St. Joseph stands in the role of foster father who even in old age protected the Theotokos and the Christ child, and with his son St. James as stepbrother to Jesus Christ and first Bishop-Presbyter, and Stephen the first Deacon-Martyr, all served key roles as family members in effect for our Lord in His Church. King David held the ancestral role of ruler and father of their country, Israel. Each of these roles is essential to nurturing and protecting our mission parish today and our lives as Christians, as nurturers and protectors however unworthily of our Church family and our community, of the baby Jesus in our hearts and in the Church and in our country. Our Lord warns us in the Gospel that we must not become entrapped in a merely materialistic sense of family. For His true family are those who do His will. His Church is our family. We find our place in Her as the Body of Christ, Who is the Divine Wisdom, and thus we find our salvation in Him together, as members of His family, of the New Israel that is the Orthodox Christian Church.

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

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